Political Hay

Libertarian Populism Is an Oxymoron

Libertarianism shouldn't be tainted by association with a buzzword having nothing to do with freedom.

By 8.23.13

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When it comes to politics, one must (unless you are a reprobate sex fiend like Democrats Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Bob Filner) adhere to Oscar Wilde’s maxim that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

This is particularly true of those of us who lean libertarian, as the bossy, statist, “nudges” of do-gooderism and moralizing which are so often the focus of political discourse on both the left and the right delve into areas that citizens should, we believe, decide privately without the help (by which I mean coercion) of know-it-all politicians and bureaucrats.

But libertarianism has for too long come across as a club, if not a cult, limiting not just the ability of libertarians to win political office but even to substantially impact political discourse.

(I distinguish a libertarian philosophy from a Libertarian Party member through the use of a lower-case “l” for the former, which could be held by independents, by Republicans or -- less commonly, and almost always dishonestly -- by Democrats.)

National mixed emotions about libertarianism are understandable, given that many Americans consider former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his many naïve or anti-Semitic or tin-foil-hatted disciples as its leading representatives, and that so many Libertarian Party members come across as more interested in intellectual purity and being “right” than in actually making a difference.

But the rise in prominence of certain pro-liberty members of Congress, particularly Justin Amash (R-MI) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) in the House of Representatives and Rand Paul (R-KY) in the Senate -- along with the occasional libertarian, or at least constitutional, tendencies of Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) -- are slowly dragging libertarianism into the political mainstream. (Rep. Amash was the only member of Congress whose campaign I contributed to in the last cycle, not least because he explains every vote he casts in Congress on his Facebook page.)

In a recent opinion piece entitled “Libertarian Populism and Its Critics,” Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ resident conservative, takes on a range of writers who have recently discussed “libertarian populism,” a term that seems to have been coined by Tim Carney in 2008 and brought back recently by Ben Domenech (who, like me, is affiliated with the Heartland Institute).

Putting aside the in-the-weeds debate among pundits -- though the particular economic idiocy of Ezra Klein and the excellent take-down of liberal “glib self-righteousness” by Will Wilkinson deserve special mention -- I am troubled by the marriage of the words “libertarian” and “populist.”

A standard definition of “populist” includes supporting ordinary people over the elites. The problem is that almost anyone can be the object of another person’s jealousy, another person’s perception of “eliteness,” at any given time. And further, other than removing the behaviors of government that create elites through cronyism, favoritism, regulatory money troughs, and the intended or unintended consequences of sheer stupidity -- all important targets of reform to be sure -- what can government do to lessen the success of the successful (the true goal of those who bemoan inequality) that is not abhorrent to everything America is supposed to represent?

Getting away from the dictionary, I have always understood “populist” to mean “demagogue” or to be a synonym for various adjectives modifying the word it’s connected to. Adjectives such as “ersatz” or “-lite” or “but not fully adhering to its principles” or “shrill.” In short, it describes someone who wants to claim membership in a group, being part of which he or she thinks would offer advantage, while simultaneously pandering to the most ignorant or parochial instincts of other members.

For example, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly is sometimes called a “conservative populist,” a term also applied to Donald Trump. But any actual conservative, indeed a marginally well-informed person of any political persuasion, would recognize them primarily as publicity hounds too often spouting idiocy worthy of, if different in focus from, Messrs.’ Klein and Krugman. Examples include O’Reilly’s blaming all the world’s ills on oil companies and Trump’s blaming them on China.

This is not to say that populists are always wrong, but rather that the severity of their errors in important areas of policy are disqualifyingly large for those who would be our leaders, whether in politics or opinion.

Progressivism is not a philosophy. It is an ends-justifies-the-means excuse for tyranny, communicated in threadbare velvet-glove beggar-thy-neighbor rhetoric. So the populist version of a liberal is usually the shrill, demagogic form, not the loosely-attached-to-his-beliefs form. A liberal populist is in that sense similar to a hypothetical “Islamist populist” -- and just as dangerous to our nation.

One liberal populist is Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) whose devotion to “you didn’t build that” makes Barack Obama look like a piker, whose views are so extreme that if she were a conservative she would be considered by the media even more unacceptable than soon-retiring Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) -- who falls into the “shrill” category of populist. That’s why a better word for “liberal populist” is “socialist.”

This is not to suggest that populism can’t be a winning electoral strategy. After all, the American public is not known for its resistance to hyperbole and fill-in-the-blank-phobia and the siren songs of economorons, which is to say of populists of all stripes. But populism can’t be a winning intellectual strategy because it is at heart anti-intellectual, irrational, and in conflict with reality -- and therefore it is (or at least I like to hope it is) not particularly durable in a nation that does (unlike France, for example) eventually figure things out.

So without getting into the deep punditry of the ongoing debate (and while otherwise recommending the principled writing of Ben Domenech), I must object to the term “libertarian populism.” Being libertarian is about valuing freedom, the Constitution, and the principles -- not just as talking points -- of the Declaration of Independence, the single most important political document in human history, whose wisdom about the nature of human beings and their governments form the basis of our nation's first true law, the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

These are not things that one can adhere to in a way that could be called “-lite” while still maintaining credibility as a libertarian:

  • You either believe in the plain language and intent of our Constitution or you don’t.
  • You either believe that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” or you don’t.
  • You either believe that people should to the greatest extent possible make their own decisions from a wide range of choices, even if they involve taking risk, or you don’t.
  • You either believe that taxation in excess of what is required to fund the constitutional functions of government is a form of involuntary servitude or you don’t.

So how can a libertarian truly be a populist, since almost any definition of populist must be anathema to freedom (as well as to reason)?

Libertarians do have to balance intellectual consistency with the fact that they have had precious little influence on American politics for over 200 years (I consider most of the Founders essentially libertarian, though they would have called themselves “liberals”) -- and essentially no influence since FDR neutered the Supreme Court on all issues economic. President Calvin Coolidge, who left office in 1929, was arguably one of our most libertarian presidents and the only one of the last century. Libertarian influence has been on a losing streak that few other than the Chicago Cubs could understand.

But that may be changing -- for libertarians, not for the Cubs. Between fresh blood in Congress with explicitly libertarian leanings and an administration governing with gross incompetence and lies in the name of liberalism, freedom is slowly becoming cool again.

For those who profess libertarian views, it is one thing to introduce libertarian ideas to the nation, or more precisely re-introduce them, somewhat slowly, in digestible bite-size pieces. It is another thing to be a populist, cloaking statism in faux libertarian rhetoric, or to offer -- as true populists almost always do -- a caricature of the group they want to claim membership in. Fortunately, I don’t see most leading libertarians doing either, so why would they label themselves “libertarian populists”?

For libertarians (or conservatives with libertarian leanings) to allow themselves to be called populist is to fall into a liberal trap. For while populism may be an acceptable strategy for those whose views or political support are based in envy and fear and ignorance, it is poison to a movement based on actual principle and grounded in our Founding traditions.

Still, despite mischaracterizations by our enemies and minor missteps by our friends, libertarians should be feeling better than we have in a long time as the importance of freedom and the hardening tyranny of big government become more apparent to all but the most “liberal” Americans. It is indeed much better for libertarianism to be talked about than not to be talked about. But please don’t call us populists.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.