Political Animal


January 28, 2013 5:08 PM Jindal and “Populist Libertarianism”

By Ed Kilgore

Progressives (myself included) have had great sport with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Great Big Speech to the RNC in Charlotte last week—and with the rave reviews he seemed to be getting from a lot of conservative and MSM gabbers. But I haven’t seen any serious discussion of the actual content of Jindal’s speech from the Right until I ran across Peter Suderman’s essay at Reason, which took as its departure point Ben Domenech’s tweeted claim that Bobby had achieved some sort of “populist libertarianism” in the speech.

Now before quoting Suderman, I’d observe that the very existence of a “populist libertarianism” is problematic, if you take either word seriously (i.e., if you don’t buy into the idea that Tea Folk who want their Medicare left alone and/or favor theocracy are “libertarian”). Certainly blasting government is no proof of libertarianism. The all-time best at this game, George Wallace (who liked to talk about “pointy-headed bureaucrats carrying briefcases with nothing but peanut-butter-and-jelly sammiches in ‘em!”), was no libertarian. And even radical anti-government remarks about tearing down government entirely aren’t “libertarian” unless it’s clear government wouldn’t be built back up in some preferred manner.

Suderman seems to agree:

[P]art of what’s fascinating here is that you can see the collision of two strains of right-of-center reformism: On the one hand, Jindal sounds notes that are awfully reminiscent of the Bush-era compassionate conservatism that disregarded basic budget soundness in favor of pro-growth economic happy talk. On the other hand, he suggests the outlines of a vision for wholesale, limited-government reform—one that not only asks how to make government work, but what government is actually for. It’s not a vision of “populist libertarianism” so much as a vision of populism and a vision of something kinda sorta friendly to libertarianism competing for dominance.

Suderman objects to Jindal’s promotion of block grants for any government function (presumably exempting national defense) worth doing for the obvious reason that the federal government would still be redistributing money to the states. In Jindal’s partial defense, he may, as many conservatives have done over the years, favor “block grants” as merely a way station to total devolution of responsibilities, and/or to elimination of them entirely. After all, the more power states have over governmental responsibilities, the more likely they are to engage in those exciting “races to the bottom” where states compete to see how servile they can become in the presence of potential “job creators.”

But Jindal would have to be a lot more explicit about his goals if he were to aspire to any kind of libertarianism. And maybe that’s where the “populism” comes in—or at least “populist” demagoguery. Bobby’s never very clear about the ultimate object of his policy ideas, such as they are. Sure, he’ll bash the teachers unions and education bureaucrats all day long in pushing his voucher experiment, but won’t much admit he’s flirting with the destruction of public education altogether, at least by any traditional definition of the term. He’ll propose getting rid of income taxes to make his state a mecca for businesses and retirees, but won’t much get into the implication that this maneuver will force the state to choose between high regressive sales taxes and sharply lower services.

But even to a relatively sympathetic observer like Suderman, the Smartest Guy In Every Room just isn’t thinking or talking very coherently. And any Republican should be very worried if this is the best the GOP’s got.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Shane Taylor on January 28, 2013 6:40 PM:

    But wait, it gets worse! Abstract appeals to "liberty" in debates over property rights will always be plagued by incoherence.


  • Mike Stagg on January 28, 2013 7:22 PM:

    Jindal has become expert at a form of shock doctrine here in Louisiana. None of the five budgets passed during the five years he's been in office have survived the fiscal year in tact either due to tax cuts sapping more revenue than anticipated or revenue not coming in at anticipate rates. As he learned in the middle of his first year in office, there's a certain beauty to this cycle because the Governor gets to make the needed cuts without input from the Legislature.

    In December, our Revenue Estimating Conference projected another budget shortfall in the current fiscal year. Jindal ordered cuts in funding for behavioral health services for early childhood development, battered women's shelters, higher education, and eliminated hospice services for Medicaid patients.

    The hospice cuts were reversed the day before his RNC speech primarily because the national press had begun to talk about those cuts in their run-up coverage to the speech. It appears our best hope of getting our empathy-challenged Governor to rule as though he has a conscience is to threaten to expose his Louisiana record to the national media which exposes his GOP version of a message of change to be his latest scam.

    Some friends of mine and I put this together to help explain:
    The furious pace of oil exploration that has made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the regionís health care providers. Swamped by uninsured laborers flocking to dangerous jobs, medical facilities in the area are sinking under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy.

  • Mike Stagg on January 28, 2013 7:24 PM:

    Sorry for the incorrect paste at the end of my prior comment. This is correct:

  • emjayay on January 28, 2013 8:19 PM:

    Jindal is right. What is the point of federal taxing everyone and then sending the money back to all the various states, whether in program form or block grants?

    I guess it all started in a big way with stuff like the TVA and rural electrification in the 30's spending billions of federal dollars to bring electricity to mostly the rural South. Like I assume Louisiana. Why couldn't those states do this themselves? And then the insane growth of the Army Corp of Engineers (Army? How did that happen?) spending billions of federal dollars on pointless exercises like huge pumps and levees and all that absurdly fighting geography in places like New Orleans. Then thirty years ago we came up with FEMA, blowing billions of federal dollars on fixing stuff that mostly shouldn't have been there or should have been built better in the first place. Like after hurricanes.

    I agree with Bobby that we should quit all this stuff and more ASAP. It's all mostly about supporting capitalism, which is supposed to support itself. The Invisible Hand will point out what's pointless and what isn't.

  • New Orleans on January 28, 2013 11:24 PM:

    emjayay: You might also ask the point of having a federal government, which Bobby Jindal and others of his ilk might also ask ... except when their own projects are involved. I.e., Jindal made quite a show of his efforts to bring federal aid to the New Orleans area after Katrina. And justifiably so, just as Chris Christie has argued for federal aid to New Jersey after Sandy.

    And if the Army Corps of Engineers started pulling out of Louisiana, nobody would make a bigger fuss than Jindal. In fact, if you were to propose taking responsibility for the Mississippi basin away from the Corps, I guarantee red states from Louisiana to the Dakotas would rise up in protest. Again, justifiably so, because the Mississippi with its tributaries is an asset of national importance. We can certainly debate elements of Corps policy, but it's absurd to doubt the overall impact on the nation's economy. The Corps has paid for itself many times over, as has the TVA.

    You think it absurd to protect New Orleans? More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson saw the value of securing one of the world's great seaports, yet you would abandon it. Would you have us abandon New York and Houston as well, in addition to every other port that's susceptible to hurricanes? Would you have us abandon San Francisco, Los Angeles and every other port that could fall victim to a catastrophic earthquake? Would you have us abandon every community that might fall victim to other disasters whether floods or droughts or epidemics? Would you have us become Haiti? Perhaps you would prefer the laissez-faire government that is Somalia.

    Perhaps you are sincere in your objections to federal taxes and federal spending. Fair enough, there is a legitimate argument to be made, as long as you are willing to embrace the cost of federal inaction. You can begin by swearing off any use of federal highways. And while you're at it, you'd best also stay away from that Defense Department project known as the Internet.

  • Sean Scallon on January 29, 2013 3:04 AM:

    When Jindal calls for Ending the Fed and curtailing the military-industrial complex, then we can start talking about "libertarian populism".

  • CJColucci on January 29, 2013 12:32 PM:

    Jindal isn't relevant, for reasons painfully obvious. He'll get propped up to spout certain talking points, and may even get a position in a future Republican administration where, in Republican terms, success will be defined by what we would consider failure, and he's kept safely away from anything they actually want to do right, but he's not a guy we'll have to worry about in four, eight, or twenty years.

  • Anonymous on January 29, 2013 1:43 PM:

    Jindal is too ugly and politically stupid to get any national traction. sorry. So is Rand Paul. Ron Paul and Paul Ryan were the closest things to national libertarian leaders until they were also exposed to the bigger media coverage.

    Libertarian was and will stay a cult, just like scientology, or any other New Age cult which were born out of fear of governments of communism, nuclear wars and vietnam, etc. it's done its share of influence in the world. Now It will join neo-Nazi and flat earth society.

    Cato institute and Heritage foundation will be replaced by American Enterprise Institute.
    I prefer realist, conservative, pro-business think-tanks and politicians to those now cultish groups.

    I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of the cultural war and Reaganism.