Political Animal


March 04, 2013 4:49 PM Populist Libertarianism?

By Ed Kilgore

One of the memes bouncing around the blogosphere of late has been the quite natural suggestion from libertarians that the Republican Party ought to make opposition to “crony capitalism” a signature in order to reduce the impression that it is simply the party of the privileged. In other words, instead of simply attacking government activism benefitting the poor, Republicans could attack government activism tout court, and the masses—whose trust in governmental institutions is reaching one of its periodic low points—would cheer.

While disclaiming support for corporate cronyism is a fine idea for either party, the odds that there will ever be a popular majority for any political gathering that is distinctly libertarian (other than in temporary positioning rhetoric) are very remote. Aside from the fact that such libertarian first principle as free trade and hard money are perpetually unpopular (at least when they have any real impact), while libertarian boogeymen like minimum wage laws and corporate taxation are perpetually popular, there’s the issue of libertarianism’s inherent hostility to democracy. Serious libertarians do not tend to consider their public policy beliefs as historically conditional or as requiring popular sanction for their validity; instead, they reflect eternal, natural laws, among which the most important is individual liberty.

This is the basis for the much-misunderstood but very real alliance of libertarians and Christian Right activists in the Tea Party movement: for very different reasons involving somewhat different issues, Randists and theocrats feel strongly about their policy prescriptions being permanently enshrined via constitutional measures, whether it’s an “originalist” interpretation of founding document or subsequently adopted supermajority requirements against public spending or taxation. Wherever their positions coincide (as with absolute property rights or the inalienable individual rights of the fetus), there you will find the “conservative movement” in full voice.

Perhaps libertarians can partially dominate a political party that gains or even maintains majority support. But it’s hard to be a convincing “populist” when you trust the people only when they happen to ratify your ideological beliefs, which never ever change even if your particular agenda or “message” is adjusted from time to time. And more to the point, even if you attack “corporate cronyism,” no one’s going to mistake you for Sockless Jerry Simpson if you are financed by the Koch Brothers and think extreme income inequality is nature’s way of telling most people they aren’t worth a whole lot.

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.


  • Rich on March 04, 2013 6:35 PM:

    Libertarians want tax cuts for wealthy and will stick out their necks for nothing else. Devoting a few paragraphs to speculation that they will do otherwise is a complete waste of time. those who wishfully think that libertarians will actually care about something that seems germane to their stated philosophy obviously don't benefit from experience.

  • Rick B on March 04, 2013 9:12 PM:

    The new book being pushed so hard in the media right now (Salt Sugar Fat)is likely to cause the libertarians some real heartburn. The author, Michael Moss, clearly establishes that the current obesity epidemic in the U.S. is caused by food producers selling foods laced with extra salt sugar and fat in order to maximize profits. This is not just to maximize profits, though. It is required to compete with the other food producers.

    Those food producers (especially Coca-Cola) knew as early as 1999 that their products were fueling obesity and diabetes in America and those producers who tried to remove the unhealthy elements from their food found themselves losing to others who sold based on taste.

    In short the so-called free market demands that they sell a defective product that kills people, and they have gone along with it. The food producers will continue to sell their defective products until the government steps in and regulates them.

    Free market libertarianism has totally failed - and it cannot do otherwise!!

  • BG on March 04, 2013 9:29 PM:

    How in Galt's name does Ben Domenech still get published?

  • flubber on March 05, 2013 8:59 PM:

    Apropos of little, internet libertarians typically support war against weaker people because they're gadget nerds.

  • toowearyforoutrage on March 22, 2013 8:30 AM:

    Libertarianism is so popular, it wins elections constantly.

    Legalized weed, gay marriage, legalized prostitution, an end to "passports", legal polandry/polygamy/polyamory.

    Well, I guess that's only two down, and 3 to go.

    Democrats and Libertarians are cheek by jowl in their attitudes towards social behavior yet Democrats treat them like aliens.

    We really SHOULD be talking with them the way Republicans do.

    Sure, Republicans want to cut taxes as much as possible so you'll have, what 10% more money?
    But then their Bible Thumpers would be the first to tell you that you can't spend ANY of your money on violent video games, porn, weed, hookers, or booze.

    Democrats let you buy and do whatever you want. Giving that economic freedom up is worth a few bucks to you? Don't kid yourself that you love liberty. You sell yours pretty cheap.