On Libertarian Populism and the Liberty Movement

 Much is being made of this idea called ”Libertarian Populism” and its perceived value as a winning political strategy. The problem is, few seem to know what those words really mean. As such, a range of politicians and policies have incorrectly been grafted onto specific words that have specific meanings.

I’ve silently watched as this LibPop movement(?) has unfolded; see this litany of articles at this link roundup provided by Reason Magazine. The term seems to have been coined at a book forum for Tim Carney at the Cato Institute. In its next iteration, Ross Douthat succinctly defined Libertarian Populism as:

“A strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of ‘bigness’ in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.”

Since then, LibPop has been confused and called everything from “the stepchild of McCainism” to “Ayn Rand in disguise.” Fast forward to today’s article by Josh Barro, the impetus for the piece you are reading now. Barro channels Krugman’s column - which, for unknown reasons, focused on Paul Ryan and racial identity – to say that LibPop’s problem is that it “isn’t populist.” By that, Barro means it doesn’t do enough to protect people while ending a system which “taxes the poor and subsidizes the rich,” as the poor rely on that very system for survival. Implicitly, the term LibPop becomes a useful tool for Barro to malign its adjective prefix, “libertarian,” as minarchism for minarchism’s sake.

Sure, libertarians want smaller government. But minarchism – whether corporate or governmental – isn’t the purpose of libertarianism. In fact, it’s not even the basis of libertarianism, which is liberty; specifically, the liberty of the individual.

Foundation of Liberty

Dissecting this a bit further, liberty is not simply another word for freedom; liberty carries with it a duty to our fellow man, for liberty isn’t simply permission to act, but noninterference in acts, and noninterference is a mutual relationship. Said another way, liberty is the permission to act in ways that do not interfere with others.

As few individuals are purely self-sufficient, man must deal with collectives of other individuals, whether they are communities, businesses, and/or governments. The utilization of one’s own freedoms while maintaining a healthy respect for the freedoms of others is the basis of individual rights. These rights don’t exist in a vacuum; they carry with them responsibilities to fellow man, thus beginning a utilitarian tradeoff between individuals and collectives, all the while holding fast to the principle of maximum liberty.

Conflict with Populism

It is here where the term “populism” gets in the way, for the majority often sets the rules within a collective. This causes all sorts of problems. Whereas populism might be useful in toppling tyrannical regimes, it’s not very good at protecting the rights of individuals in the aftermath; see: Russia 1917, Venezuela 1999, or Egypt 2012. When the individual becomes just another vote in the system – as within a pure democracy - minority rights are often ignored. Libertarianism conflicts with populism as its aim is to protect those minority rights, holding the liberties of minority individuals as equal to those of the majority. It is here, around the perceived violations of individual liberties, that you will find libertarians to be most prickly.

In modern politics, the term “Libertarian Populism” gives one the idea that a Tea Party-plus-Occupy movement could have been politically viable, as a populist movement that would indeed cut the “bigness” – both corporate as well as governmental – but it wouldn’t necessarily have respected individual liberties in the process. Government is, in fact, necessary to protect individual rights; what those individual rights actually are is the subject of another debate.

Libertarianism should not be blamed for the faults of minarchism. It is true, libertarianism often ends up being minarchist in nature, as:
1) Government legitimizes violations against individual liberties with the force of law; and
2) Individual rights are best protected within smaller collectives, where their vote weighs heavier.

But libertarianism should neither be confused with minarchism nor populism. All three are different - if related - ideas. Insomuch, the term ”Libertarian Populism” should be retired.

Further Reading

One of the best articles I’ve read on LibPop is by Matt Zwolinski at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, in which he lists what he does not like about the LibPop movement:

  • There’s not much talk about among libertarian populists about the war on drugs, the devastation of which has been disproportionately concentrated in black, urban neighborhoods.
  • There’s almost no talk of immigration liberalization, let alone open borders.
  • There’s very little talk of the moral and economic case for free trade, except insofar as protectionist policies constitute another form of corporate welfare for domestic producers.
  • There’s little discussion of the injustice of war. The expense of war to domestic taxpayers, maybe. But, of course, libertarians don’t think killing civilians abroad is wrong only (or even primarily) because it costs us a lot of money.

Also, Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 classic The Law goes into much greater detail on how the individual acquiesces his rights to a collective; excerpts are provided below:

The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

Then, a bit further down:

But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.

And a little further down:

Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.

But there is also another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man — in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.


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