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.”
In case you haven’t noticed, there is a big debate about the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. On one side you have the status quo — those who continue to grow government and get the United States in perilous military engagements overseas — and on the other, there is a new brand of fusionism that is gaining in popularity.
Ben Domenech, editor of The Transom, has dubbed this new fusionism as “libertarian populism,” which is part of the debate over conservative reform. In a response to a recent critique by Ross Douthat, Domenech outlines the tenets of libertarian populism and explains that it presents a path for limited government advocates to sell ideas to voters:
The appeal of libertarian populism is that it refuses to cede the philosophical battle to the side of big government – and the permanence of a broken welfare/regulatory state and convoluted tax code – before the argument is even joined. Instead, libertarian populism can and should be cast in the proper light: the sober reality of our dire fiscal situation; the abject brokenness of our welfare state; tax, education and regulatory systems that retard economic opportunity, punish success, hurt the poor and middle class, and reward cronies; and a federal government that wants control over almost every aspect of our lives, from the raw milk we drink to the lightbulbs we use and the toilets we flush.
Every month, Cato puts out a new issue of Cato Unbound, an online journal that looks at various topics. This week, the topic is fusionism, something that has received quite a bit of attention here at United Liberty.
The format of Cato Unbound is quite simple. One writer contributes a lead essay, and then three other writers write response essays. Then, it descends into a furball as we all starting writing shorter response posts to each other. The discussion is not just there, however; blog posts elsewhere will be linked, and everyone—yes, including YOU!—is encouraged to join in the discussion.
Our lead essay this month is written by Jacque Otto, a friend of mine and a writer at Values and Capitalism, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. She writes:
Written by Daniel J. Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.
I’ve never been a big Shakespeare fan, but that may need to change. It seems the Bard of Avon may be the world’s first libertarian.
Some of you are probably shaking your heads and saying that this is wrong, that Thomas Jefferson or Adam Smith are more deserving of this honor.
Others would argue we should go back earlier in time and give that title to John Locke.
But based on some new research reported in Tax-news.com, we need to travel back to the days of Shakespeare:
Uncertainty over the likely future success of his plays led William Shakespeare to do “all he could to avoid taxes,” new research by scholars at Aberystwyth University has claimed. The collaborative paper: “Reading with the Grain: Sustainability and the Literary Imagination,”…alleges that, in his “other” life as a major landowner, Shakespeare avoided paying his taxes, illegally hoarded food and sidelined in money lending. …According to Dr Jayne Archer, lead author and a lecturer in Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth: “There was another side to Shakespeare besides the brilliant playwright - a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others’ expense and exploit the vulnerable - while also writing plays.”
In that short excerpt, we find three strong indications of Shakespeare’s libertarianism.
- What does it mean that Shakespeare did everything he could to avoid taxes? His actions obviously would have upset the United Kingdom’s current political elite, which views tax maximization as a religious sacrament, but it shows that Shakespeare believed in the right of private property. Check one box for libertarianism.
- What does it mean that the Bard “illegally hoarded food”? Well, such a law probably existed because government was interfering with the free market with something like price controls. Or there was a misguided hostility by the government against “speculation,” similar to what you would find from the deadbeats in today’s Occupy movement. In either event, Shakespeare was standing up for the principle of freedom of contract. Check another box for libertarianism.
- Last but not least, what does it mean that Shakespeare “sidelined in money lending”? Nations used to have statist “usury laws” that interfered with the ability to charge interest when lending money. Shakespeare apparently didn’t think “usury” was a bad thing, so he was standing up for the liberty of consenting adults to engage in voluntary exchange. Check another box for libertarianism.
Last week, the National Journal profiled Rep. Justin Amash, the libertarian-leaning Michigan politican, noting how his potential entry into the race for the Republican primary for United States Senate could further shake-up the establishment in both parties:
Amash is a unique politician with the potential to transcend traditional party appeal. He preaches transparency and accountability, having never missed a vote in Congress. (He also writes lengthy notes on his Facebook page explaining every vote.) His isolationist streak has earned him a following among young people. His Arab-American heritage makes him appealing to minorities. He’s the rare politician with fans at both the American Civil Liberties Union and Right to Life.
Amash also has the ability to attract serious money. Already, one libertarian super PAC has pledged to spend upward of $1 million to help him get elected, and others would likely follow (Club for Growth would surely spend big on his behalf). The ability to attract such substantial outside assistance makes Amash an intimidating contender, and could send other Republicans running from a primary challenge. “If that money comes through, that’s a big benefit,” said former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, another potential candidate. “Look, this is going to cost $2 million to $3 million in the primary, and another $10 million to $15 million in a general election. So if there are people who are willing to put that kind of money behind him, that makes a big difference.”
There has been a lively debate on the UL list serve and on twitter about fusionism and the modern liberty movement. Let me be clear from the very beginning that I am a proponent of fusionism. I want to see libertarian ideas become libertarian policies. I think that libertarianism, for far too long, has been content to rule college classroom debates and think tank discussions and has not done enough to focus on how we actually implement libertarian theory.
I don’t think the real debate is about whether or not libertarians should engage in fusionism, the real debate – exposed clearly in the back and forth with some of my fellow writers at UL over the last few days – is over what that fusionism looks like.
I believe that if the point behind fusionism is to see libertarian ideas become policy, than any fusionism should be based around the achievable. The common ground we seek should be on those issues where our work with others will actually end up in changing policy in this country.
Right now the American people, and young people in particular, are becoming more and more libertarian when it comes to social issues. A recent Washington Post poll showed that voters aged 18-29 support same-sex marriage by a staggering 81%-15%. The same opinion polls show young voters overwhelmingly support ending the failed drug wars and as the recent Rand Paul filibuster showed – there is growing support from every segment of the country to safeguard our civil liberties.
Given that the American people are on our side on these issues, and that winning on these issues is achievable, one would think that libertarian fusion efforts would be centered around these issues. Alas, there are plenty clamoring for a fusionism that not only ignores these issues, but proposes a fusionism with forces openly hostile for these positions.
With relative success in the 2012 Presidential elections – considering Ron Paul in the Republican primary and Gary Johnson as the Libertarian candidate in the general – libertarians maintain our strongest position in modern history. With opportunity in front of us, hopes abound to create a “broader freedom movement” – a term which rankles top libertarians.
With this opportunity comes risk – specifically, the risk of being co-opted again, a la Tea Party 2010 – therein diluting an otherwise powerful message. With CPAC 2013 in the near term, the 2014 midterm elections in the – ahem – mid-term, and the 2016 Presidential election in the far-term, we should expect more posturing from establishmentarians, mostly on the Right, for their votes.
It might be tempting to reject all policy ideas that don’t immediately get us to the Promised Land, or to support policy ideas when we disagree with their proposed end states. I don’t think we have to do either/or. I believe we can work incrementally within the existing framework to build bridges and, as the minority, work our ideas upward within a broader movement, strengthening both the broader movement and ourselves.
When presented with new opportunities, the typical impulse for political movements on the Left and Right is to look for new policy positions to woo more voters. But libertarians don’t have a policy problem; we have a messaging problem.
There is quite the debate going on in the liberty movement as to whether or not libertarians should partner with conservatives and/or Republicans to advance their beliefs. This was part of a discussion that I had with David Boaz, who explained that libertarians could work with conservatives on fiscal issues, but was “uncomfortable” with defining the movement to include conservatives.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), who generally votes in a manner consistent with libertarian principles, weighed in on the debate last week, telling a crowd of college students that young libertarians should work within in the Republican Party to advance their views:
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., called for greater youth involvement to unify the libertarian movement and the Republican Party on Feb. 26 at an event hosted by AU College Republicans and AU Young Americans for Liberty in the in the Mary Graydon Center.
Amash emphasized that legislators cannot please everybody, including their own party when voting on issues that cross party lines.
“You’re never going to find people who agree with you on every single issue,” Amash said. “It doesn’t mean that they are sellouts just because they disagree with you on one or two issues. It matters that they have a reason, that they have a principled logic to it.”
Amash also urged today’s youth to get involved with the Republican Party.
“I don’t think libertarians should subsume themselves in a conservative movement or even just in a fiscally conservative movement. [A]bsolutely libertarians can work with conservatives on fiscal issues.” — David Boaz
Editor’s note: The audio came out a little weird. We tried to work out the kinks, but didn’t have much success. Apologies.
On Friday, I sat down with David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer and The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties, to discuss the sequester, CPAC, and fusionism between libertarians and conservatives.
Since we did the interview on “Sequester Day,” I asked Boaz about some of the silliness and scare tactics that have been used in recent weeks as we counted down the days until the spending cuts took effect.
“A lot of the silliness, of course, is a dedicated campaign by the Obama Administration. They want people to believe that if you cut anything out of the federal budget the country will fall apart,” Boaz explained. “And we know that if they actually do the things they’re talking about — you know, we’re gonna lift the border patrol and let illegals flood into America and we’re gonna take TSA officers off and slow down all the airplanes — it’s a deliberate strategy.”
The liberty movement is in the midst of a much needed conversation over its future. While not a new conversation, it is one that has been recently reignited thanks to Alexander McCobin of Students for Liberty and Glenn Beck.
Over the past few years, the liberty movement has seen tremendous growth, thanks largely to Ron Paul, who has been able to lure a number of conservatives into the liberty movement. As a result, libertarianism has grown in popularity as more people begin to understand the basic tenets of the philosophy — including free markets and individual liberty. However, there are some in our movement who don’t seem to want the message to spread to those who may not fully share all of our ideas.
Yesterday, Glenn Beck helped further along this conversation, inviting Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, Zachary Slayback of Students for Liberty, and Jack Hunter to discuss libertarianism and the future of the movement.
Beck asked the trio how to get people interested in libertarianism when the perception is that those who follow the philosophy want so much change so quickly.
“Politically, you can’t get from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ without there being an in-between,” said Hunter in response. “‘B’ being the ideal political world we would like and ‘A’ where we are now. There’s going to be some messiness in between. That’s just human nature — that’s the way it’s got to be.
“You have to start where people are and work towards liberty in a practical sense,” he added.