Saturday, August 24, 2013

In Objection to the Use of the Phrase 'Libertarian Populism'

A Google search for the phrase "libertarian populism" first brings up a link to NYT, where NYT columnist Ross Douthat writes:
[...] I see a lot to like about this populist libertarianism, and some of its impulses and tendencies (on pot and gay marriage, in particular) have a clear political wisdom even if I don’t necessarily share them. I’ve written favorably about Rand Paul in the past, and I expect to do so again: He’s exactly the kind of principled political entrepreneur that moribund parties need. And a G.O.P. remade along libertarian-populist lines — more anti-interventionist abroad, suspicious of big government and big business at home — would be a much more interesting party, and in certain ways a more constructive force in American politics, than the G.O.P. that Mitt Romney led down to defeat last fall.
As I have written before, gay marriage is not a libertarian issue. In a libertarian world, marriage, and most everything else, would be completely removed from a government role. But there is a bigger problem with the use of term libertarian populism, specifically it is not libertarianism at all.  The best way to define libertarianism is pure and simple, it is the philosophy of live and let live, that is,a philosophy where as long as one does not initiate force, or the the threat of force, against another's person or property, a person is free to do whatever he pleases. Walter Block has put it this way:
Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It is concerned solely with the proper use of force. Its core premise is that it should be illegal to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property without his permission; force is justified only in defense or retaliation. That is it, in a nutshell.
Populism implies something else. According to the Random House Dictionary, these are the definitions of populism:
the political philosophy of the People's party.
lowercase any of various, often antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.
lowercase grass-roots democracy; working-class activism;egalitarianism.
lowercase representation or extolling of the common person,the working class, the underdog, etc.: populism in the arts.
Let's take a look at definition 1, nowhere does a "People's party" in any way imply respect for the non-aggression principle. neither does definition 2. Definition 3, which includes egalitarianism as part of its definition is far from libertarian and definition 4  hails the common person, but libertarianism is about consistent principles, namely the non-aggression principle, for all, rich, poor and those in between.

Thus, at best, the term populist libertarianism  muddies the libertarian message, and at worst offers a contradictory message associating libertarianism with the people's rule and possibly egalitarianism.

Saul Alinsky, who knew a thing about political tactics,wrote in his book, Rules for Radicals, about the dilution of words. He said:
[...]by using combinations of words such as "harnessing the energy" instead of the single word "power," we begin to dilute the meaning[..] As Mark Twain once put it, "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning-bug."[...]To pander to those who have no stomach for straight language, and insist upon bland, non controversial sauces, is a waste of time.
Hear, hear!

I bring up the topic of libertarian populism because of a recent column by David S. D'Amato who writes in favor of the phrase and goes one step further and attempts to link Murray Rothbard to it. He writes:
For those who regard all of libertarianism as an ideological whitewash for plutocracy, libertarian populism is clearly a matter of pulling the wool over the eyes of the common man. To those on the other side of the debate, who are no less chronically obsessed with electoral politics, libertarian populism is the GOP’s pathway back to relevance and viability. Here, however, I would like to offer a compendious introduction to a libertarian populism very different from both of these variants, and one informed instead by the insights of Austrian School libertarians such as Murray Rothbard.
He goes on to tell us that:
 The pivot point of libertarian populism is its hostility toward the cronyism that presently characterizes the political economy of the United States. Relationships between powerful elites in government and industry have, libertarian populists argue, cemented into an immovable and perennial force that creates privilege for the few at the expense of the many — hence, libertarian populism.
But this is simply not the way the libertarian populism is used, see the Douthat quote above.

The second Goolge link upon a search of the term libertarian populism brings us to an article in Salon, which links to a Conn Carroll article where he writes:
I use the term libertarian populism, we most certainly are referring to far more than just free-market populism[...]concerns, that also fit the libertarian populist framework: stop subsidizing college debt, eliminating the tax preference for health insurance, and reforming the justice system so jail time has less of a corrosive effect on American families and communities.

The common thread running through all of these policies is simple: Yes, government, even the federal government, can play a positive role in the lives of all Americans. But far too often today, government, especially the federal government, makes it harder, not easier for Americans to freely cooperate.

As with all decent ideas, libertarian populism isn’t really that new. It is just a recasting of a very similar politics that proved succesful a generation ago. In 1977, a famous California politician said:

The New Republican Party I envision will not be, and cannot, be one limited to the country club-big business image that, for reasons both fair and unfair, it is burdened with today. The New Republican Party I am speaking about is going to have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before, but whose interests coincide with those represented by principled Republicanism.

We believe that liberty can be measured by how much freedom Americans have to make their own decisions, even their own mistakes. Government must step in when one’s liberties impinge on one’s neighbor’s. Government must protect constitutional rights, deal with other governments, protect citizens from aggressors, assure equal opportunity, and be compassionate in caring for those citizens who are unable to care for themselves.

Our federal system of local-state-national government is designed to sort out on what level these actions should be taken. Those concerns of a national character — such as air and water pollution that do not respect state boundaries, or the national transportation system, or efforts to safeguard your civil liberties — must, of course, be handled on the national level.

As a general rule, however, we believe that government action should be taken first by the government that resides as close to you as possible.

This is a fair recitation of what libertarian populism is and wants to accomplish today. President Ronald Reagan eventually won with this message in 1980 and a future Republican will win with a similar message, hopefully soon.
In other words, the phrase is used just as D'Amato initially states:
libertarian populism is the GOP’s pathway back to relevance and viability 
The phrase is very dangerous for libertarians and it certainly shouldn't be linked with Murray Rothbard.

In his very important memo, What is to be done?, on tactics and strategy that should be used by libertarians, Rothbard wrote:
The hardcore man is working for his idea on two levels: in a “popular” or “united” front for limited libertarian goals, and to try to influence his colleagues as well as the masses in the direction of the total system. (This is the essence of the much-misunderstood Leninist theory of “infiltration.”)
BUT, he continued:
 The effective centrist avoids the pitfalls of “opportunism” by keeping the objective firmly in view, and, in particular, by never acting in a manner, or speaking in a manner, inconsistent with the full libertarian position. To be inconsistent in the name of “practicality” is to betray the libertarian position itself, and is worthy of the utmost condemnation.
It is hard to see how support for  libertarian populism is going to result in anything but support for diluted libertarianism. MSM is simply not going to go along with D'Amato's attempt to link use of the term libertarian populism with  Rothbardian libertarianism.

Further, when Rothbard discusses popular fronts, he is discussing infiltration of non-libertarian groups to advance specific limited libertarian goals within such a group. (Read his memo!) And when he discusses influence of the masses, he is thinking about nudging them toward a full libertarian position, but never being inconsistent with libertarian principle

Attempting to hijack the phrase libertarian populism, as a term for libertarian principle, just isn't going to work. We already have a term: libertarianism.  The proper response by any libertarian to anyone using the term libertarian populism should be: I'm not sure what libertarian populism means. The phrase is used in many different ways. It is sometimes even linked to the Republican party. That's not me. I am a libertarian, pure and simple. I recognize the non-aggression principle and that is about it.


  1. Well put Bob. As libertarianism gains popularity, mainstream attempts to muddle the meaning of libertarian will persist. It's important those that understand libertarianism continue to point this out based explain what libertarian really means, and it has nothing to do with "populism".

  2. Well, according to Rothbard, populism is also a viable strategy for libertarianism.

    1. You are misreading Rothbard completely. In the column you link to, Rothbard is discussing 'conservative populisim' and how libertarianism can form a coalition with it on certain points. But he makes clear that 'conservative populism' and libertarianism are two different things:

      "So far: every one of these right-wing populist programs is totally consistent with a hard-core libertarian position. But all real-world politics is coalition politics, and there are other areas where libertarians might well compromise with their paleo or traditionalist or other partners in a populist coalition."

      Coalitions are completely different from calling the libertarian movement populist.