For an idea that is supposedly so clearly destined for failure, libertarian populism sure has drawn a lot of attention from critics on both the left (Josh Barro, Jonathan Chait, Paul Krugman, Michael Lind, Matt Yglesias) and right (Matt Lewis, Ramesh Ponnuru).
Unsurprisingly, none of these writers are particularly generous with their definitions of what libertarian populism is, or what it is trying to accomplish. But that is not really their fault. The term libertarian populism is still being defined, and while Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is often associated with the term, he neither labels himself as such or even uses the phrase.
But there is a growing number of people supportive of the idea who do use the term, and this is how they use it.
Tim Carney: “Instead of trying to convince successful people that Democrats will take away their wealth, why not explain to the middle class that big government is keeping them down? … It’s time for free-market populism and a Republican Party that fights against all forms of political privilege — a party that champions all who want to work and take risks in order to improve their lives and raise a family.
Ross Douthat (who is not a libertarian populist but is sympathetic to the cause): “populist libertarianism — 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.”
Ben Domenech: “As an approach which frames limited government not just as a safeguard of personal liberty, but a way to offer wide-ranging opportunities, enhance economic mobility, and undermine rent-seeking elites, it represents a real break from the party’s approach to policy setting over the course of decades.”
Jesse Walker: “When people discuss ‘libertarian populism,’ it isn’t always clear whether they’re referring just to free-market populism — that is, a small-government alternative to crony capitalism — or to a broader libertarian vision. In their more optimistic moments, the LibPops seem to imagine a new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties. If the Republican Party really did make that turn, that would be an enormous step forward for American politics.”
To clear things up for Walker, when Carney, Domenech, and I use the term libertarian populism, we most certainly are referring to far more than just free-market populism. Carney is probably a bit more anti-imperial than Domenech or I, but all of us recognize the need for a recalibrating of U.S. overseas capabilities and investments after Iraq and Afghanistan.
And later in that same post, Walker goes on to list a number of issues outside strictly economic 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.