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There’s a Version of “Libertarian Populism” That Might Work: It’s Called “Libertarian Elitism”

Nick Gillespie from Reason.com recently thrashed Paul Krugman’s remarks on the hot topic among the Republican intelligentsia – “Libertarian Populism”. As described by Krugman:

The idea here is that there exists a pool of disaffected working-class white voters who failed to turn out last year but can be mobilized again with the right kind of conservative economic program — and that this remobilization can restore the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes.

Gillespie cites a rather excellent column from Tim Carney suggesting that libertarian populism is not only viable, but also necessary. Unfortunately there’s a big problem with this theory. By the time intellectuals like Carney chip away at the idiotic kind of populism they dislike – known to some as “social conservatism” – we have a whole different beast altogether. It’s called libertarian elitism.

Here’s the rub. People like Carney and Gillespie, both of which write in publications frequented by decidedly elitist characters – can get all riled up about those awful farm subsidies and that are pumping corn oil through our stomachs. Or about corporate welfare which is basically a fancy term for legalized corruption. Or about bad immigration laws. In fact, they can even enlist support from liberals like myself about the excesses of wasteful government.

Except corn subsidies cost an average American a mere ten dollars a year. Except every poor, working-class white guy is convinced Pedro is going to take his job. But Carney has already anticipated my comment:

Also, offer libertarian policies that have acute benefit to the working class, such as drastic cuts in the payroll taxes. Maybe let people buy whatever kind of light bulb they want. Don’t force them to buy health insurance. Allow them to buy prescription drugs from Canada.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Payroll tax cuts are supported by liberal Keynesian elitists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong to libertarian elitists like Scott Sumner or Bryan Caplan. It’s not like this is a new or uniquely populist position. And then ask yourself how much your run-of-the-mill working class white cares about the individual mandate, energy regulations, or prescription drugs? Sure, most polls say that people don’t like Obamacare. But they sure as hell doesn’t think it’s the biggest thing holding  life back. Polls tell us he’s most worried about jobs, wages, and retirement.

The libertarian populist wants to imagine the hard-working man who comes home from a job worried about electricity and gas prices from liberal environmental regulations and a Barack Obama pilfering moolah from the middle to the connected elite. You might say that this man is ideally unideal.

But actually the ironic consequence of deep inequality and political divide is most Americans – aside from those of us with our ear to the news – don’t care about corporate welfare and Obamacare. Maybe Fox News has convinced them that the individual mandate is the root of all evil on Earth. But given an Obamacare repeal or a steady retirement he would surely choose the latter. Given a choice between freeing trade and a protected labor market at home he would surely choose the latter.

You can have no libertarian without having elitist. I mean take a look at what Gillespie says:

Unsurprisingly, Carney’s libertarian-populist policy agenda has precious little to do with starving poor people to death or stoking white working-class resentment against dusky hordes (Carney is pro-immigration). Unless by dusky hordes, you mean Wall Street banksters and well-tanned pols such as Speaker John Boehner.

For better or for worse, it’s filled with prescriptions such as “cut or eliminate the payroll tax” (that’s the one that hurts low-wage earners the most); “break up the big banks and/or place stricter safety and soundness rules on them” (hmm, how does that help the Rothschilds again?); and “end corporate welfare” (Carney specifically name-checks the awful Export-Import Bank and subsidies to Big Sugar, which both receive bipartisan congressional support).

You know, there was a group of people, I recall, that made their name on “breaking up big banks”. Except they were mostly young liberal hipsters that wore Converse sneakers. Actions speak louder than words, and while the Tea Party rhetoric – especially the stray segments intellectual observers love to capture – may have said a thing or two about the fat cat bankers that isn’t near the primary message of the group. And it’s certainly not what made them popular among working class whites.

Because, as Cory Robin here notes, the populist sort of libertarian – from the mythmakers at Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn to the goldbugs at Paul Manor in Texas – cannot be divorced from its old, confederate memory. We are talking about a people who question the value, if not absolutely oppose, the Civil Rights Act.

Gillespie and Carney will try to ignore this line of conversation, because it is a socio-historical dynamic that is orthogonal to their economic persuasion. At the end of the day, the libertarian populist can never make it in the American South without forsaking everything that it means to be a libertarian.

Here’s what the libertarian agenda – rightly – supports:

  • Ending wasteful subsidies like the Farm Bill.
  • Reducing distortive barriers to trade that hurt, yes, the average American.
  • Freeing borders to immigrants: high skilled or not.

Except none of that appeals to the working-class white. As Carney puts it, a cunning politician might be able to coat it in attractive “campaign fodder”, but in the short run they don’t really give two hoots about trade liberalization and corporate welfare. The Ghost of Richard Nixon teamed with the Ghost of Mancur Olson spellbinds America to the point where only the ugly sort of populist can ever win the crevices of the South.

The libertarian may find his reaping ground among educated – otherwise would-be liberal – college graduates with a quiet Galtian complex. But they have no place in an America too poor to save for emergencies or retirement. After all the populist is angry that liberals are debasing the sacred American greenback harming the humble saving man. But of what savings?

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