The term “libertarian populism” is one that is heard more and more in today’s political discourse as libertarian ideas become more mainstream and slowly begin to bleed over into establishment political rhetoric. In the past week, several different libertarian voices have expressed their thoughts on the use of this term, and specifically in relation to its connection to Murray Rothbard’s and his “radical” brand of libertarianism.
David D’Amato writes at LewRockwell.com:
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. This populism addresses itself to everything from lobbyists to bailouts and to the Federal Reserve System. In point of fact, the “End the Fed” movement, the germ of which was Ron Paul’s stout emphasis on the issue, was arguably among the prime movers and mainsprings of the particular moment of libertarian populism that we’re witnessing right now. Those influenced by the Austrian School and Rothbardian libertarians, contrary to the empty jeremiads of our critics, have always called attention to the often-incestuous relationships between all things big, irrespective of whether they are found in the “public” or the “private” sector. We have been on the forefront of demonstrating the causal link that connects misallocation to corporate welfare in all of its myriad embodiments that show why government intervention in the economic sphere is profoundly harmful, particularly for ordinary working people. The seeming fixation on the Federal Reserve then, is not a randomly chosen fetish of libertarians, but a recognition of the sweeping, harmful implications of Fed policy. Were more Americans to understand the Fed’s role in, for instance, American wars and economic instability, they might see that real libertarian populism is anything but a calculated political rebranding. Rather, libertarian populism simply is genuine, radical libertarianism, the kind that takes the state for what it is — a small criminal class that has successfully institutionalized economic spoliation.
D’Amato sees libertarian populism as perfectly in sync with radical, Rothbardian libertarianism due to its natural opposition to the Federal Reserve, America’s overseas conflicts, and the economic harm they bring to the everyday man. Indeed, if people understood these issues from the libertarian point of view, they would surely find that a firm opposition to the Fed and the wars would line up with a “populist” view.
And what could be more populist — more congruous with a genuinely “power to the people” mindset — than to devolve economic power to a system of free and voluntary exchange as opposed to arbitrary decisions by elites in government? Libertarian populism is onto something, a fact that both its champions and detractors have perceived. But the genuine article isn’t and can’t be a political movement; on the contrary, the purest libertarian populism is bound to show itself as an enemy of politics and an uncompromising foe of the state.
D’Amato makes an excellent point in that nothing delivers more “power to the people” than the system of voluntary exchange known as the free market. It’s true that no system better represents the “common man” – as populism would purport to do – than libertarianism. The problem lies in getting the masses to understand this, and it’s important that the ideas of libertarianism not be muddled or sullied by politicians using libertarian rhetoric, while supporting decidedly non libertarian policies.
In response to D’Amato’s piece, EconomicPolicyJournal.com’s Robert Wenzel objects to the use of the term “libertarian populism”, and more specifically to D’Amato’s associating it with Murray Rothbard:
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.
Wenzel sees the term “populism” as just another libertarian qualifier which, regardless of the intention of the user, will ultimately lead to a watered down view of libertarianism by the public at large. Just as the terms “libertarian Republican” and “libertarian Democrat” serve to distance one from what is seen as “radical” (read: actual) libertarianism, so too is “libertarian populism” used to move libertarians towards the mainstream, not the other way around.
So what would Murray Rothbard think of the terminology and it’s use in the today’s political discourse? We can get some insight from a 1992 article where Rothbard discusses “Right-Wing Populism.” Rothbard discusses the ways “right-wing populist” talking points of that time were in line with libertarian thought, before he goes on to say:
Libertarians have often seen the problem plainly, but as strategists for social change they have badly missed the boat. In what we might call “the Hayek model,” they have called for spreading correct ideas, and thereby converting the intellectual elites to liberty, beginning with top philosophers and then slowly trickling on down through the decades to converting journalists and other media opinion-moulders. And of course, ideas are the key, and spreading correct doctrine is a necessary part of any libertarian strategy. It might be said that the process takes too long, but a long-range strategy is important, and contrasts to the tragic futility of official conservatism which is interested only in the lesser-of-two-evils for the current election and therefore loses in the medium, let along the long, run. But the real error is not so much the emphasis on the long run, but on ignoring the fundamental fact that the problem is not just intellectual error. The problem is that the intellectual elites benefit from the current system; in a crucial sense, they are part of the ruling class. The process of Hayekian conversion assumes that everyone, or at least all intellectuals, are interested solely in the truth, and that economic self-interest never gets in the way. Anyone at all acquainted with intellectuals or academics should be disabused of this notion, and fast. Any libertarian strategy must recognize that intellectuals and opinion-moulders are part of the fundamental problem, not just because of error, but because their own self-interest is tied into the ruling system.
Rothbard emphasizes that communicating the correct ideas is what is most important, and to do so requires the recognition that those that run the current system benefit greatly from that system. Any sort of “populist” political strategy which ignores this and instead makes the faulty presumption that those in power are at all interested in the changing the system – if only they knew about all this liberty stuff! – is doomed to spectacular failure.
The strategy that Rothbard promotes is not to associate libertarianism with “populism” per se, but rather to recognize areas where libertarians could latch onto the talking points of the right-wing populists and form coalitions in areas where the belief systems overlap.
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. For example, on family values, take such vexed problems as pornography, prostitution, or abortion. Here, pro-legalization and pro-choice libertarians should be willing to compromise on a decentralist stance; that is, to end the tyranny of the federal courts, and to leave these problems up to states and better yet, localities and neighborhoods, that is, to “community standards.”
Rothbard points out how the main “right-wing populist” talking points fit right in with libertarian theory, and can be used to point out the proper libertarian solution to issues, without ever compromising libertarian principle or using confusing qualifiers or rhetoric.
An example of this can be seen in Ron Paul’s time in Congress. Paul would routinely form coalitions with “left-wing” politicians on issues in which they agreed, be with with Dennis Kucinich on opposing foreign interventions or Barney Frank on legalizing marijuana. Paul recognized areas where coalitions could be formed on certain issues while staying completely consistent with libertarian principle.
From Rothbard’s writing, it appears he would likely favor the strategy of forming political coalitions in areas that are seemingly “populist” in nature, as David D’Amato pointed out , such as opposing cronyism and the current banking system. These are perfect opportunities to point out how government and Big Business work together to stomp down competition from “the little guy”, and how the Fed destroys the wealth of the “common man” through inflation.
At the same time, Rothbard would surely denounce any attempts by the establishment to co-opt libertarianism and associate it with more mainstream “populist” rhetoric. He would continue to use any and all opportunities to call out and mock the elites who benefit from the cronyist system, and continue to push libertarians to ask the crucial question, “Do You Hate the State?”
Check out our past editions of Mondays with Murray!
8/17/13 – Rothbard on Libertarian Qualifiers
8/12/13 – Rothbard on War Revisionism
7/22/13 – Rothbard on the George Zimmerman Verdict
7/15/13 – Rothbard on Orwell’s “1984”
7/1/13 – Why Be Libertarian?
6/17/13 – Who was the “best” U.S. President?
6/10/13 – Rothbard on State Surveillance
5/27/13 – Rothbard on America’s “Two Just Wars”
5/20/13 – Do Animals Have “Rights”
5/13/13 – A Further Insight on IP
5/6/13 – The Boston Lockdown
4/29/13 – The Problem with Empirical Studies
4/22/13 – The Real Story of the Whiskey Rebellion
4/15/13 – What is an Entrepreneur?
3/11/13 – Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
2/4/13 – The Death of Keynesian Economics
1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
9/24/12 – Rothbard on Quantitative Easing