Why Libertarian Populism?

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So yesterday, I had an op-ed published at The American Conservative that argued that libertarian populism was still relevant in the age of Trump. In addition, it provides a possible post-Trump future for the right.

Brad Polumbo, who co-hosts a podcast with Kassy Dillon and serves as the assistant editor at Young Voices, tweeted this.

My main argument is that I don’t see libertarianism and populism in ideological conflict. I see libertarianism as a broad-based movement for greater freedom from government. I view populism as a political tactic.

The dictionary definition of populism is “ a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” Why shouldn’t libertarians embrace that in our messaging?

In many ways, politics already is embracing a libertarian populist message. When we denounce occupational licensing because it privileges special interests and the politicians who regulate them, we are engaging in libertarian populism. When we promote criminal justice reform, especially when we take on entrenched interests like cops, DAs, bail bondsmen, etc. we are engaging in libertarian populism. When we take on a foreign policy that enriches arms dealers and politicians at the expense of the poor both here at home and around the world, we are engaging in libertarian populism. I could go on and on.

To many people, populism conjures up a negative image. In American history, we tend to think of wannabe strongmen like Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, and now Donald Trump when we think of populism. But Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were more recent leaders of populist movements. The difference between the latter four and former three is that the latter employed populism as a political tactic whereas the three used populism as a political ideology. The “libertarian” is very important in libertarian populism.

The most politically astute libertarian ever was Murray Rothbard. I say this as someone who intellectually leans more toward Fredrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Rothbard was a committed libertarian populist.

Libertarianism and populism are not the polar opposites as you would think at first glance. In fact, libertarianism, classical liberalism, or even limited government conservatism needs a healthy dose of populism to succeed.

Now I will be the first to point out that libertarian populist politics should not be the only path forward. In fact, libertarianism’s greatest success has been in the elite field. Libertarians have had decent success in the courts over the past decade. Finally, the dirty little secret is much if not most of the “conservative” think tank community and political activism is actually libertarian. There is no need to abandon that approach. You can’t replace the old order with nothing, which is something Trumpists are learning the hard way. There will always be a need for policy wonks but it can’t be just them.

Libertarian populism offers the best hope to limit the growth of the state and expand personal freedom. Libertarianism cannot hope to win without populism and populism needs libertarianism (and conservatism as well, but that’s a different topic) to restrain its excesses.

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