Main Street Libertarians
Just as Upton Sinclair afflicted the comfortable and brought about policy reform a century ago, a small group of conservative journalists seek to do much the same thing through libertarian means roday. Among them is Tim Carney, once understudy to veteran Washington journalist Robert Novak, who compared his protege to Sinclair and praised as him as the “best political reporter among the outstanding young men and women who worked for me starting with the redoubtable John Fund in 1981.”
Since an editor first urged him to dig into the obscure topic of the Export-Import Bank, Carney has developed a beat writing about the incestuous relationship between big government and big business, often assumed to be adversaries. Challenging this assumption jumbles all sorts of political categories.
Today Carney, a Washington Examiner columnist and American Enterprise Institute fellow, seeks to jumble these categories more comprehensively. Along with Ben Domenech of the Transom and the Heartland Institute, Peter Suderman of Reason, and his Examiner colleague Conn Carroll he has been hashing out a grab-bag of ideas under the label “libertarian populism.”
Libertarian populism takes the idea of K Street and Wall Street collusion a step further, arguing that instead of achieving fairness for the masses much government intervention rigs the game in favor of the rich, powerful, and politically connected. One might say it is a “new fusionism” of sorts—in the vein of conservative theorist Frank Meyer’s symbiosis of libertarianism and traditionalism—proposing that libertarian means can be used to realize populist ends.
But libertarian populism is controversial even on the right. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat has gently pushed back against its “broader economic agenda” as “politically untenable and mistaken on the merits.” On the left, Brian Beutler of Salon has less tenuously described it as “a nebulous, nearly oxymoronic term” and a “swindle.”
A problem for libertarian populists is that their ideas run counter to deeply ingrained political prejudices across the political spectrum. In addition to that, there is the reality of coalition politics: the Republicans remain to a great degree the party of the well-heeled and big business. Even insofar as this has become less true of elements of the party—its grassroots, for example—the stereotype remains an accurate picture of its donor and consultant classes.
First let’s address the prejudices. Calvin Coolidge, who has reemerged as a beloved figure on the right in recent years, once told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “The chief business of America is business.” And while they may not have liked the auto bailout, many Republicans instinctively sympathize with the statement misattributed to Eisenhower Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”
(Wilson actually said, when asked if his GM ties would corrupt his judgment as a public official, “for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” Yet he was more of a forerunner to “too big to fail” than libertarian populism: “Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country,” he also said.)
Many liberals, by contrast, have come to see what they regard as excessive money in politics, a corporate media, and Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United as the chief impediments to American democracy.
Even more than “self-deport” and “binders full of women,” no phrase uttered during the 2012 campaign was more perfectly Mitt Romney than his retort to hecklers in Iowa, “Corporations are people, my friend… Of course they are!”
But there have also been some developments favorable to libertarian populism. First is that conservative Republicans have become more libertarian, as they usually do when they are out of power in the executive branch. In addition to sharpening their critique of big government, spending, and debt—formerly dulled by the profligate compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush—a significant faction of the right has regained its civil libertarian impulses, as well as Robert Taft’s skepticism of foreign adventurism.
The tax-and-spending revolt of the Tea Party has created something approaching a social base for libertarian populists, a movement that seems to be a kind of fusion between the anti-statist rebellion fantasies of Atlas Shrugged and the Middle American radicals behind Pat Buchanan’s Republican presidential campaigns in the 1990s. More recently, libertarian populist sentiments powered both of Ron Paul’s White House bids.
In fact, libertarian populism can be seen as a connection between the concerns of the Paul movement and the observations of public-choice theory in economics. Rational businesses co-opt government power out of simple economic self-interest, sowing the discontent and sense of disenfranchisement felt by the Paulites and Tea Partiers while engaging in the rent-seeking libertarian populists hope to counter.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has itself been a strange new fusion between corporatism and liberalism. This was the topic of Carney’s second book, Obamanomics: How Barack Obama is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses.
Thus we have a liberal president who often claims to be fighting untrammeled corporations and the super-rich but who has nevertheless presided over vast taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street and the big automobile companies. Obama’s stimulus package doled out money to big businesses while his green energy gambits have seeded enterprises—sometimes incredibly shaky ones like Solyndra—that ended up enriching individual investors.
Big pharmaceutical companies spent almost as liberally promoting the Affordable Care Act as did the big labor unions. Obama raised more money from Goldman Sachs than did any of his Republican rivals. In 2008, he raised more money from the securities and investment industry—a healthy $14.8 million—than any candidate in history. He received twice as much money from hedge funds as his Republican opponent that year, John McCain.
Sometimes Obama’s defenders mock right-wing complaints that the president is a socialist by pointing to record Wall Street profits. But this hasn’t escaped the notice of some conservatives—and many progressives. And it has had an impact on how they view the nexus between government and business.
Yet in a sense this is nothing new. Many traditionalist conservatives have an aversion to bigness across the board, whether in business or government, while the late National Review senior editor James Burnham famously critiqued managerial elite in business and government alike.
“Conservatives must get over their infatuation with big business,” wrote the columnist Don Feder, author of such tomes as Who’s Afraid of the Religious Right?, back in 1998. “In many instances, corporations are our worst enemies.” Feder cited data from the Capital Research Center showing that even 20 years ago, Fortune 500 companies donated $4.07 to liberal groups for every $1 they gave to conservative organizations.
But today’s libertarian populists aren’t just irritated about corporate grants for advocates of abortion and gun control. They agree with liberals and centrists who see money as a corrupting influence in government: they see a revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street, as lobbyists and lawmakers write bills to fatten their own wallets.
Those liberals and centrists, however, believe that some combination of rules and regulations can fix these problems. Libertarian populists believe the game is rigged against the little guy in a more fundamental way: government is self-interested and self-dealing. What the backers of McCain-Feingold and critics of Citizens United see as a bug, libertarian populists believe is a design feature of big government and corporatism.
Bigger companies use regulations to stifle their smaller competitors, exploiting public interests like health, welfare, and environmental protection for private gain. Government subsidies don’t just go to poor people; they flow to General Electric, General Motors, and Goldman Sachs.
Insights and impulses aren’t enough to sustain a political movement, even one so small as this embryonic libertarian populism. There needs to be a concrete policy agenda. Here it is in broad sketches: Undo the taxpayer bailouts of private industry. Break up the big banks as a first step toward repealing too big to fail. Reintroduce actual market competition into regulated and subsidized industries. Kill corporate welfare and get rid of government-sponsored entities ranging from the Export-Import Bank to the Federal Reserve.
Expose where government is actually benefiting big business and the politically connected. Increase transparency. And then specifically target the policies promoting the giveaways. Reform and clean up the tax code. At the local level, curb abuses of eminent domain and battle regulations of start-up businesses like food trucks.
Critics of libertarian populism argue this isn’t a comprehensive agenda, and it is imperfect politically. Some proponents concede this as well: Carney observes of his platform in Obamanomics, “Some of the planks may be overly ambitious (constitutional amendments) and some may be too obscure to generate any political wind (abolishing the Export-Import Bank).”
There is also the problem of recruiting actual politicians to support something like this platform. Rand Paul probably comes the closest, though his flat tax looks more like Steve Forbes’s 1996 plan than a new populism. Jon Huntsman proposed breaking up the banks during his ill-fated 2012 GOP presidential campaign. Even Mitt Romney tried a bit of free-market populism by campaigning against Solyndra and regularly repeating the line “You didn’t build that” to small business owners, though he had little credibility as a messenger on this subject.
Business Insider’s Josh Barro writes, “Libertarian populism aims to fix a messaging problem that doesn’t exist,” noting that the American public doesn’t seem overly concerned with “bigness.” But that seems like a misreading when the Obama administration has prospered in part by saying that its healthcare policies protect ordinary people from huge predatory insurers; its environmental policies target big businesses that pollute for profit; and it’s protecting Main Street from Wall Street.
In fact, the vilified businesses and industries in almost every case played a role in designing and promoting these policies. Obamacare mandates and subsidizes the purchase of the health insurance companies’ and Big Pharma’s products. Even where some energy producers might be hurt by cap and trade, other entities will profit. And Wall Street has done notably better than Main Street under Obama.
Turning the president’s populist appeals against him would have tremendous political benefits, even if conservatives would still have to provide solutions to healthcare access, job creation, wage growth, and other top public concerns.
“Every time government gets bigger,” Carney writes, “somebody’s getting rich.” That observation may not be sufficient for a winning libertarian populism. But it is a good starting point for changing the terms of a debate that is often stacked against proponents of limited government in favor of the fattest cats of all.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author ofDevouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?