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‘Libertarian Populism’ Is a Stepchild of McCainism

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain waged a quixotic war on earmarks. For years before that, he was associated with campaign finance reforms that eventually became law under President Bush. Few outside of Washington cared about such process-oriented issues.

The logic behind “libertarian populism” does not neatly fall into the same category as McCain’s hobbyhorses, but its impetus is largely the same. Libertarian populism is not primarily about reducing the size of government (though its policy preferences may overlap with that goal); it is about making government “cleaner” and more transparent. It is about making the “system” seem less “rigged.” It’s about treating powerful moneyed interests no better, or at least no differently, than the “little guy.”

In theory, there’s no reason Democrats couldn’t advance their own version of a high wall of separation between government and private business. As an alternative to coopting the private insurance industry, a practical reality that chief #LibPop booster Tim Carney liked to expose as Obamacare developed on Capitol Hill, Democrats could have fought harder for a single-payer system. If by some long shot they had succeeded, the result may not have been a more libertarian healthcare market—but by Carney’s reckoning, it would have been a “cleaner” welfare state. The wall of separation would stand in a different place, but it would be higher than it is under Obamacare.

The libertarian populist mindset is a useful corrective, but it leaves much to be desired as the basis for a governing agenda. To stick with the insurance industry example for a moment: did Obamacare’s architects desire to turn insurance companies into public utilities as a policy end in itself—or was it a means of broadening access to medical insurance (a goal that the public generally favors)? Or consider the case Carney cites in the video above (from an AEI panel about collusion between big business and government): that of an aluminum manufacturer (Alcoa) lobbying for and subsequently benefiting from new environmental regulations on fuel efficiency.

Critics of such self-dealing may be right on the merits. But there is still the matter of the public good being pursued: is it, too, worthy on the merits? And if so, is it not inevitable that some private actors will prosper, and others will not?

After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries. A giant new security apparatus slowly spread its tentacles across American life. Defense contractors and security consultants dine out on this policy sea change to this day. One can argue until one is blue on the face about the wisdom of these policies—but at the end of the day, one is forced to mount an argument about an overarching public good (or ill).

Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.

It’s only natural for those who cover politics in Washington to overdramatize the gory details of legislative sausage-making. Elections, however, rarely turn on process. And so, despite how much I may cheer each and every one of Tim Carney’s money-in-politics exposés, I can’t quite convince myself that Republicans are going to have any more luck at this than Democrats had against Halliburton.

about the author

Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. In addition to contributing to The American Conservative, he writes for TheWeek.com and reviews live music for The Washington Post. He was formerly a staff writer for The Washington Times and worked on Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife and two children and writes about politics to support his guitar habit.

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