The Contradiction At The Heart Of The Latest Movement To Save The GOP

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"The Contradiction At The Heart Of The Latest Movement To Save The GOP"

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Pictured: actual populism. (Credit: Flickr user Marc Kjerland.)

Pictured: actual populism. (Credit: Flickr user Marc Kjerland.)

A group of conservative writers are attempting to remake the GOP’s economic ideology along the lines of something they call “libertarian populism,” which basically means opposition to both “big government” and “big business.” The idea has been getting a ton of play of late, most recently in the form of smart critiques of libertarian populism’s economic policy and political strategy by Josh Barro and Jonathan Chait. But libertarian populism’s most basic conceptual flaw has yet to be fully brought out: The idea is at its core morally and philosophically incoherent. Either libertarian populists have to concede that left-liberals are basically right about social justice or they’re putting lipstick on the garden-variety conservative oinker.

The core idea that’s supposed to separate “libertarian populism” from garden variety Republicanism is its hostility to big business: “it aims at breaking the Republican brand away from the concept of Big,” in the words of leading “libpop” proponent Ben Domenech. Things libertarian populists like to hate include Wall Street bailouts, farm subsidies, and the Export-Import Bank. From a progressive point of view, the policy agenda is a step up from standard conservatism: It’d be great if Republicans got serious about limiting the power of the financial sector or cutting subsidies for fossil fuel corporations.

But libertarian populists don’t see themselves as simply proposing a series of thematically related policy options. Their goal is to provide a new overarching economic philosophy for the Republican Party, a principle that changes the very core of the Republican Party’s identity. Lest you think I’m overstating it, Domenech again: the GOP should reform “in recognition of altered perspective on what it means to lead a life well-lived.” Modest the libertarian populists are not.

The problem is that no libertarian populist has yet to, in principled terms, explain the moral foundation of opposition to “the concept of Big.” Why should conservatives oppose big business? Why should anyone?

Here libertarian populists would scoff. We oppose Bigness in all its forms, of course, because it makes markets unfair! We are populists precisely because we defend the little guy’s right to be an entrepreneur without either Big Business or Big Government impeding their Randian self-actualizing verve!

This isn’t actually an answer. All the standard libpop line does is shift the question up one more level: Why should we care about removing barriers to entry for the lower and middle classes into the market place?

Here’s where things get dicey for the libertarian populist cause. One potential answer to that question is “everyone has a right to equal economic opportunity,” so it’s unfair when the government gives some businesses market advantages over others. But going down that rabbit hole leads to conclusions like “it’s unfair that some people have wealthier parents and access to better schools,” because those people start life with market legs-up on other people. If the problem is unfair access to markets, it’s wholly arbitrary to say that only government-caused inequality matters.

There’s no principled reason, then, that libertarian populists could oppose progressive wealth redistribution. They could say it doesn’t work, sure, but empirically speaking that’s impossibly tough sledding. Nor would libertarian populists really want to say their only difference with left-liberals is in the wonkery; they want to present an in-principle alternative to the progressive program.

“Wait!” the libertarian populist cries. “You’re forgetting that we also think people should be able to keep the money that they earn — we are libertarians, for God’s sake!” The principle that the rich deserve their wealth makes it wrong for the government to confiscate their wealth to level the playing field for the poor and middle class, but it’s also wrong for the wealthy to manipulate government to enhance their business interests. Equality of opportunity must be balanced against what the rich deserve.

But this just brings us back to garden-variety, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan Republicanism. If equality of opportunity can never trump the principle that “producers” deserve to keep what they own, then libertarian populism isn’t really a challenge to contemporary Republican ideology. It’s merely a demand for a series of policy changes that, while improvements, preserve the overweening edifice of Republicanism. It’s no accident, as Chait points out, that both Romney and Ryan borrowed (and, in the latter’s case, continues to borrow) libertarian populist rhetoric about “crony capitalism.”

And if libertarian populists don’t challenge the core of Republican ideology, then they won’t even get the small-ball changes they want. The economic wing of the Republican Party is dominated by business interests, because that’s who the “we earned it, we keep it” line appeals to. Business interests, for obvious reasons, tend to rather like the alliance between big government and big business. Absent a political overhaul of the GOP’s economic coalition, an anti-Big agenda will never gain a foothold. And absent a revision of the Republican Party’s underlying ideology about wealth-producers earning what they keep, then the GOP won’t be able to expand its coalition.

Unless libertarian populists starting taking the “populist” half of the equation seriously, their movement will never be anything more than a smokescreen, a way to vent about the actually existing Republican Party’s betrayals while doing nothing to change its actual views.

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