Against Libertarian Populism

Over at The Liberty Conservative (which is, in my opinion, something of an oxymoronic name), Alex Witoslawski of the Leadership Institute recently wrote an article defending populism as a strategy for libertarian activists to embrace. I am going to disagree with Alex at almost every turn, but it should be known that I am friends with Alex and mean no ill-will towards him. In fact, he privately asked me for my input and asked that I publish my criticisms publicly.

Alex defines populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” In order for a movement to be populist, Alex claims it must use four distinguishing factors:

Messaging: the central message obviously has to revolve around the theme of populism – “the people versus the privileged elites”

Strategy: put simply, the central strategy of populism is to bypass the ruling class – academia, mainstream media, and political establishment – in order to get the message out directly to the masses

Tactics: in order to achieve the strategic goal of bypassing the ruling class, populist candidates and organizations must make use of grassroots organizing, events, digital communication (social media and email), and the alt-media to communicate directly with the masses

Issues: the message of “the people vs. the elites” is closely adhered to on every single issue advocated; in addition to this, the policies advocated for must be sufficiently radical to inspire a core base of supporters who will passionately support the populist campaign/organization as donors and activists.

To cite reasons why libertarians should embrace this populist ethos, Alex cites the recent surprising election of Donald Trump and the relatively successful Ron Paul primary campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and gives the example of Lew Rockwell’s and Murray Rothbard’s infamous paleolibertarian phase in the late eighties and early nineties for inspiration. Let me give eight reasons why principled libertarians–and classical liberals–neither can be nor should be populists:

1. Is Populism even Necessary for Electoral Victory?
It’s not even apparent that populism is always and everywhere the best electoral strategy in the first place. The three best turnouts, for example, in LP history for president were the decidedly non-populist Gary Johnson campaigns and the non-populist, left-leaning Ed Clark/David Koch 1980 campaign, ranking much lower with less than half the votes of Clark/Koch was the much more populist Ron Paul 1988 campaign. For further evidence, there were many similarities between populists and progressive parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of the few major differences were the degree of technocracy and even outright elitism that progressives embraced (populists were more Jacksonian, progressives Wilsonian). Which parties and candidates were more popular at polls? Progressives. All this is, of course, anecdotal and casual historical evidence from which no necessary causality can be established, but so are the examples of Trump vs. Cruz and Rand vs. Ron that Alex gives. There’s likely an empirical political science literature on the electoral effectiveness of populist messaging that might shed light on this question, one with which I am admittedly ignorant, but, at any rate, this is an antecedent point to my main argument.

2. The Narrow Focus on Electoral Politics
Even if populism does win elections, it’s not even clear that’s a good goal. As any good anarchist will tell you, electoral victories are not the only, or even a particularly good, measure of a political movement’s accomplishments. Who can cater to a rationally ignorant and irrational voting population has little to do with whether your ideology is actually improving anyone’s lives. In fact, for reasons I’ll get to in a later, if all you’re doing is winning elections, there’s a fair chance you’re making people’s lives worse. The goal should be to minimize the real world importance of elections, to get politics out of people’s lives, not to make electoral politics the end goal. Consistent libertarianism is (or at least should be), in fact, not really a political movement at all; it seeks the abolition of politics to begin with.

3. Populism’s Democratic Ethos Leads to Support for Bad Policies 
Even if you manage to get a majority of voters to vote for ostensibly libertarian politicians, the question of how to implement those principles in real-world policy is much more complex. Populists, because the goal is to “tear down the establishment,” are likely to call for haphazard, potentially dangerous policies which democratize institutions that shouldn’t be controlled by the people (eg., courts, central banks, etc.) and make currently controlled democratic institutions more democratic. It goes without saying that putting coercive institutions in control of rationally ignorant and irrational political actors is pretty rash–be they “elites” like politicians and bankers or “the little guy” like supposedly disenfranchised voters.

Examples of such bad ideas supported by populist libertarians include congressional term limits or auditing the fed. Those policies may have libertarian normative goals, but it requires working technical economics and institutional analysis to know if they’re the best way to work towards those goals. For reasons anyone who knows the first thing about public choice can tell you, the masses will never have such knowledge. In fact, the populist attacks on “the elites” are likely to lead people to detest those who do have such knowledge, exacerbating the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Call me an elitist, but I’d go far as to say that populism of any form is just the political manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

4. Populism will Likely Turn into Something Nasty
Because the main thing driving populist movements are “the people vs. the elites” rather than the core principles the movement tries to espouse, there’s good reason to think the base of that movement will abandon many of those principles as it grows simply on the basis that they have something similar to what “the elites” believe. It’s not surprising that many of the younger psuedo-libertarians who supported Ron Paul have since jumped on either the Trump or Sanders bandwagon, or, even worse, have defected into the crypto-fascist, dark corners of the alt-right (Steffan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell’s occultists are examples of this). Even left-wing populist movements often have abandoned leftist principles throughout history (the Jacobins in the French Revolution, for example).

The irrationality of the masses makes it hard for them to have any principles–libertarian or not–for very long. Indeed, even the examples Alex gives are pretty bad examples of libertarians. Rothbard and Rockwell, of course, embraced outright racist and homophobic nonsense to appeal to their culturally conservative base (sometimes using Ron Paul’s name), which is antithetical to the classically liberal ethos of libertarianism which values reducing all forms of coercion–be it through casual institutional forms of oppression or statist coercion.

5. Populism’s Demand for Immediate Change is Likely to Cause Unforeseen Harm
Unlike other methods Alex mentions, populism is a form of immediatism. It really is just a post-enlightenment, first-world, institutionally democratic form of revolution. It’s no coincidence that most populist movements, from Bernie Sanders to Ron Paul rely on the language of revolution to further their appeal. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of any accelerated method of political change–be it “the masses” taking over and overhauling the errors of “the elites,” or violent revolutions like those in late eighteenth century France or early twentieth century Russia.

Institutions and policies often serve tacit functions in society of which we aren’t even focally aware. We are in a radical position of ignorance about what the effects of sudden change that populism demands, such as swapping out entirely who’s in power and changing all policies to the whims of “the masses,” whether those whims are libertarian principles or not. In sum, ironically given the name of the site Alex writes for, populism can never really even be conservative–not in the bastardized tea party or paleo sense, but in the principled Burkean sense. Even if I agree with the ends any political movement aims for, epistemic humility necessitates far more gradualism than populist rhetorical strategy can possibly accommodate.

6. Populism Leads to a Breakdown in Discourse and Awful Praxis
Whether you’re a conservative, libertarian, or liberal, if you are existing in a democracy the main thing you should strive for is to be understood by others. In fact, the alleged raison être for democracy–though famously fails at in its present institutional form–is aiming at better forms of government through arriving at some sort of consensus through open and honest public discourse. In order to have any sort of functional democracy in this sense–which, again, we are already woefully lacking in existing democracies–fulfill the primary function of speech, which is understanding. In order to do this, a necessary norm for discourse to function is the assumption of the good will of all participants in discourse.

The first assumption of populism, much like most crude forms of Marxism, is a violation of what is necessary for such discourse. It assumes, after all, that “the elites” are just an out-of-touch, greedy, mean group of people that “the masses” must depose and everything they’ve done is wrong and must be replaced with the vox populi. Anyone, then, who disagrees–even those within populist movements–is liable of being charged with being “one of the elites” (not unlike accusations of being “bourgeoisie” and “counter-revolutionary” after Lenin’s Vanguard Party took control), and ignored, leading to a communicative breakdown. Discussion is shut off, possible perspectives and principles that could improve the state of affairs are ignored if they bear any even superficial affinity to “the elites,” and one of the few sets of norms–those of communicative action taken from the lifeworld–that make existing democracy at least quasi-functional is replaced with simple partisan hackery. Try talking to your standard dogmatic Trump, Bernie, or even Ron Paul supporter (or really any overly partisan hack, including dogmatic Clinton supporters), and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

7. Populism is Inherently Illiberal and Opposed to Liberty

Populism tells us the problem is that “the elites are in power” and demands that the elites be deposed and replaced with “the masses.” But libertarians say the problem isn’t the fact that the wrong people are in power, the problem is that anyone is in power in the first place. As a consequence, classical liberals have always with good reason been very skeptical of the wisdom of the masses, and have had an ambivalent relationship towards any form of democracy. The radically Jacksonian democratic demeanor of populism, which asserts the masses are equipped to use coercive political institutions, is fundamentally at odds with classical liberalism’s value placed on individual liberty–which asserts that nobody is equipped to use coercive institutions. That’s a fine distinction populist rhetoric necessarily blurs, and you can’t expect “the masses” to understand.

Even if you say you’re just using populist rhetoric to depose those in power, the populist faction of our movement (once “the elites” are out of power) are going to ask, “What’s next?” and are liable to be upset when you say “nothing.” As Hayek tells us, one of the main reasons people get so heavily involved in the political process is that they want to be in charge, that’s true of “the masses” as it is “the elites.”

8. Populist Alliances Often lead to the Destruction of Libertarian Values
Alex mentions the rise of the religious right and other right-wing populist movements as possible fruitful avenues for libertarians to ally with and pursue. However, I’m of the opinion that any sort of fusionism is probably a really bad idea. Not just because many on the religious right want to be unfathomably cruel to me because I’m gay, but because libertarians have philosophical, fundamental disagreements with the people in those movements that cannot be bridged. It is simply not true that the religious right and nationalists are “anti-statist in their nature,” the fact that he cites “forced integration” from immigration supported by nationalists (derived from an infamously bad argument by Hoppe) as common ground is telling. Indeed, if you press most “fusionist” “conservatarians” (including paleos) or “liberaltarians” very far, you’ll find that outside of a few superficial single issues on which they agree with some libertarians, they do not even remotely understand or apply the principles very widely at all. If your movement is composed of walking Dunning-Krugers who do not really understand the extent to which coercive is possible and are not able to engage in constructive dialogue and you’re relying on rhetoric of “take power from the elites” to motivate them, you’re probably not going to have a very libertarian movement.

To illustrate, there’s no reason why “populism” needs to take on a right-wing flair for libertarians at all. In Rothbard’s young years, for example, he attempted to ally with left-wing populist progressives from the anti-war movement. Today, I could say, libertarians should ally with left-wing Sanders supporters. They, after all, share a skepticism towards foreign policy intervention, attacks on social freedom for religious freedom, and corporatist crony capitalism. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Sanders’ supporters are more libertarian than Trump’s, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Regardless, it is worth noting libertarians have philosophically more in common with those on ‘the left’ in general, but that’s, again, an antecedent point.

Alex would probably reply “But Sanders supporters are socialists, and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians.”  Ignoring the fact that neither Sanders nor most of his supporters are really socialists, he’d mostly be right that they are fundamentally opposed libertarianism. Regardless, Trump supporters are nationalist–which Hayek famously called “the twin brother of socialism”–and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians. Alex might reply, correctly, that some right-wingers can become libertarians by engaging with the populist movement, but so can Sanders supporters. All that point establishes is libertarians should communicate with non-libertarians, and work with non-libertarians on single-issues with which we agree, that need not take on a populist flavor.

The Alternative
If we’re going to forego a focus on electoral politics, and not to populism, what should we replace it with? Alex mentions two possible alternatives:

Hayekian educationism, named after Friedrich Hayek’s theory of social change expounded in his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” relies first on persuading a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas. Then, according to Hayek’s model, those intellectuals persuade a growing number of what Hayek calls “second-hand dealers in ideas” like journalists, teachers, and politicians to propagate their ideas among the general populace.

Fabian incrementalism, named after the Fabian socialists of late 19th century Britain, relies on a similar group of individuals – intellectuals, journalists, and policy wonks – to persuade government bureaucrats and politicians to adopt gradual changes in policy. This, performed consistently over a long period of time will, theoretically, lead to the adoption of long-term social changes that the reformers set out to achieve.

First of all, Alex misunderstands Hayek’s theory of social change. The claim is n’t that you “persuade a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas,” and completely ignore political actors and everyday people, the idea is that ideas coming from intellectuals filter down into the extended order of society and eventually become actualized. It’s not as if you just convince a bunch of professors and philosopher kings that you’re right and they’ll create a libertarian utopia, it’s that you put the ideas out there and they eventually filter down, a messy process which takes an extremely long time (possibly centuries), and one which libertarians have really only barely started.

A necessary thing that must occur before they actually become actualized is that the general population is at least subsidiarily aware of the ideas, which requires communicating with the general population in some form (which can and should include what Alex calls “grassroots organizing,” like engaging with them through the electronic forms and the alt-media). But that communication cannot take on the populist message for reasons given, it requires education and dialogue, it requires populizers–which can include educators, journalists, communicators, activists, and even to some extent politicians (though they are not acting qua politicians in the ideal typical capacity used in the model when doing this) to communicate with the masses. Contra Rothbard, it’s not about convincing the “ruling class,” it’s about overcoming them.

Regardless, I will agree that the method some beltway libertarians, unfortunately, take from Hayek’s theory of just writing academic journals and white papers is incomplete. You do need to communicate with the masses, but  I am heavily skeptical that this communication needs to be political in nature. Alex’s narrow focus on elections leads him to neglect other, possibly more fruitful, methods of social change. You can engage in direct action, agorism, or entrepreneurial action (eg., what Zak Slayback, et. al. talk about in “Freedom Without Permission“). In these forms, it requires actively defending the masses (in direct action), spreading ideas by improving the lives of real people by providing alternatives (agorism and entrepreneurial action), and making the effects of state intervention felt on people (eg., when entrepreneurial innovations, like Uber and Lyft, are taken away, the hypocrisy of regulation is made clear). They all accomplish the goal of making the ideas known, even if tacitly, among the masses, while adding bonuses of actually doing things that improve their lives without the riskiness inherent in using coercive institutions like elections to do so.

Though those aren’t necessarily at odds with populism (or Hayekian educationalism for that matter; in fact, I think it’s an inherent part of Hayek’s theory of social change), I put far more faith in these than in elections in which irrational, ignorant people only legitimize the state. Socio-political change happens at the micro-level, through everyday social interactions, through lived real-world experiences, through you reading this article, through good discourse and conversation. If you want to change, you need to alter the lifeworld in which individuals live, just focusing on getting “the masses” to turn out the polls is insufficient. Political activism can only get you so far.

16 thoughts on “Against Libertarian Populism

  1. A well written and argued piece. The dangers of populism are real, as you outline, and particularly troublesome to those with libertarian views.

  2. It certainly is troubling that many former Ron Paul supporters have turned into Trump supporters. It seems that they were only temporary “libertarians” when it fit an anti-establishment narrative. I agree that Sanders is much closer to libertarianism than Trump. Although more so because of Trump’s distance.

    • Exactly populism supports anything that fits the “evil elites vs. troubled masses” narrative; the minute libertarian principles stop supporting that narrative, or if another set of principles however opposed to freedom they may be start supporting it better, populists will part ways with libertarians. At best, it’s an unstable temporary alliance for a select few set of issues.

  3. Another excellent piece, Zak. I just want to hone in on one segment:

    the alleged raison être for democracy–though famously fails at in its present institutional form–is aiming at better forms of government through arriving at some sort of consensus through open and honest public discourse. In order to have any sort of functional democracy in this sense–which, again, we are already woefully lacking in existing democracies–fulfill the primary function of speech […]

    My issue here is the critical tone you take with democracy in Western states at the moment. I take issue with it because I see it in the broader American libertarian movement and while it doesn’t disturb me yet – because I know libertarians here in the States like to be contrarian and they love efficiency which democracy definitely is not – there are a couple of caution flags here.

    While Western democracy is not perfect, especially when it comes to decision-making, it is presently the most inclusive form of governance the world has ever known. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better alternatives out there, but it does mean that the American libertarian has been overcome by pessimism for no good reason.

    As I previously stated in a dialogue here back in 2015:

    These are all Bad Things that democratic governments do, but they are also Bad Things that all governments do. And, in turn, these Bad Things are much less prevalent in democratic societies than they are in non-democratic societies.

    In fact, it is only in democratic societies that you can complain about these Bad Things. It is only in democratic societies that you can do something about these Bad Things (even if it’s just blog-ranting).

    This simple observation leads me to conclude that anti-democratic libertarians have it back asswards when it comes to democracy. Democracy is a byproduct of liberty. Maybe anarchy would lead to even less “war, bank bailouts, taxation, police aggression etc,” but as of now it is in democracies that these Bad Things have been made less prevalent.

    Anti-democratic libertarians aren’t thinking on the margin when it comes to democracy. (Hence the dogmatism you find in certain anarcho-capitalist circles.)

    Where else in the world, or when else in world history, has everyone but criminals and immigrants had the opportunity to participate – even if such participation is token or fleeting – in their own governance? We have made strides, and this is cause for celebration and optimism, not despair and pessimism.

    • I don’t disagree with you that democracy is the best form of government we have so far, I said as much in my series of posts on democracy last summer. I just throw in that pessimism about it because I fear that the sort of Habermasian communicative rationality I invoke there in tandem with talk of democratic norms people will misread me as thinking, like Habermas, that those principles necessarily mean a proceduralist justification of the inherent justice democracy (a view I certainly don’t hold). Further, I want to make it clear that I think the general liberal norms I do firmly believe in are separable from (and potentially at odds with) existing democratic institutions. I could’ve gone through my spiel about the differences between institutional democracy and democracy as a way of life and made it clear that in this context I was referring to the latter, but for the sake of brevity (something I’m notoriously bad at) I thought it just fine to mention that existing democracies are lacking in those features.

      But I will part ways with you in saying that the pessimism many libertarians have towards democracy is wholly unwarranted. I definitely agree that the type of dogmatic anti-democratic attitude (which they identify with a wholly unwarranted anti-egalitarian one) in many anarcho-capitalist circles (eg., Hoppe) is counter-productive for the reasons you give, especially when they invoke nostalgia for illiberal monarchies and ignore the many strides liberal democracies have made for liberty in non-economic matters.

      But the type of criticisms of institutional analysis-oriented criticisms of working democracy that public choice theorists like Buchanan, Somin, and Caplan do give us grounds for pessimism. More importantly, libertarians are really the only ones offering intellectually defensible criticisms of democracy; in every other ideology, there’s overwhelming worship for democracy rhetorically. Whether it’s radical leftists demanding the “democratization of work,” (which I don’t necessarily completely disagree with I just think democracy isn’t the right term for it), moderate progressives just assuming anything “democratic” is good, populist right-wingers asserting sort of Jacksonian monickers about the “will of the masses” being in embodied in Trump, or moderate liberals rightfully defending “liberal democracy” from the illiberal populist right while not making it clear that the “liberal” part is slightly in tension with the “democracy” part. As I mentioned in the first post of my democracy series, this is why democracy has now morphed into a term, of unambiguous praise, and these days assumptions of the divine right of the majority is almost as ubiquitous as the divine right of Kings was in the age of absolutism.

      Someone needs to call into question the democratic proceduralist ideological assumptions nearly every other major political ideology just assumes to be true, like Jason Brennan has, and express caution about the rhetoric of democracy as a term of unambiguous praise, and I think libertarians are best equipped to do so and should do so. Everyone else is a little too optimistic about the gains democracy as made to the point that they do think there is no better alternative. Without falling for pesimistic bias, somebody needs to be pessimistic about the present so we can be more optimistic about the future.

  4. “Consistent libertarianism is (or at least should be), in fact, not really a political movement at all; it seeks the abolition of politics to begin with.” Could you elaborate on this point? Since the abolition of politics seems as unlikely as the abolition of economics I doubt I’m following your meaning correctly.

    • I can’t speak for Zach, but I’ll try anyways…

      A night-watchman state requires far less political negotiation than a state heavily involved in making decisions about what/how to produce goods and/or how to distribute an economy’s output. For a pop-culture caricature, compare Andy Griffith to House of Cards. In the former, people just go about their lives, letting the emergent institutions of civil society and culture help them along. In the latter everything is up for grabs, power matters, and outcomes are the result of the Machiavellian machinations. (Which is not to say Andy Griffith is a libertarian show… it’s just what came to mind this early in the morning.)

    • Good question. Rick is barking up the right tree, though that’s not all I mean by it and I don’t think the night watchmen state he talks about implies “abolition” of politics so much as “minimization.” There are really four things related, though distinct, things I have in mind with regards to that:
      1) Minimizing the importance of political decisions. This is what I think Rick’s getting at, under minarchism (or anarchism) the result of an election, the edict of a president, or the ruling of a judge (though this last example is less true under polycentric or common law legal systems) is of a lesser consequence than it is than if the state is involved in many aspects of our lives. Now, it’s super important what decision government makes about whether government subsidizes fossil fuels or green energy, so “energy policy” becomes a huge political issue with partisan divides and energy companies spend all their time engaging in rent-seeking; libertarians say that shouldn’t be a political issue to begin with, free decisions of individuals should decide which companies succeed and fail.

      2) Minimizing the influence of electoral politics in our lives. This is the anarchist part coming out, elections aren’t as good a way of improving the world as the others I point out, it’s folly to engage in them. Further, elections turn us into what Jason Brennan calls “Civic Enemies;” if we encourage epistocracy or a smaller government where less people are involved in political decision making and those decisions have a more limited scope, it would be reducing the size of government. Abolition of this form of politics is obviously a direct result of market anarchism.

      3) Minimizing the “nobility” of political pursuits. There’s often–going back to Aristotle–this assumption about the nobility of politics, seeing the political as encouraging a common pursuit of nobility by an entire society. As Judith Shklar says, though, most forms of liberalism will offend those who see politics as noble, what politics is for liberals is simply seeking social practices in which people can peaceably cooperate despite having very differing conceptions what it is to be noble. This doesn’t place politics as the center of human pursuit of the good life, but it places politics at the periphery, allowing individuals to pursue the good privately (be this in a community or individually) while simply being able to provide for their basic needs and get along with others in the public, political sphere. Further, any ideology which seeks to make controlling coercive institutions like government–which is the end goal of most overtly political movements, is going to see this as ignoble.

      Obviously, when it comes to the “abolition” it depends on what you mean by “political.” If by “political” you mean democratic political action in electoral politics, which is what 1) and 2) are about, then those need to be abolished from a market anarchist perspective. If by “political” you mean controlling a monopoly on force, then that needs to be abolished from an anarchist perspective. If by “political” you mean the liberal sense of common public “getting along” despite deep disagreements about what the good life is, that cannot be “abolished” I agree, just like economics can’t be abolished as we’ll always face scarcity, but it can be minimized.

  5. Dunning-Kruger is exactly the right concept to apply to populism… and the seeds of populism planted in 10th grade civics classes in particular.

    Populism per se isn’t the problem, it’s the structure of political power, and the beliefs of the median voter. *If* (and that’s a big if) the populist view was “society needs to be more organic/decentralized” then libertarian populism would be great (maybe). We haven’t lived in a society where that’s been the populist view (as far as I know). When we get there, we won’t need populism.

    Libertarian populism’s time has not come. It’s at least a generation away (probably further). In the mean time, populism will almost certainly be an enemy of liberty for the reasons you outlined.

    I’d add one more: we have a cognitive bias that leads us to the unfounded belief that a) someone is in charge, b) change is the result of decisions by leaders, c) that’s desirable.

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