The populist right in India, and the US

All eyes in India have understandably been on some important political developments over the past few days.

First, the by-election results of 3 parliamentary seats and 2 legislative seats were made more interesting by fact that BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, and India’s largest) had to face a surprising rout in the strongholds (Gorakhpur, Phulpur) of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister (Yogi Adityanath) and Deputy Chief Minister (Keshav Prasad Maurya).

Second, there has been talk of other regional parties joining hands and forming an Anti-Congress Front. Two days after the election results, the exit of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its decision to pass a no confidence motion (which BJP is likely to win) has certainly made the fight for 2019 more interesting.

While it remains to be seen whether the opposition parties in 2019 can give the BJP a run for its money, those interested in US politics will have closely followed the result of a Congressional by-election (18th District) where Democrat candidate Connor Lamb (a 33 year old Marine) defeated Republican Candidate Rick Saccone in a close contest. This is a significant win after the triumph of Senator Douglas Jones in Alabama. Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate Seat in Alabama (a Republican stronghold referred to as “Ruby Red”) since 1997.

The US President, who is quick to comment on virtually every issue, on Twitter, remained silent on the result of the 18th District.

The US President did state, at a private fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley, that the Democrat candidate’s stance on key economic issues was akin to that of Trump:

The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis, Trump said. He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican?’ He sounds like a Republican to me.

Lamb conservative on social and economic issues?

Trump’s views were echoed by a number of other Republicans. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Lamb a “pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.”

While Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York said that he doesn’t “think you’ll see another candidate like Lamb,” another representative from the state of Pennsylvania, Mike Kelly, argued that Lamb was “more like a Republican.”

There is some truth in the President’s assertions, because Lamb did support the President’s imposition of tariffs on aluminium and steel imports. Said Lamb: “we have to take some action to level the playing field.” Even on issues like gun control and abortion, his views were to the right of conventional Democrats, though not absolutely in sync with the Republicans.

Why Trump can not ignore this defeat

Irrespective of what US President Donald Trump may say, the fact is that he had won the state by 20 points in the US Presidential election of 2016, and his economic agenda had found strong resonance. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had also campaigned for Saccone.

Significantly, in the last two Congressional elections, Democrats had not even bothered to field candidates in PA 18.

The announcement to impose tariffs on aluminium and steel had been made one week before the election, clearly with an eye on reaching out to large sections of ‘blue collar workers’. The US President calculated that he would be able to regain his popularity, but the results clearly show that Trump’s ‘ultra nationalism’ and economically inward looking policies by themselves will not suffice. He will also need to change his style of functioning and not continuously sack individuals.

Republican Speaker Paul Ryan himself had dubbed this verdict as a ‘wake up call’. Other Republicans have been forthright in their analysis of the defeat and blame Trump’s approval ratings for the same.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said:

There is a very real problem facing Republicans in the months ahead and that problem is Donald Trump’s approval rating.

What does Lamb’s win mean for the Democrats

Lamb’s victory may also result in some changes within the Democrats. Lamb has been pitching for a change in leadership and does not get along particularly well with Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives:

I have said, and I continue to say, that I think we need new leadership at the top of both parties in the House.

Pelosi however was quick to deny that Lamb’s criticism of her had anything to do with the outcome:

I don’t think that that really had that much impact on the race […] He won. If we hadn’t won, you might have a question, but we won — the ‘D’ next to his name was very significant.

The electoral verdicts in India and US have one common message: ‘economic insularity’,  and the whipping up of ultra-nationalist emotions can not make up for vacuous policies.

There are messages for the opposition in both the US and India; in spite of right wing nationalism having failed to address substantive issues, the voter is looking for new options — leaders with imaginative ideas outside of the cozy club .

If one were to specifically look at India, the fence sitters may not be particularly happy with the existing order, but does that imply that they will automatically tilt towards the opposition? The politics of doles and sops will not work. A progressive social agenda, which is in sync with the diverse ethos of this country, has to be complemented by a pro-reform economic agenda (which is of course inclusive, and sensitive to the concerns of the poorest).


What is clear however is that Trump’s re-election in 2020 and Modi’s in 2019, are not a done deal. One would have to say though, that in spite of the recent UP verdict, there is a higher probability of Modi being re-elected than Trump.

It remains to be seen whether the current populist right narrative, which is a lethal cocktail of inward looking economic thinking and conservative social policies, can be countered effectively, and defeated at the hustings, by a progressive, forward looking agenda. Will India and the US take the lead in challenging this narrative?



  1. Europe’s new counter-revolution Jan Zielonka, OUPblog
  2. Neutrality Loathsome Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. German Digitalisierung versus American innovation Andreas Kluth, Handelsblatt
  4. Land Value Tax: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Philip Bess, American Affairs

2017: Year in Review

Well folks, another year has come and gone. 2017 was Notes On Liberty‘s busiest year yet. Traffic came from all over the place, with the most visits coming from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and India. (In the past, India and Germany have vied for that coveted 5th place spot, but this year India blew Germany out of the water.)

NOL is a voluntary cooperative, and as such this year saw the introduction of 6 new Notewriters: Kevin Kallmes, Nicolás Cachanosky, Ash Navabi, Tridivesh Maini, Matthew Bonick and Trent MacDonald.

Michelangelo invited Kevin to join, Nicolás is an old grad school buddy of Rick‘s, I reached out to Tridivesh, and Ash and Matthew were invited on Vincent‘s initiative.

Speaking of Vincent, 2017 was his year. He had Tyler Cowen (MarginalRevolution), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy), Barry Ritholtz (Bloomberg), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), John Tamny (RealClearMarkets) and Pseudoerasmus (a well-regarded economic historian) all link to his thoughts multiple times over the course of the year. His Top 10 list for best papers/books in recent economic history (Part 1 and Part 2) were legitimate viral sensations, dominating the top 2 spots on NOL‘s most-read list. Other huge posts included “Did the 30 Glorious Years Actually Exist? (#5),” “The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health (#9),” “James Buchanan on racism,” “The GDP, real wages and working hours of France since the 13th century,” “Did 89% of American Millionaires Disappear During the Great Depression?,” and “A hidden cost of the war on drugs.” My personal favorite was his “Star Trek Did More For the Cultural Advancement of Women Than Government Policies.” Dr Geloso’s thoughts made up 40% of NOL‘s 10 most-read 2017 posts.

My favorite posts from Edwin this year were his analyses of Dutch politics – “Dutch politics, after the elections” and “North Korea at the North Sea?” – but the reading public seemed to enjoy his posts on Ayn Rand, especially her thought on international relations, and his summary of Mont Pelerin Europe more than anything else. Van de Haar’s day job is in the private sector, so his blogging is understandably light (especially given his incredible publishing output in academic journals). I look forward to what looms ahead in 2018.

Federico’s most recent post on artificial intelligence and the law got love from some major outlets, including FT‘s Alphaville blog and 3 Quarks Daily. His question “Does business success make a good statesmen?” and his report on a Latin American Liberty summit are worth reading again, but my personal favorites were his comments on other Notewriters’ thoughts: first jumping in to add some historical clarity to Bruno’s post on Latin American conservatism and then to add layers onto the debate between Mark and Bruno on the Protestant Reformation. Federico has been invaluable to NOL‘s welcoming, skeptical culture and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with in 2018.

Barry was generous enough recount the situation in Turkey after the coup earlier in the year, and fruits of this endeavor – Coup and Counter Coup in Turkey – can be found in six parts:

  1. First of a series of posts on Turkey since 15th July 2016 and background topics
  2. Immediately after the coup and party politics
  3. Gülenists and Kemalists
  4. The Kurdish issue in Turkey
  5. Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey
  6. Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey

Dr Stocker also began writing an appendix to his six-part series, which resulted in a first post on authoritarianism and electoral fixes. Barry is hard at work on a new book, and of course the situation in Turkey is less than ideal, so I can only hope he has a bit more time in 2018 for NOL.

Michelangelo had a banner year at NOL. His #microblogging has been fun, as were his post analyzing relevant data from his surveys: What libertarians think of climate change, for example, or urban planning in Oregon. Michelangelo also utilized NOL to play around with concepts like race, marriage markets, data, Spanish language services, affirmative action, and freeware, to name a few. My absolute favorite Michelangelo post this year was his excellent “Should we tax churches? A Georgist proposal.” Michelangelo is a PhD candidate right now, too, so if he ever gets some time to himself, watch out world!

Rick also had a banner year at NOL. His post arguing against Net Neutrality was one of the most-read articles of the year here (#4), and many of his wonkier thoughts have been picked up by the sharp eye of Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy) and the excellent Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling). Rick is my favorite blogger. Posts on cycling in Amsterdam, subsidies, management and measurement, linguisticsmore subsidies, and my personal favorite of his for the year, “Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared,” always make me think and, more importantly, smile.

Bruno’s blogging was also amply rewarded this year. His thoughts on some of the problems with postmodernism brought in the most eyeballs, but thankfully he didn’t stop there: Articles introducing postmodernism and highlighting the origins of postmodernism also generated much interest. RealClearWorld picked up his post analyzing Brazil post-Rousseff (he had more analysis of Brazilian politics here and here), and his post delving into whether Nazism is of the left or the right provoked quite the dialogue. Dr Rosi was at his best, though, when prompted by Mark to further advance his argument that the Protestant Revolution played an integral role in the rise of the freedom of conscience. Times are tough in Brazil right now, so I can only hope that Bruno continues to play a vital role as a Notewriter in 2018.

Chhay Lin, now in the private sector, had his post about Bruce Lee’s application of Taoist philosophy head to the top of reddit’s philosophy sub, and his post on Catalonia and secession got love from RealClearWorld and Lew Rockwell (Political Theater). I hate to be *that* guy distracting a man from making his money, but I hope to see Chhay Lin pop in at NOL much more often in 2018!

Zak has been busy with a number of different projects, as well as attending Michigan-Ann Arbor full-time. He still managed to have one of his posts, on “libertarian” activist hypocrisy (#10), highlighted in the Guardian, the UK’s premier left-wing mouthpiece. His post on The Nancy MacLean Disgrace earned him plaudits from the online libertarian community and Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), and his posts on open borders and income inequality show just how much of a bad ass he has become. I had a tough time trying to pick out my favorite Zak article of 2017, so I’m just gonna highlight all three of them:

  1. Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process
  2. Why I’m No Longer A Christian…
  3. Against Libertarian Populism

They’ve all got great self-explanatory titles, so do yourself a favor and read ’em again! Hopefully Zak can continue to work NOL in to his many successful ventures in 2018.

Jacques continues to amaze me. He’s been retired from academia for – as far as I can tell – at least a decade and he’s still producing great material that’s able to reach all sorts of people and places. His post on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism (#6), which was featured at RealClearWorld and much-shared in Ottomanist corners of Twitter – took aim at popular American libertarian understandings of decentralization and seems to have landed pretty squarely on target. My favorite post of Dr Delacroix’ this year was about French Africa (also featured at RealClearWorld), but his late-year book review on Christopher De Bellaigue’s 2017 book about Islam might end up being a classic.

Bill’s 2017 here at NOL was productive and he continues to impress. His “Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal” brought in thousands of readers, but it was not his ability to draw crowds that I found impressive. His ability to tackle tough concepts and tough issues came to the forefront this year: drug use, “vulvæ,” more drug use, party culture (my personal fave), schooling (another personal fave), more schooling, and music (personal fave). Bill’s ability to weave these trends together through the lens of individual freedom is so much fun to read and important for fostering a culture of tolerance and respect in today’s world. I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for him!

Nicolás came out firing on all cylinders this year. With excellent dialogues between himself and Vincent, as well as between himself and guest blogger Derrill Watson (who I hope will be back for more in 2018), Dr Cachanosky’s passion for teaching has shown through clearly and brightly. I hope 2018 – his first full year with NOL – is filled with much more hard-hitting but insightful blogging from Nicolás.

Ash brought the heat, too. Check out the subject matter of his first few posts here at NOL: “A Right is Not an Obligation,” “Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods,” “The Economics of Hard Choices,” “Markets for Secrets?,” “A Tax is Not a Price,” and “A Radical Take on Science and Religion.” Like Nicolás, Ash’s first full year at NOL is coming up, and if 2017 is any indication, readers can look forward to an interesting and engaging 2018.

Mark’s first full year here at NOL was a definite barnburner. His debate with Bruno on the Protestant Reformation (#8) brought in a bunch of eyeballs, including from RealClearHistory, while his “The Return of Cyclical Theories of History” also brought in thousands of readers, thanks in large part to Robert Cottrell’s excellent website, the Browser. Dr Koyama’s review of Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past also caught Mr Cottrell’s eye and the attention of his readers. Mark’s post on geopolitics and Asia’s “little divergence” is well worth reading again, too. Like Zak and Bill’s posts, I couldn’t choose just one favorite, so I give you two:

  1. Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe
  2. Some Thoughts on State Capacity” (an especially good criticism of American libertarian understandings of the “state capacity” literature)

We’re lucky to have Mark here at NOL.

Kevin, like Ash and Nicolás, brought the ruckus for his first few posts here at NOL. Kevin’s very first post at Notes On Liberty – “Rules of Warfare in Pre-Modern Societies” (#3) – ended up on the front page of RealClearHistory while his “Paradoxical geniuses…” earned a spot on the Browser‘s prestigious reading list. Not a bad start. Kevin will be finishing up the second half of his first year of law school (at Duke), so I doubt we’ll see much of him until June or July of 2018. My personal favorite, by the way, was Kevin’s “Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command.” His posts on taking over Syria – Roman style, the median voter theorem, and inventions that didn’t change the world also got lots of love from around the web.

Nick’s post on public choice and Nancy MacLean (#7) earned a nod from Arnold Kling (askblog), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), and pretty much the entire online libertarian community, while his post analyzing the UK’s snap election earned a spot at RealClearWorld. Dr Cowen’s thoughts on school choice and robust political economy, as well as a sociological analysis of Trump/Brexit prompted by Vincent, all garnered love from libertarians and scholars around the world. My favorite Cowen post was his question “Is persecution the purpose?

Overall, it was a hell of a year here at Notes On Liberty. I’m really looking forward to 2018. Here’s to a happy, healthy you. Oh, and my proudest piece this year was “North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world.” HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Towards a genuinely Inclusive, Liberal, and Open Global Agenda

The recent past has been witness to the increasing rise of ‘economic-nationalism’, anti-immigration policies, and increasing xenophobia. Countries which in the past have welcomed immigrants, and have been protagonists of Free Trade and open borders, while immensely benefiting from the same, are becoming more and more insular. While this point got strongly reiterated by the election of Donald Trump. Apart from the US and UK, many of the EU member states and Australia are also becoming more and more inward looking.

Germany and Canada have tried to develop an alternative narrative while being open to immigrants, and opening their doors to refugees. Justin Trudeau in Canada, like Angela Merkel, deserves immense credit for exhibiting courage and conviction and not capitulating before populist and ultra nationalist sentiments.

Both Trudeau and Merkel have opened their doors to refugees, with Trudeau opening his country’s doors to nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees. After the US imposed a ban on immigrants from certain Muslim countries, he tweeted:

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, in spite of scathing criticism for her decision to admit over 1 Million refugees, since 2015, from Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, has stuck to her guns. In an interview, the German Chancellor stated:

“It was an extraordinary situation and I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint.”

The rise of the extreme right AfD, which emerged as the third largest political outfit, and which Merkel managed to beat by a lesser margin than usual, has been attributed to Merkel’s open door policy.

Along with Macron and Trudeau, one more leader who is trying to offer an alternative narrative is the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has started a campaign, ‘London is Open’. Said Khan in his message:

…Many people from all over the globe live and work here, contributing to every aspect of life in our city. We now need to make sure that people across London, and the globe, hear that #LondonIsOpen… 

Not restricted to any ideology or country

It would be pertinent to point out that while the rise of right-wing leaders like Trump and AFD in Germany is cited as one of the reasons for this growing insularity, even left leaning leaders have been equally inward looking, when it comes to economic and trade policies. One thing which was common between Trump and Bernie Sanders was their economic policies, which found resonance with the working class.

Not just Trump

While Trump has emerged as the mascot of ‘insularity’ and economic nationalism, it must be pointed out that not just the US, but other countries which have benefited from immigration, to have tended to look inwards on important issues.

Australia, which has opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership TPP and has repeatedly spoken in favour of an ‘open’ Indo-Pacific, has brought in some tough laws to oppose immigration. This includes the abolition of the 457 Visa (for skilled migrants), replacing it with a new visa program which is far more stringent, and will make it tougher for workers from other countries.

Commenting on the abolition of the Visa, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated:

“The migration program should only operate in our national interest. This is all about Australia’s interest.”

The second point to bear in mind is that some countries have spoken vociferously in favour of trade agreements, and open borders, but have played it safe on important human rights issues and immigration. This includes not just Syrian refugees, but more recently the Rohingya Issue. If one were to take the case of ASEAN for instance, a number of member states including the Chair for 2018, Singapore, have argued in favour of economic openness, and were critical of the US approach towards TPP. Yet, they have been cautious on the Rohingya Issue, not wanting to rub Aung San Suu Kyi the wrong way.


In conclusion, there can  not be a selective approach, countries which seek to benefit from globalization, need to be open to immigrants and at times shoulder onerous responsibilities. After all, it is not just immigrants who benefit economically, but countries which they have migrated too also benefit from their skills and productivity.

Secondly, an enlightened, liberal agenda cannot just be restricted to economic issues, important human rights issues, can not be obliterated and must get the attention they deserve.

Third, it is pointless, to blame any one country or ideology for insularity, everyone shares collective responsibility for the same.

Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Right Wing Populism, and Democracy

An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.

I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.

Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions

In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:

And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.

In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:

Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.

Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.

Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.

Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.

That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.

The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”

Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.

Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.

By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.

In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.

To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.

Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.

Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms

In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.

I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.

Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.

In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.

What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.

An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies

To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:

During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.

The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.

How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals

Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:

Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.

Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.

You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.

I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.

Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.