Commentary Magazine


Libertarian Populism’s Emerging Agenda

In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

I’ve written about this before, in comparing the Gary Johnson model of political influence with the Rand Paul model. Johnson, a libertarian, could not convince enough Republicans of the righteousness of his candidacy, and simply bolted the party to run for president as a Libertarian instead of doing something that would have required some measure of cooperation with the GOP but would also have done a great deal to advance libertarianism: run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico.

Rand Paul revealed the folly of the Gary Johnson model, where the candidate blames the voters for his own limitations. Paul ran for Senate, won, and now is considered a plausible first-tier candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Libertarian populism’s emergence is partially indebted to Paul’s success as a Republican, because that is where libertarians (and Libertarians) can find enough sympathetic voters to advance their agenda. In that sense, Domenech is on to something with his Fusionism, though I have two concerns about the ingredients of the mix, and they apply to the other two lessons on my list.

The next lesson has to do with social conservatism. The two highest profile social issues are gay marriage and abortion. Self-described libertarians will simply never sign on to outlawing gay marriage. (That leaves open the question of whether there is a sensible get-the-government-out-of-marriage-altogether compromise, which I think there is.) On the other issue, what is the libertarian position on abortion? Conveniently enough, Reason magazine editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie in 2011 took that as their “ask a libertarian” question of the day and gave a brief video response. They both agreed that, technically, there is no such thing as a “libertarian position on abortion” since there is no litmus test for admission to libertarianism. Well, OK–but how do Welch and Gillespie feel about it? From their answer, it’s clear they think abortion should be at least as legal as it is now.

So what happens when, in Domenech’s formulation, the reliable social conservatives are also the most reliable economic conservatives? In the Reason video, Welch says that about 30 percent or so of self-described libertarians are also pro-life. If he’s right, then 70 percent of them aren’t, and that has to be reconciled. If at least 70 percent of libertarians support abortion and gay marriage, how does libertarian populism survive the contradiction?

More broadly, I ask this question because the two most recognizable libertarians in the U.S. Congress right now are Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash–both of whom are staunchly pro-life. Amash told Reason in an interview that abortion violates the unborn child’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, and he seemed to suggest abortion should be legal until no later than three days after conception. I should note that I don’t think this should be a contradiction, it just seems like it is. Amash and Paul are correct: the unborn child is the same human person before and after what we consider “viability,” and they therefore have rights. I’m always baffled by a “libertarian” argument that assigns full human rights only to some people and not others.

The third lesson is that libertarians have been somewhat vague on foreign policy, and there doesn’t currently seem to be a libertarian populist foreign policy. This is to be expected, because the internationalist foreign policy has been dominant in the GOP and conservative movement for some time now, so it makes some sense that libertarians would define their foreign policy prescriptions by what they are against, instead of what they are for. But that question will have to be answered, and we once again return to Paul and Amash.

For an example of the intra-libertarian confusion on this, we can turn to a column in the Daily Caller by John Glaser, headlined “Nonintervention must be part of a ‘libertarian populist’ agenda.” Glaser sings the praises of Justin Amash on bringing the GOP back to where he thinks it belongs on foreign policy. But what does “nonintervention” mean to Glaser? Something very different from what it means to Amash. Glaser says the “bipartisan establishment is already leading America into waging dangerous economic warfare on Iran.” But as I’ve pointed out before, Amash supports that “economic warfare.” He supports sanctions on Iran and has even counseled keeping military action on the table. In Glaser’s definition, Justin Amash is no libertarian populist; he’s a dangerous member of the dreaded bipartisan establishment! Good luck forming a winning electoral coalition on those principles.

I don’t mean to suggest that Glaser speaks for other libertarian populists–I imagine he doesn’t. But back in the Jesse Walker post I linked to, Walker says he interprets libertarian populists as proposing “a new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties.” But “anti-imperial” is an exaggerated response to a straw man. He says nothing else about foreign affairs in that post.

Again, all this seems to be in the formational process, and nobody claims to have all the answers. Additionally, this is a moment when libertarians should be heeded on a host of issues, since their warnings about, say, over-regulation were prescient and their fidelity to constitutional principles is both admirable and necessary. But the prevailing conservative mainstream is pro-life and tends to support an internationalist posture to protect global free trade and America’s traditional postwar role in the world. If libertarians want to provide an alternative to that, it will be a valuable discussion to have; but it will be equally fascinating to discover if and how the current elected libertarians will even have a place in that movement.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.