Friday, August 23, 2013

It's Not Just Libertarian! It's Populist! The Latest Republican Attempt at Self-Reinvention

Ross Douthat, one of  The New York Times's two conservative columnists, has another column about "reform conservatism," the struggle of the Republican party to define itself as being for something, at least something that people will vote for. The latest is about one of the next big things, "libertarian populism." 

The basic idea seems to be to adapt the conventional libertarianism exemplified by Ron Paul, giving it more of an anti-insider edge. As libertarians, they can't be against Big Business per se: what would they suggest, regulation? Government intervention to break it up? So they talk about the evils of government collusion with Big Business: special legislation favoring particular industries or firms, by protecting them from competition or outright subsidizing them. 

Douthat links to an exponent of another variety of reform conservatism, there termed "lower-middle [class] conservatism." The author is excited to read an article about libertarian populism:

Here’s the outline, in bullet points:

  •        Tough anti-Wall Street reform.
  •      “Cut or eliminate the payroll tax.”
  •      “End corporate welfare.”
  •      “Cleaner tax code.”
  •       Less corporatist health care reform.
  •      “Kill anticompetitive regulations.”
  •      “Address political privilege.
When I read Tim Carney’s great column, my first thought was: “This is actually 100% compatible with lower-middle conservatism!”
Well, perhaps you see the problem. This is also 100% compatible with liberalism.  Say you'll stop trying to cut food stamps, and I bet any liberal would support a platform like this. This leaves one wondering: So what is the difference, exactly?

It turns out that in several areas there's less here than meets the eye. By "corporatist" health care the author apparently means employer-provided health care: "Health insurers have been protected from competitive forces by the employer-based system .... End the policies that protect the employer-based system, and you begin to introduce competitive forces into the industry." 

I have no idea what he's talking about here. How is the employer-based system protecting insurers from competition? And if you get rid of the employer-based system without adding a purchase mandate, you'll have every American buying individual insurance, or rather not buying, because no one will be able to afford it. Competition is not going to save the day there. Somehow, "Get rid of employer-provided health insurance, and replace it with you're on your own" doesn't strike me as populist political gold. Oh, and by the way, he also wants to means-test Medicare.

But the most problematic part of the proposal is in the section titled "Address political privilege." That turns out to be about ending the "revolving door" between, for example, Congress and lobbyists. OK, fine.... but is that it?

Surely at some point someone will wonder, How does all this collusion between government and Big Business happen? Are businesses innocent virgins ravished by the evil State? Of course not. Everyone knows how a business becomes influential on Capitol Hill-- its executives make political contributions to politicians.

This is the fundamental contradiction, not just in populist libertarianism, but in all libertarianism. You're never going to make much progress on ending collusion between business and government until you get rid of the influence of money on Capitol Hill. That requires either public financing or sharp limits on political contributions. Both of those violate core libertarian principles.

Populist libertarians may be able to gloss over this contradiction for a while, if no one examines their ideas too closely. But faced with a challenge from a real populist, who really wants to get rid of special privileges for business, I think they're in trouble.

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