Rothbard and the Libertarian Populists

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Recent weeks have seen much speculation by pundits about the nature of “libertarian populism.” For those who regard all of libertarianism as an ideological whitewash for plutocracy, libertarian populism is clearly a matter of pulling the wool over the eyes of the common man. To those on the other side of the debate, who are no less chronically obsessed with electoral politics, libertarian populism is the GOP’s pathway back to relevance and viability. Here, however, I would like to offer a compendious introduction to a libertarian populism very different from both of these variants, and one informed instead by the insights of Austrian School libertarians such as Murray Rothbard.

The pivot point of libertarian populism is its hostility toward the cronyism that presently characterizes the political economy of the United States. Relationships between powerful elites in government and industry have, libertarian populists argue, cemented into an immovable and perennial force that creates privilege for the few at the expense of the many — hence, libertarian populism. This populism addresses itself to everything from lobbyists to bailouts and to the Federal Reserve System. In point of fact, the “End the Fed” movement, the germ of which was Ron Paul’s stout emphasis on the issue, was arguably among the prime movers and mainsprings of the particular moment of libertarian populism that we’re witnessing right now. Those influenced by the Austrian School and Rothbardian libertarians, contrary to the empty jeremiads of our critics, have always called attention to the often-incestuous relationships between all things big, irrespective of whether they are found in the “public” or the “private” sector. We have been on the forefront of demonstrating the causal link that connects misallocation to corporate welfare in all of its myriad embodiments that show why government intervention in the economic sphere is profoundly harmful, particularly for ordinary working people. The seeming fixation on the Federal Reserve then, is not a randomly chosen fetish of libertarians, but a recognition of the sweeping, harmful implications of Fed policy. Were more Americans to understand the Fed’s role in, for instance, American wars and economic instability, they might see that real libertarian populism is anything but a calculated political rebranding. Rather, libertarian populism simply is genuine, radical libertarianism, the kind that takes the state for what it is — a small criminal class that has successfully institutionalized economic spoliation.

Indeed the principled radical defense of liberty, property, and free markets has always been populist as a matter of course. The very emergence of such a defense represented, in its infancy, an outright attack on entrenched mercantile interests during a time when the mere suggestion of the separation of economy and state was regarded as bare apostasy. As Jeff Riggenbach showed in his introduction to revisionism, establishing the true divide as between authoritarianism and libertarianism, the latter logically belongs on the Left — as the successor to classical liberalism. Rothbard placed this liberal tradition in square opposition to conservatism, to “the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the old order.” Libertarian populism’s cynical naysayers, those who scoff at the idea of a libertarian concern for middle and working class Americans, may be surprised to learn that Rothbard talked about hierarchy and class exploitation in such a way; they shouldn’t be. And given such historical antagonism toward conservatism, the stale stereotype of the libertarian as nothing more than a “pot-smoking Republican” ought to be utterly insulting to actual libertarians. That this kind of caricature can be traced largely to the abortive (in the author’s view) project of Fusionism might tell us something about the relative merits of that conceptual undertaking. The Republican Party is and always has been the party of elite government courtiers, the inheritor of the Whig legacy, the party of centralized federal dominance, and of special favors and subsidies to influential business interests. All of this is of course the opposite of what libertarians have advocated.

Quite contrary to the economically nescient disinformation so often spouted about libertarians, we don’t want unbridled free markets because we want to see a handful of powerful companies lord over American commerce. Instead, our opposition to regulations, licenses and other legal barriers to market entry stems in large part from a cultivated understanding that these interventions don’t actually protect consumers or working people. Only full, open competition can yield the kinds of desirable consumer protections that are so frequently and wrongly attributed to the mechanisms of big government. It is ironic that the loudest crusaders for a larger, more active federal government are often those who never tire of pointing out that Washington is bought and paid for by connected corporations. Their reasoning would make them libertarians but for the shackles that public schooling and the works of court intellectuals have placed upon critical thinking, while teaching reverence for the state.

For decades radical libertarians of the Rothbardian strain have shown that at all times, throughout American history, big business has desired and fought for a big state. They have even gone as far as showing that the U.S. Constitution itself represents at least a partial victory for the forces of centralization, statism, and mercantilism. To paraphrase Lysander Spooner, even if the Constitution, by itself, cannot be called to account for the present state of affairs, for the mammoth American state and its crises, it has certainly proved impotent to forestall this series of developments. As the French liberal and disciple of J. B. Say, Charles Dunoyer, wrote, a truly liberal society “demands the abolition of all privilege, of all monopoly, of all evil and violent restriction.” And what could be more populist — more congruous with a genuinely “power to the people” mindset — than to devolve economic power to a system of free and voluntary exchange as opposed to arbitrary decisions by elites in government? Libertarian populism is onto something, a fact that both its champions and detractors have perceived. But the genuine article isn’t and can’t be a political movement; on the contrary, the purest libertarian populism is bound to show itself as an enemy of politics and an uncompromising foe of the state.

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