Rothbard on Libertarian Populism

Libertarian strategy has always been a vexing topic. Presidential election years, filled with statist campaign rhetoric, tend to cause existential pain and a reexamination of the fundamental question before us: What must be done to reduce the size and scope of the state? How can we realistically create a more libertarian society here and now, given the resources available and the range of tactical options? Is our primary task intellectual, with the goal of converting academic, financial, and political elites to our point of view? Or is a bottom-up strategy superior, one that focuses on populist messages and grassroots political activism?

Is our fight intellectual or populist?

Murray Rothbard addressed both of these approaches in a decidedly un-PC essay written in 1992, an election year that presented libertarians with many of the same issues faced today. He discusses the goal of influencing elite thinkers, a process he termed “Hayekian conversion,” and contrasts it with the goal of reaching the masses through populist messaging. Human Action: The Scho... Ludwig von Mises Best Price: $6.75 Buy New $15.36 (as of 05:45 UTC - Details)

Typically for Rothbard, he saw no inherent conflict between seeking popularity for libertarian ideas and sticking to first principles. As for appealing to elites or appealing to the masses, he suggests both. But the real subject of the article is populism, a topic Murray approaches unabashedly: libertarians should openly embrace right wing populism as the quickest means to generate opposition to the state and its lackeys, specifically the “technocrats, ‘social scientists,’ and media intellectuals… who apologize for the State system and staff in the ranks of its bureaucracy.”

Almost 25 years later, Murray’s analysis sounds quite prescient:

Libertarians have often seen the problem plainly, but as strategists for social change they have badly missed the boat. In what we might call “the Hayek model,” they have called for spreading correct ideas, and thereby converting the intellectual elites to liberty, beginning with top philosophers and then slowly trickling on down through the decades to converting journalists and other media opinion-molders. And of course, ideas are the key, and spreading correct doctrine is a necessary part of any libertarian strategy. It might be said that the process takes too long, but a long-range strategy is important, and contrasts to the tragic futility of official conservatism which is interested only in the lesser-of-two-evils for the current election and therefore loses in the medium, let along the long, run. But the real error is not so much the emphasis on the long run, but on ignoring the fundamental fact that the problem is not just intellectual error. The problem is that the intellectual elites benefit from the current system; in a crucial sense, they are part of the ruling class. The process of Hayekian conversion assumes that everyone, or at least all intellectuals, is interested solely in the truth, and that economic self-interest never gets in the way. Anyone at all acquainted with intellectuals or academics should be disabused of this notion, and fast. Any libertarian strategy must recognize that intellectuals and opinion-molders are part of the fundamental problem, not just because of error, but because their own self-interest is tied into the ruling system.

Why then did communism implode? Because in the end the system was working so badly that even the nomenklatura got fed up and threw in the towel. The Marxists have correctly pointed out that a social system collapses when the ruling class becomes demoralized and loses its will to power; manifest failure of the communist system brought about that demoralization. But doing nothing, or relying only on educating the elites in correct ideas, will mean that our own statist system will not end until our entire society, like that of the Soviet Union, has been reduced to rubble. Surely, we must not sit still for that. A strategy for liberty must be far more active and aggressive.

Hence the importance, for libertarians or for minimal government conservatives, of having a one-two punch in their armor: not simply of spreading correct ideas, but also of exposing the corrupt ruling elites and how they benefit from the existing system, more specifically how they are ripping us off. Ripping the mask off elites is “negative campaigning” at its finest and most fundamental.

This two-pronged strategy is (a) to build up a cadre of our own libertarians, minimal-government opinion-molders, based on correct ideas; and (b) to tap the masses directly, to short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites, to rouse the masses of people against the elites that are looting them, and confusing them, and oppressing them, both socially and economically. But this strategy must fuse the abstract and the concrete; it must not simply attack elites in the abstract, but must focus specifically on the existing statist system, on those who right now constitute the ruling classes.

Libertarians have long been puzzled about whom, about which groups, to reach out to. The simple answer: everyone, is not enough, because to be relevant politically, we must concentrate strategically on those groups who are most oppressed and who also have the most social leverage.

Rothbard makes two important points here, both are which are deceptively simple and thus often overlooked:

  • First: elites are not motivated by intellectual ideas, good intentions, or the betterment of society. They are motivated by self-interest, like everyone else. Therefore the question is not whether we can convince elites that libertarian ideas are better, but whether they would be better off in a more libertarian world. For many state-connected elites, the answer is decidedly no. This explains why Hayekian conversion frequently fails. Rothbard understood the immense power of self-interested elites working against the libertarian message. The state and its clients—central bankers, academia, crony corporations, defense contractors, federal workers, politicians, and the whole political class—are aligned against us. But as Rothbard posits, we cannot simply give up on identifying potential allies among those elites. Organizations like the Volker Fund, IHS, and the Mises Institute have had success in winning converts and placing libertarians in academia, and surely we can’t simply cede higher education entirely to progressives. We also should seek alliances with elite libertarians in the business and investment worlds wherever possible, people like Peter Thiel and Mark Spitznagel.
  • Second: any successful libertarian strategy must contain a healthy dose of populism. Austrian economics and libertarian theory often don’t lend themselves to easy sound bites and simplistic memes. But intellectual arguments alone won’t carry the day. Effective populist messages contain an implicit answer to the question of “What’s in it for me” that satisfies the average Joe or Jane. It’s easy for Bernie Sanders simply to say, “I want to make college free so that all young people have an equal chance at success.” It’s not so easy to hand someone 900 pages of Human Action and say, “Read this, you’ll understand” (but try it anyway).

Many Americans are too busy keeping their head above water and raising families to spend any free time reading economics or libertarian theory. At most, the average person might pay some slight attention to the campaign season and vote in the majority of elections. Therefore a winning populist message must be easy to understand, easy to sell, and obviously beneficial to middle class and working class constituencies. A populist message by definition is not one that requires a great deal of work to find or adopt.

Case in point: Ron Paul managed to enlist thousands of new libertarians during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns by successfully applying two populist messages: “End the Fed” and “Get out of the Middle East.” Both messages appealed across ideological lines, and both messages captured the prevailing mood of the country.

After the Crash of ’08, many Americans increasingly were wary of Wall Street and its cozy connections with both the Fed and the Treasury Department. Wall Street got bailed out, Main Street did not. The public’s understanding of what the Fed does and how exactly it creates an elite banking class may have been fuzzy, but so what? The Fed is a great example of an issue where the average person’s reflexive viewpoint just so happens to be correct and libertarian at the same time. Ron Paul was able to tap into visceral anti-Fed sentiment in the same way that progressives do on a host of other issues.Dr. Paul similarly exploited weariness with our Middle East entanglements by using another simple and appealing populist message: get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, he correctly sensed that the interventionist sentiment following the events of 9/11 had passed. By 2008, and certainly by 2012, a majority of Americans had come to the conclusion– however vague– that these two lengthy wars were producing nothing except casualties, debt, and blowback. So Paul’s principled antiwar position dovetailed with the national mood, even if most people might not have articulated a libertarian rationale for that mood.

Libertarian populism, like any form of populism, can be a double-edged sword. Support for any candidate or message that is not based on some degree of thought and deliberation can turn on a dime. But note that many of those initially drawn to Dr. Paul’s campaigns by its populist themes went on to read books he had recommended, becoming more fully liberty-minded as a result. And as Rothbard points out, libertarians ignore populism at our own peril. Just as every left wing populist has not read Marx or Howard Zinn, we should not apply intellectual litmus tests to potential libertarian converts. When it comes to libertarian populism, reflexive antipathy for the state—and an instinctive recognition of its malevolence—can be enough.