TGIF: Beware Elitists in Populist Clothing

by | Dec 22, 2023

TGIF: Beware Elitists in Populist Clothing

by | Dec 22, 2023

woolworth

We’re led to believe that today’s political struggles are largely a contest between populists and elitists. But something besides libertarians is missing from that simple tale: the elitists in populist clothing, or elitist populists. We have no better example than a conversation the other day between the leading “right” populist Tucker Carlson and the leading “left” populist Glenn Greenwald. (The quotation marks are to indicate that these tribal labels are seriously problematic.)

To their credit, Carlson and Greenwald consistently defend a noninterventionist foreign policy and free speech. However, advocates of full individual liberty should take care because these pundits voice positions that seriously trash individual liberty. See their views on the free movement of people and goods across national boundaries. Voluntary exchange is not a priority for Carlson and Greenwald.

Even knowing this, I was unprepared for what they would say. Carlson offered this (at 28;10):

I think a lot of people have awakened to the now-demonstrable fact that libertarian economics was a scam perpetrated by the beneficiaries of the economic system that they were defending. So they created this whole intellectual framework to justify the private-equity culture that’s hollowed out the country…. I think you need to ask, Does this economic system produce a lot of Dollar Stores? And if it does, it’s not a system that you want because it degrades people and it makes their lives worse and it increases exponentially the amount of ugliness in your society. And anything that increases ugliness is evil. Let’s just start there. So if it’s such a good system, why do we have all these Dollar Stores?… If you have a Dollar Store, you’re degraded. And any town that has a Dollar Store does not get better. It gets worse. And the people who live there lead lives that are worse. The counterargument, to the extent there is one, oh they buy cheaper stuff. Great. But they become more unhappy…. [The Dollar Store] is also a metaphor for your total lack of control over where you live and over the imposition of aggressively in-you-face ugly structures that send one message to you: which is you mean nothing; you are a consumer, not a human being or a citizen.”

There you have it. The market is an exploitative scam, and the Dollar Store, which many of us regard as a godsend, is an ugly, degrading, and dehumanizing snare. Who knew?

Where to start? Libertarian — in other words, consistent free-market — economics is a self-serving scam? Really? Got proof? Were Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Kirzner, Sowell, Williams, Buchanan, Rothbard, etc. actually members of a cabal that was getting rich at our expense? Is Carlson having a laugh?

He would have been on firmer ground if had said that libertarian economics is used as a cover for elitist government interventions. But libertarians have said this roughly forever.

“So they created this whole intellectual framework to justify the private-equity culture that’s hollowed out the country.” This is pretentious rubbish. We must always distinguish market institutions in themselves from the distorted monstrosities created by social engineers through government control. The market for private equity — otherwise known as private property in the means of production — is not the problem. It’s indispensable for raising the living standards of eight billion people. The problem is privilege: goodies and influence bestowed by the state. How could Carlson not know that?

Now we get to that alleged symbol of ugly American modernity and degradation: the Dollar Store. This is too silly to require an answer. He doesn’t the stores are just physically unsightly. Actually, they’re not. He means that the very idea is ugly and destructive of good things. Has he asked people who shop there? Do they see it as symbolic of a lack of control? He would have had a point had he lamented that such stores are valued because the government central bank sucks the purchasing power out of the dollar by printing money. Or he might have noted that without the Federal Reserve, more stuff would cost only a dollar. (HT: Bob Murphy.)

Lest you think that Carlson’s complaint is about 21st century America, understand that the first “five and dime” store — officially, F.W. “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” — opened in Utica, New York, in 1879. Children of the 1950s like me fondly remember the Woolworth as a cheerful fixture on the avenue. I don’t recall being treated as a “mere consumer,” whatever that means. (The Woolworth lunch counter in the Jim Crow South was a different story, but that’s not what Carlson has in mind.) Woolworth soon had competitors, such as W.T. Grant.

Carlson’s elitism is undisguised when he expresses his disdain for the Dollar Store and the people who welcome them. I’m quite sure he and his fellow millionaires don’t shop there.

If you expected some pushback from Greenwald, you would have been disappointed. He laughingly recalled how he got into trouble for suggesting that Carlson and Donald Trump’s one-time gray eminence Steve Bannon “are a lot more socialist in a certain limited sense than a lot of people who claim that title.” He’s right. That’s because, he added, “you [Carlson] are focused so much on the welfare of ordinary people.” I’m not seeing much focus on ordinary people.

As to Carlson’s point about ugliness, Greenwald elaborated:

You go to anywhere in the world. You go to Western Europe and you see these structures that people spent 200 years building just for the sheer beauty of it and you go into nature and you see beauty like it never exists. And you go to developing countries and you see a kind of dedication to buildings even that are designed to be inspiring to stimulate things in the human soul. And then you go to places in the United States where our infrastructure is falling apart, where our new structures are designed to be as ugly as possible. And it’s a very difficult thing to do to communicate the spiritual components of our politics.

Has it occurred to Greenwald that those beautiful old European structures were built by ordinary people for the government-privileged aristocracy? (HT: David Henderson) Greenwald apparently sees no beauty in the fact that the market-oriented West (despite abundant government intervention for its cronies) brought the first mass production for ordinary people in history. The upper classes of the not-too-distant past would envy the middle and lower classes over what they consume every day. You might expect that to thrill a populist — but not these delusional champions of ordinary people.

Finally, Greenwald writes that “ultimately politics does have no purpose other than to elevate the happiness of our citizenry.” But he doesn’t lift a finger to defend this position, which is fraught with difficulties not least because of human differences and the universal need for individual freedom. To name just one, since the state is founded on aggressive force, what does Greenwald have planned for those of us whose happiness requires that the politicians and bureaucrats stop stealing from us and stop trying to manage society? Wouldn’t it be better for the government to stay out of the happiness business and to respect freedom of association?

No doubt Carlson and Greenwald favor a foreign policy of nonintervention for some good reasons that libertarians also embrace. But they favor it for a bad reason as well. Instead of favoring the taxpayers keeping their own money, Carlson and Greenwald want to spend the Pentagon’s huge budget on a gigantic, compulsory, inflationary, wealth-destroying, coldly bureaucratic, intrusive, and condescending welfare state if not outright government ownership and control.

Individual liberty? What’s that?

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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