Th[e] central question is not clarified, it is obscured, by our common political categories of left, right, and center.
–Carl Oglesby, Containment and Change
You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you’re the only bait in town.
–Jimmy Buffett, “Fins”
Champions of individual liberty and its prerequisites can’t help but be disheartened by today’s political landscape. For decades the Respectable Center has delivered perpetual war, domestic surveillance and secret police, a national vice squad on steroids, uncontrolled spending, soon-to-be-insolvent “entitlement” programs, sky’s-the-limit borrowing, Fed monetization, alternating inflation and recession, at-best-sluggish economic growth, impediments to economic mobility, and other bad things.
That’s what the “adults in the room” have given us, and that’s what they will keep on giving us. The remarkable improvement in living standards that has reached virtually all levels of American society has occurred demonstrably in spite of, not because of, the government.
No wonder many people are looking for an alternative. So what about the most prominent alternatives? Those would be the nihilist identitarian left and the angry populist, or class-oriented, right and left. The outlook is no less good there.
We can dispatch the identitarians quickly. This is the group whose members think that what matters most about people is their membership in tribes defined by unchosen incidental characteristics. Actual liberals — those who favor individualism and individual freedom — can muster no enthusiasm for a program that holds the pseudoscientific category of race, the reality-based categories of sex and sexual orientation, or the abused and worse-than-worthless category of gender as central both to personal identity and social status.
So let’s turn to right and left populism. Class leftism may seem promising, but when class analysis comes from ignorant prejudice against commerce and contract, it’s fraught with danger. Class populists (left and right) have never learned that the bogey “corporate power” requires the state‘s power and can’t exist without it. I call it “the most dangerous derivative.” (See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.” For an alternative, pro-market class analysis, see Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition.”)
If populism simply meant the rejection of rule by elites, what sensible person could object to it? Over the last few years we’ve seen what elites with political power can do when they control public health.
Unfortunately, we cannot judge political movements only by what they oppose. What do they favor? Aye, there’s the rub. The populists on both sides will say they favor freedom and democracy, but those two standards clash with each other. If the majority rules, what happens to the minority’s rights and freedom? The populist might concede that some matters ought to be beyond the reach of the majority — political expression, for example — but what and how many matters? The committed democrat will want to keep those matters to the barest minimum — in the name of freedom. It’s a scam.
So again, what about the freedom of the minority, the smallest of which is the individual? Populists evade the question by resorting to what the classical liberal Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients.” In his 1819 essay, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Liberty of the Moderns,” Constant pointed out that our notion of liberty has changed since antiquity. For the ancients, liberty consisted exclusively of the freedom to participate directly in the political process. As Constant went on:
But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which … form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. Among the Spartans, Therpandrus could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaemonian could not visit his new bride freely. In Rome, the censors cast a searching eye over family life. The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.
The world of 1800s modernity, Constant continued, had a different notion: liberty consisted not only of the freedom to participate in governance but also of the right to live a private life, including the right to use one’s property unmolested. As he put it:
First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word “liberty”. For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.
Clearly, the populists subscribe to the ancient notion of liberty, and they may not take umbrage at that statement. Whether left or right, they prefer the coercive communitarian politics of antiquity to the individualism and voluntaryism of Enlightenment liberal modernism.
So no wonder they support restrictions on imports and exports, which interfere with our freedom to trade with whoever is willing to trade with us; immigrant restrictions, which interfere with non-Americans’ freedom to improve their situation and Americans’ freedom to associate with them in all kinds of fruitful ways; and antitrust prosecutions of private tech companies, which interfere with freedom of enterprise and private property.
In each case the populists reject the proven bountiful spontaneous order of markets in favor of collectivist answers both to real and imagined problems. That is, instead of opposing government policies that create and exacerbate problems that are mistakenly attributed to free trade, the free movement of people across arbitrary national borders, and Big Tech as such, they propose that “we” directly address those problems at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress and the offices of unaccountable regulatory agencies. It’s social engineering plain and simple.
However, contrary to populist fantasies, there is no “we” that actually rules. For one thing, who is to be included in — and excluded from — the “we”? That’s a political, not a metaphysical, decision. At best, it’s an exercise in question-begging.
Moreover, the voters’ diverse views and feelings are always filtered through politicians and bureaucrats, whose frame of reference is partly defined by well-connected special interests. Those are the people who will say what if any products we may buy from and sell to non-Americans; which non-Americans we may and may not socialize with, hire, sell to, and rent to; and what disfavored private companies may do with their own assets.
In other words, populism in the end resembles elitism — except, as Bryan Caplan argues, at least elites tend to be more economically literate than the masses and so might be “the lesser poison.” In public opinion polling, the more-educated respondents are more likely to be favorable to trade with foreigners and immigration. Caplan credits elites with watering down the masses’ most extreme demands for protectionism and closed borders, if not quashing them entirely. As he once tweeted, “Elites’ problem isn’t being ‘out of touch’ with masses. Elites’ problem is denying how irrational masses really are.” For any card-carrying populist, this is heresy. (See Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I review it here.)
To their credit, the populists of left and right support free political speech (although they erroneously apply the same standard to the government and to private firms) and oppose foreign military intervention. But this group — which comprises such otherwise diverse people as Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek, Glenn Greenwald of System Update, Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News — would have the government spend the savings due to a noninterventionist foreign policy domestically rather than leaving it in the pockets of the taxpayers, who after all are the ones who earned it through the production of wealth for consumers.
Contrary to the populists, the alternative to democracy is not some flavor of authoritarian elitism. It’s what’s F. A. Hayek called the market order, which is rooted in individual freedom — in a word, libertarianism.