December 14, 2015

The moral appeal of populism vs. libertarianism

An earlier post discussed how the rising competitiveness and status-striving has introduced partisan polarization. The general impulse in a striving climate is laissez-faire -- pushing for no-holds-barred so that competitors can climb as high as possible, as easily as possible. There are two primary domains over which people compete for status -- careers, wealth, and conspicuous consumption vs. lifestyles, fashion points, and conspicuous leisure.

Career strivers co-opted the Republican party during the 1980s, pushing for economic deregulation, including slashing taxes. Lifestyle strivers were a later phenomenon (those who found the career domain too saturated to compete in), but they co-opted the Democrat party during the '90s, pushing for deregulation of lifestyles and identities (personas), encouraging deviance and tossing out tradition and roots.

There was no moral resonance with the Reaganomics revolution -- it was felt to be superior on a practical level of making the economy work the best it could, without being hamstrung by regulators. Its proponents felt smug superiority, rather than a more powerful emotion like righteousness or vindication. Likewise, Democrats keep promoting deviant lifestyles and the erosion of traditional lifestyles with a sense of smug superiority, and how "it just makes sense -- I can live how I want -- it's the current year".

What sounds a stronger moralistic tone is one party's crusade to contain the deregulatory efforts of the other party, which is portrayed in apocalyptic, do-or-die, now-or-never terms.

While Democrat airheads are smugly high-fiving each other at a gay pride parade, what really works them into a righteous fervor is taking on Republican deregulation of the career domain -- lowering taxes on the rich, widening inequality, letting the minimum wage erode against inflation, too big to fail banks, no checks on student loans, environmentalist and climate goals subservient to corporate interests, and so on and so forth.

Similarly, Republicans high-five each other over lowering the capital gains tax, but what really stirs them up is taking on the Democrat deregulation of lifestyles -- allowing women to get an abortion for almost any reason, enabling the gays, not minding if mothers work (especially single mothers), turning a blind eye toward drug use, and in general allowing individuals to opt out of their group identity in favor of whatever the hell they feel like being or belonging to at the moment.

Now, where does this leave people who enthusiastically support deregulation of both the economic and lifestyle domains, AKA libertarians? It leaves them without any moral resonance among the public. Moralistic appeal relies on a crusade to contain the chaotic effects of deregulation -- to sew up the breach that the anything-goes climate has opened up.

They don't want to build any guiding structures around the teetering laissez-faire economy, nor do they want to protect what is sacred and traditional in our way of life from live-how-you-please lifestyles. If restoring order to what is coming undone is the grounds for righteousness, then libertarians can't even get off the ground moralistically. It's no wonder it has had so little resonance outside of the greedy and hedonistic Boomers.

That's not to say that we don't live in a libertarian society -- we do, with both the economic and lifestyle domains becoming ever less regulated. But that represents more of a compromise between the Republicans and Democrats, who crusade against the deregulatory efforts of the other side, but meet them half-way in the end. Just because it isn't a 100% deregulated world doesn't mean it isn't a de facto libertarian paradise. Ask them, and they'll tell you how amazing it is to live in the here and now, as it were.

What about the opposite of libertarianism -- a movement that crusades for regulation of both the economy and lifestyles? We can simply call it "populism" without qualification because in practice, the populists push for regulation of both spheres, even if they take a two-pronged form. That's how it was the last time around, with the Third Great Awakening, Prohibitionists, and other reformers of lifestyles pooling into the Temperance movement; and with labor unions, trust-busters, and income tax activists pooling into the Progressive movement. But those two really formed a single larger movement to regulate the economy and lifestyles in order to make modern society more stable and healthy rather than sick and ready to explode.

Certainly in recent times, there has never been a more widespread moralistic and righteous-minded climate than the early 20th century. Populism's moral appeal comes with almost no trade-offs. You don't look like you're trying to cynically tear down the destabilizing program of the other side while feverishly promoting your own form of destabilization that is vulnerable to the crusade of the other side.

And unlike libertarianism, which can also claim to not discriminate against one domain or another, populism avoids hypocrisy by wanting to regulate both the political-economic and the social-cultural domains. And as we've seen, it's the crusade to restore order to a destabilized system that makes people feel righteously motivated. With populism, you get two moral crusades for the price of one.

That's not to say that the world of the Great Compression was a populist utopia, just like today's world and the original Gilded Age were not libertarian utopias either. The Republicans held out somewhat for concessions to big business, while the Democrats held out for concessions to non-traditional American lifestyles brought by the immigrant and Ellis Island-descended base of their party. But overall, both domains were remarkably regulated, with the New Deal reforms to the economy, twinned with the censorship and shunning of deviance and of alien cultures.

It's important to keep in mind as we enter the renaissance of populism -- we have to remind the liberals that their revival of 1940s and '50s New Deal economics will have to be traded for a return to lifestyles of the '40s and '50s. If they want a higher minimum wage and narrowing inequality, they can afford to close down pornography, multiculturalism, and rootlessness. By the same token, conservatives must be willing to pay higher income taxes, work in a more unionized economy, and face tighter checks on over-weening career ambition.

But, as we're starting to see only too clearly now, we're all in the same boat, and either our society comes together or it blows itself apart. We can start by doing whatever we can to make sure that our next President is the only populist in the running -- Donald Trump.

I actually think it won't be all that hard since the moralistic appeal of populism is catnip for both liberals and conservatives. They simply have to be woken up from their separate delusions (Republicans: "boo protectionism," Democrats: "boo conformity"). But the Trump phenomenon -- meaning not just what he has said himself, but the whole transformation of the climate that has resulted -- is already starting to make people comfortable voting for populist economics (bring back jobs so poor people can get higher-paying work) as well as populist immigration (close the borders since foreigners pose various threats to our way of life, aside from taking our jobs).


  1. Calling today's Republicans "libertarian" or "free market" or "free trade" is ignorant. Today's Republicans and the Right for the last 50 years has stood for laissez faire, for economic liberty? Really? You have no fundamental grasp of what "free market" means. You just hate "libertarianism" because you associate it with open borders and racial demographic change. Race trumps everything for you. Fine, but that doesn't mean you get to label today's system as "free market" just because you hate non-white immigration.

    I am not going to tell you that libertarianism as it currently exists is perfect. It isn't. That's because it is not a fully developed political system; its historically young. And it has its own divisions between its anarchist and minarchist wings. But the economics of libertarianism is really an application of system homeostasis. Interventions cause distortions always and everywhere. That's just built into human nature and social dynamics. Anti "free trade" arguments like the crap you get from Buchanan or Fletcher have been shredded by many libertarian economists including the Austrians.

    Yes, Trump has tapped into a populist vein and that is probably a good thing given that the Left is treacherous and the Conservatives are cowards. But that doesn't mean that price controls or protectionist tariffs actually generate wealth. They don't. Right now white people are under attack so immigration control is primary. And Islam is a perpetual threat always and forever. But recognizing these things don't give you the moral superiority over libertarianism that you think they do.

    The alt-right has a few things to contribute, especially at this point in time. But its view of economics is garbage. Ironically, its the same garbage that you get from most Conservatives. I have been cursing Conservatives for protectionist ideas for years. NAFTA and GAAT are really massive regulation schemes. And alt-righters think they are "libertarian".

    Cluelessness masquerading as self-righteousness. Leftist in many ways.

  2. "Cluelessness masquerading as self-righteousness."

    but enough about your rant

  3. The alt right has largely given up thinking much about economics as any kind of independent study of the process of resource allocation. They're much more into history and sociology, seeing economic theory as a weapon used by self-interested collectives of one type or another. Instead of debating libertarians on the claims of their economics, especially the fine details, they're content to analyze the negative role they play in geopolitics and deduce that libertarians are tools for the cosmopolitam SWPLS.

    It's similar to the way progressive journalists view economics, not as a disinterested body of knowledge but as something made up by greedy neoliberals. Of ourse the alt right take on history and sociology - culture war fodder -
    helps distinguish them from progressives. To say the least.

  4. Libertarians are largely ignorant of history, sociology, and psychology -- so good luck with coming up with a decent understanding of the world, let alone suggestions for how it ought to be run (or not-run).

    I'm not going to catalog every single thing wrong with libertarianism, but just consider a few remarks made by madmax above.

    "But that doesn't mean that price controls or protectionist tariffs actually generate wealth. They don't."

    Big picture: exponential curve with no evident change in the growth rate. It only accelerates because wealth compounds wealth -- not because the growth rate was dialed up or down by some policy, event, etc.

    To hear the libertarian tell it, though, we should have seen halting or even declining wealth per capita during the Great Compression. For that matter, we never should have industrialized and become so developed and rich in the first place, what with our long history of protectionism (like every other fully industrialized nation).

    You could add "in fairness" the data don't show a *benefit* of price controls on economic growth, but nobody says that on the other side. So there's no "on the other hand" to balance out. It really is only the libertarians who are fixated on the effects of price controls and protectionism.

    And that's missing the point anyway, which is that proponents of price controls and protectionism aren't single-mindedly obsessed with economic growth, in the way autistic libertarians are. The economy was made for man, not man for the economy.

    What *did* change was income inequality during the Great Compression. The policies of the Progressive, New Deal, and Postwar eras may not have made us any richer -- or poorer -- than we would have been otherwise, but they did keep the rich from shooting off into another galaxy.

    That defused the political dynamite of wide disparities in income. If you think the bulk of the population is just going to sit by while obscenely rich people -- who benefited from economies of scale, mergers & acquisitions / monopoly, corruption, rent-seeking, etc. -- get to use their outsized wealth to socially engineer the entire society however they please... you've got another thing coming.

    Libertarians supposedly don't like war, civil conflict, aggression, mob rule, etc. But that's precisely what extremes of wealth inequality lead to -- like it or not. We probably were not going to go full-on Socialist or Communist in America, but circa 1920 there were waves of internal collective violence the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Civil War.

    That was only turned around by Progressive / New Deal / Postwar policies, both economic and political (like closing the open borders).

    This is the fundamental weak point in libertarianism -- it claims to emphasize the ubiquity of trade-offs, but then waves them all away by isolating and analyzing a narrow set of economic concerns, without the interconnected dimensions of polity, community, culture, psychology, etc., entering into the trade-offs, into the calculations of externalities, and so on and so forth.

    Maybe in some context-free sense, price controls lead to worse outcomes -- even assuming we have the full set of outcomes that matter, and not merely wealth or wealth per capita.

    But back on Planet Earth, price controls don't exist in a vacuum. They're part of a larger interrelated holistic... er, whole. If other components of that whole outweigh the downsides of price controls, then that whole wins over the really-existing alternative whole where there are minimal/no price controls but all the other states of affairs that are linked to that.

    Libertarians are overly analytical, and don't appreciate that we can't debate and choose among a fine-grained set of alternatives. Sort of, but really what's going on is choosing among entire sweeping worldviews, attitudes, codes of conduct, and so on.

    1. "If you think the bulk of the population is just going to sit by while obscenely rich people [...] get to use their outsized wealth to socially engineer the entire society however they please... you've got another thing coming."

      Perfect example of how little you know about the system you're advocating. There are already obscenely rich people in America, agree? And they don't want their profit margins to be hindered by harmful legislation, agree? And they have the means to pay lobbyists and representatives directly for favorable votes, agree? If you agree to all of those points, you accept that the rich are already socially engineering. You fear rent hikes if one person had a monopoly on housing in an area, but turn a blind eye to pharmaceutical companies charging an arm and leg for life saving medicines, which cost a fraction of the office to develop and produce. How are they able to do this? Probably because Big Pharma is padding Congress's pockets so they don't allow for cheaper drugs to be available.

      You can't tell me that we need one monopoly to protect us from the others. Government is a monopoly. As long as there are legislators, they will be bought and sold by the super rich. I'd rather take my chances on whatever nefarious schemes the billionaires attempt in the absence of government. At least then the rich's will won't be enforced by blue collar Americans with badges who have the "right" to throw you in a cage or kill you.

  5. "This is the fundamental weak point in libertarianism -- it claims to emphasize the ubiquity of trade-offs, but then waves them all away by isolating and analyzing a narrow set of economic concerns, without the interconnected dimensions of polity, community, culture, psychology, etc., entering into the trade-offs, into the calculations of externalities, and so on and so forth."

    Well put.

  6. NH, You're a clueless 19 year-old spaz, agree?


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