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Misdiagnosing Populism

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Is populism inherently bad?

Deirdre McCloskey, speaking earlier this month to a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Stockholm, certainly thinks so. Her broad and sweeping liberal critique of populism focused not on criticisms of current populist movements, but rather on the big-picture issues of tyranny and prosperity. And to her credit she willingly attacks two sacred cows that give force to populism, namely democracy and inequality:

What has been odd and definitive of populism during the past couple of centuries, though, is not the zero sum, an old and commonplace assumption about the economy, but majority rule as the default in politics. “Democracy,” after all, has only recently become a good word. Majority rule was until the nineteenth century regularly described as mob rule. Odi profanum vulgus. It was to be disdained, and only a tiny group of radical priests and levellers disagreed. ...

The recent fashion for worrying and worrying about inequality has the same source in perceived slow growth, and the resulting anxiety that zero sum may prove to be true. Your gain will be my pain. French politics, aside from a brief flirtation with liberalism in the time of Bastiat and Tocqueville and Chevalier, runs on a theory of zero sum, as does much of radical and reactionary politics everywhere since the French Revolution. Such a politics claims that the bosses have stolen a vast sum that can easily be drawn down, repeatedly, endlessly, to improve the lot of the workers. The reactionaries object to the draw-down, but still believe it as zero sum. The radicals rejoice, and also believe it as zero sum. And so the 230-year Franco-French War continues.

McCloskey argues that prosperity and liberation from tyranny are both goals and effects of liberalism, and who can disagree? Markets not only enrich humanity, but also dilute the power of monarchs and tyrants of all stripes. Market liberalism has lifted millions from poverty and made life far more tolerable for minorities.

Populism, by contrast, she decries as a vicious zero-sum battle that pits groups against one another. Populist movements are necessarily illiberal, in her view, because unlike markets the policies they produce make some people better off at the expense of others.

This may well be true, but if so it is also inescapably true of all political arrangements, whether driven by populism or not. State action by definition is zero-sum; even a minarchist night watchman government must tax and regulate its subjects using forceful penalties for noncompliance. Absent a completely voluntary form of market anarchism as the organizing principle for a society, politics and governance must create some degree of win-lose. Support for zero sum outcomes is inherent in all politics, not just the populist variety.

But there are deeper problems with critiques of populism: it is a political, social, and economic tactic, rather than an ideology per se. Populism can be left, right, or even libertarian, imbued with the worldview of the populists themselves. Murray Rothbard certainly imagined a robust libertarian populism, and Ron Paul effectively used “End the Fed” as a populist (yet ideologically correct) message during his 2012 campaign.

It is also true that populism is seldom defined, and badly-defined when it is. McCloskey offers an “ostensive” definition, i.e., one provided by examples in history. But politics tends to be highly local, and history cannot easily provide a common thread of what makes an era, movement, or leader populist. If Jeremy Corbyn equals Mussolini (one of two examples McCloskey mentions), then average people who think in terms of left/right rather than statist/libertarian can be forgiven for their confusion as to what exactly populism is.

In his wonderful 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell discusses the abuse of “meaningless words” by media figures and politicians. Such words, he argues, frequently are used in a “consciously dishonest way,” intended to steer the listener or reader in a preferred direction.

“Populism” surely qualifies as a meaningless word today. It’s only certain definition, at least in current usage, is “something not desirable” as Orwell puts it. It is frequently applied as a catchall term for “someone who holds political views I don’t like.” Opponents can’t define it exactly, or even loosely, but they know it’s bad.

That’s why even actual populists don’t think of themselves as such, or willingly claim the populist mantle. Popular movements and popular sentiment are politically useful, but the populist tag is not. On the contrary it’s an albatross, which shows how successful elites have been in framing populism as sinister while democracy somehow is always noble.

But populism is just democracy good and hard. Trump, Brexit, Bernie Sanders, Catalonia, and countless other uprisings represent democratic expressions of what people want, however shortsighted or ill-informed. If they cannot or should not have what they want, the political class should stop posturing and admit that social democracy is a failure (an unlikely development).

Elites (left, right, and otherwise) who most want to subdue dangerous mob rule almost never support the one mechanism required to do so, i.e., limits on state power. But they seemingly never consider that omnipotent states might one day be taken over by rabble with different ideas.

To escape Orwell’s trap of suspicious vagueness, we should apply at least a working definition of populism:

  • anti-elite;
  • anti-establishment;
  • anti-technocratic;
  • hostile to established political parties;
  • synthesizes old conceptions of left and right into sometimes schizophrenic hybrid policy views; and
  • often led by a charismatic figure.

The most strident opposition to populism, however, is rooted in its most salient current feature: anti-globalism. This is where the rubber meets the road, where Bernie meets Trump meets Farage, and explains the deep-seated animosity for populist movements among western politicians and financial elites. Globalism is the one unshakeable article of faith among neoliberals today, considered both unquestionably good and patently inevitable. This, more than anything, is why the political world appeared to have a collective breakdown when Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election.

But globalism today is political, and not at all inherently liberal. It imagines, and ultimately requires, universal political arrangements (i.e., social democracy for all). True liberalism is not political, and accounts for differences between peoples while respecting those differences. Differences create comparative advantages and specialization, which set the conditions for liberal trade. Political, economic, and cultural differences are best ameliorated through political subsidiarity rather than universalism, creating the conditions for people with radically different worldviews to live in peace — politically unyoked but pursuing peace, trade, travel, communications, and diplomacy with other nations out of self-interest.

Surely the political globalism of the 20th century failed to prevent mass wars, body counts, and the rise of authoritarian ideologies from East to West. Must we nonetheless double down and accept the neoliberal belief that globalism’s centralizing mandates are necessarily salutary and liberalizing?

Without resolving this very big question, can we at least accept that populists have a point? When elites, academia, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and media are all thoroughly state-connected, are libertarians wrong to criticize this reality on the grounds that anti-elitism is somehow anti-intellectual?

Knee-jerk critics of populism often bring to mind neoconservative foreign policy pundits and their promiscuous use of the meaningless words, “War on Terror”: they fail to account for blowback, and they mistake tactics for goals. Libertarians should support populist sentiments or movements when they are pro-liberty/anti-state, and oppose them when they are not.


Contact Jeff Deist

Jeff Deist is president of the Mises Institute. He previously worked as chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul, and as an attorney for private equity clients. Contact: email; Twitter.

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