The Mirage of Libertarian Populism
By Bryan Caplan
There are times and places where most people want more individual freedom than they have. The majority of the citizens of the Soviet Union did not want the state to seize farmers’ land, or send Orthodox priests to Siberia. The majority of the citizens of 18th-century France and Spain did not want to pay high taxes to build their kings more palaces and fund more foreign wars. And I bet that the majority of the citizens of modern China want the freedom to have any many kids as they want. In the right times and places, a libertarian can say “give the people what they want” with a good conscience. In the right times and places, a libertarian can be a populist.
In modern democracies, however, libertarian populism is not a viable option. Why? Because there is very strong evidence that the majority favors either as much or more government than exists. (For a summary, see here). All of the main categories of government spending – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, military – are popular. The only item the public consistently favors cutting is foreign aid – about 1% of the budget. Furthermore, the public heavily supports even the least defensible infringements on personal liberty – like prohibition of marijuana.
OK, libertarians: Suppose you could press a button that overruled one of the multitude of statist policies that a majority supports. Would you push?
If you won’t push the button, you’re not much of a libertarian. The libertarian who refuses to overrule popular statism is saying, “Individual freedom will have to wait until the majority thinks it’s a good idea.” That’s more tedious than waiting for Godot.
If you are willing to push the button, however, people will call you an “elitist” for second-guessing the majority. And they’ll be right. The libertarian who overrules popular statism is saying “At least on this issue, I know better than most people.”
With my recent piece in Cato Unbound, several people have questioned whether my elitism is consistent with libertarianism. They’ve got it all wrong. In a modern democracy, not only can a libertarian be elitist; a libertarian has to be elitist. To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right. So how can you be one of the nay-sayers, unless you think you and your fellow nay-sayers have exceptionally good judgment?
None of this means, of course, that libertarians ought to be rude or unfriendly. If we want to change the world in a libertarian direction, we have to convince people who don’t already agree with us. And rhetorically speaking, “I’m right, you’re wrong” falls flat. (I prefer “I’m right, the people outside this classroom are wrong, and you don’t want to be like them, do you?”) But in a modern democracy, libertarians cannot honestly praise the wisdom of the common man. He’s the guy who got us where we are today.