Ross Douthat recently diplomatically and cogently critiqued the libertarian populism vision for the future of the Republican Party. Please do read the whole thing, but here are the key graphs:
But I also have the strong sense that lib-pop writers are very, very intent on defining themselves against the compassionate conservatism of the Bush era — which is reasonable up to a point, but which becomes a problem if it means worrying so much about the dangers of getting into “a bidding war over who can run the life of Julia more efficiently and inexpensively” (to quote Domenech) that you aren’t willing to focus on the issues that voters actually prioritize, and the places where the welfare state actually spends most of its money, and the problem of how to run a federal government that isn’t just going to disappear tomorrow.
And the American right does need to focus on those issues, because that’s where the action is, and where it often deserves to be. Right now, Republicans lack a clear alternative to Obamacare and/or a strategy for reforming the health care law if it can’t be overturned; they lack a clear vision for tax reform that’s both pro-growth and responsive to the anxieties of middle and lower-income voters; they lack an approach to federal spending that sets plausible targets for discretionary spending; and they lack any kind of immediate response to the problem of mass unemployment. And then more broadly, they lack a policy portfolio that’s clearly connected to the strongest right-of-center analysis of the social challenges facing 21st century America — the Charles Murray/Brad Wilcox vision of a downscale social crisis slowly working its way upward into the middle class.
Douthat is absolutely correct that a large part of libertarian populism’s appeal is that it is the opposite of Bush’s compassionate conservatism. This may turn off some people, but compassionate conservatism also needs to come to grips with its failures and explain how it can succeed outside the re-election campaign of a war time president. I haven’t seen that explanation yet.
But leaving those messy differences behind, there already is substantial overlap between Douthat’s “conservative reform” vision, and the “libertarian populism” idea Tim Carney and Ben Domenech are pushing. In an earlier post titled, What is Reform Conservatism, Douthat outlines the following agenda:
a. A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability. (Other measures that might improve the prospects of low-skilled men, ranging from a larger earned income tax credit to criminal justice reforms that reduce the incarceration rate, should also be part of the conversation.)
b. A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose.
c. A Medicare reform along the lines of the Wyden-Ryan premium support proposal, and a Social Security reform focused on means testing and extending work lives rather than a renewed push for private accounts.
d. An immigration reform that tilts much more toward Canadian-style recruitment of high-skilled workers, and that doesn’t necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration. (Any amnesty should follow the implementation of E-Verify rather than the other way around, guest worker programs should not be expanded, etc.)
e. A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today.
f. An attack not only on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents (farm subsidies, etc.) but also other protections and implicit guarantees, in arenas ranging from copyright law to the problem of “Too Big To Fail.”
There really isn’t much here for a libertarian populist to disagree with here. As mentioned before, a payroll tax cut for all working American would be a bit more populist than an expanded tax break just for parents, but as long as either policy included larger tax simplification, it would be progress.
“Criminal justice reform” to help low-skilled men is also good as would be taking it one step further by ending the drug war entirely.
On health care, the Goldman/Hagopian catastrophic care approach seems to involve less government mandates and interference than the Capretta/Moffit traditional health insurance model, but it appears Douthat prefers the catastrophic care approach too.
On Medicare, Wyden-Ryan would definitely be a step in the right direction, and Carney is quite militant about any entitlement reform including means testing for Social Security.
On immigration, the Republican party is already strongly behind letting more high-skilled immigrants into the country, and low-wage guest worker programs sure do look a lot like corporate welfare to us.
On the Fed, the Republican Party may be further from consensus, but both market monetarists and libertarian populist can agree that the Fed’s current quantitative easing polices have been a boon for “too big to fail” banks and increased income inequality.
Finally, ending “too big to fail” is what libertarian populism is all about, and reforming intellectual property laws to encourage little-guy innovation at the expense of large corporations is pretty populist too.
If this is the type of synthesis agenda Douthat has in mind, conservative reformers and libertarian populists have a very bright marriage ahead of them.