Libertarianism and the Fairness Message

Published March 1, 2013

This Jonathan Haidt vignette on why it’s hard to gross out a libertarian also serves as a wonderful guide to why hard libertarianism will always fail at the ballot box. It’s fiercely logical, completely non-empathetic, and is more likely to make voters recoil than to win them over.

That’s all right – libertarianism is an approach focused more on being right than on being likeable (child labor laws are, after all, ruining this country!) – but I still think there’s an opportunity to achieve a great deal politically by blending the conventional libertarian message with a more populist set of fairness-minded policies targeted at working families.

Both sides can agree on a number of key points of dissension within the Republican ranks, both in the need for limited government and an acknowledgement that big business is as great a danger as big government. Republicans themselves believe their party is out of touch with the American people. And they’re right.

The problem is that a Republican Party which takes this more populist path, targeted at the widening gap between two Americas and building on the good aspects of the Tea Party’s message, will have to be built around a fairness message which will almost certainly turn off hard-line libertarians and those who defend the Wall Street establishment. Sheila Bair has some good points here:

“I am a capitalist and a lifelong Republican. I believe that, in a meritocracy, some level of income inequality is both inevitable and desirable, as encouragement to those who contribute most to our economic prosperity. But I fear that government actions, not merit, have fueled these extremes in income distribution through taxpayer bailouts, central-bank-engineered financial asset bubbles and unjustified tax breaks that favor the rich. This is not a situation that any freethinking Republican should accept. Skewing income toward the upper, upper class hurts our economy because the rich tend to sit on their money — unlike lower- and middle-income people, who spend a large share of their paychecks, and hence stimulate economic activity.”

“But more fundamentally, it cuts against everything our country and my party stand for. Government’s role should not be to rig the game in favor of “the haves” but to make sure “the have-nots” are given a fair shot. President Obama, who has rightly made income inequality a signature issue, cannot be pleased that the über-rich have gained under the policies pursued by his administration, while the bottom 99 percent have not. Unfortunately, his economic team, populated by acolytes of the former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, has relied on the same “growth” policies that got us into trouble precrisis: generous treatment of the financial sector and easy money from the Federal Reserve. These strategies have done little to encourage sustainable economic growth, but they have worked wonders to increase Wall Street profits and inflate the value of stocks and bonds — which are disproportionately owned by the rich.

A rejection of these approaches is a fundamental starting point for policy shifts going forward which remake the Republican Party into one that is not just focused on making the rich richer. But it’ll be a real test to see if libertarians will come along for that ride.

[First published at RealClearPolitics.]