Libertarian Populism

It’s been a while – has anything been happening in the world?

One of the difficulties with trying not to be a blog dedicated solely to reacting to the current events of the day is that it limits the type of subjects one feels comfortable writing about. Then, something happens within the context of current events that spark the blogging juices, so to speak. And that’s what happened when I came across this article on a site otherwise dedicated to energy news. It deals with Ammon Bundy, who you may remember from such standoffs with the feds as the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Bundy is back in the news, fighting the man and his clampdown on travel.

Bundy organized a public meeting in Emmett, Idaho, on Thursday night to rail against Republican Gov. Brad Little’s recent emergency declaration ordering the state’s residents to self-isolate at home, asserting the measure amounts to a violation of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

“I was hoping that Gov. Little would hold out, that he would see what was happening, that he would realize what is best for Idaho is not to freak out and act like, you know, [a] fearmonger,” Bundy said in video of the event recorded by attendees.

He later added: “The right to travel is not theirs to take. The right to assemble is not theirs to take. The right to worship how and where and when we want is not theirs to take. That’s the issue here.”

Bundy doesn’t deny that the virus threat is real, but does deny that it justifies the measures undertaken by the state and federal governments.

I’m not going to get into the legal arguments about the measures states have taken in response to the pandemic, though I am inclined to agree with the likes of David French and others who argue that the states in particular have abundant legal and constitutional authority in these circumstances. Rather, I want to discuss the general attitude struck by Bundy and others of a similar mindset. It occurs to me that he’s expressing what I can only describe as a sort of libertarian populism, or, more accurately, populist libertarianism.

It might make sense to take a step back. From the standpoint of a political theory 101 type course, libertarianism and populism are essentially opposites. To put it in the simplest and crudest terms possible, libertarians favor smaller government for both social and economic issues. Populists favor greater government intervention for both cultural and economic issues. Populists and libertarians thus occupy opposite quadrants of the typical political taxonomy. Therefore “populist libertarian” is as contradictory a term as “government intelligence” or “congenial Yankees fan.”

As is usually the case, things are a little more complex than this. Populist, in particular, is a rather malleable term. In today’s political environment it has become as nebulous a term as “neoconservative” became during the GWB years. Roughly speaking it describes political movements that appeal or try to appeal to the masses, and which rely on popular sentiment to justify mass shifts in policy. But all political movements in a democracy try to sway political opinion, and most at least pretend to base their platforms on mass appeal – thus why the authors of this blog are almost completely politically homeless.

The looser definition of populism can therefore be tied to libertarianism, and this is no more evident than in the political philosophy of – drumroll please – Thomas Jefferson. If anyone in American history can be called a populist libertarian it is Jefferson. Jefferson, more than any American of his time or since, wedded a belief in the wisdom (or really the potential wisdom of a rightly educated (and by rightly educated, I mean educated by the totally not propagandist ward republics)) of the populace with the sentiment that the government that governs best is the one that governs least.

Jefferson’s populist libertarian vision has redounded through the ages and has taken many forms. But when I see the likes of Bundy ranting about the evils of an oppressive government it’s not hard to see in his absolutism a rhetorical echo of Jefferson, who once wrote “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Jefferson also wrote that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

The historian Conor Cruise O’Brien once suggested that the 20th century politician Jefferson would have most admired is Pol Pot, and I tend to think this is not much of an exaggeration. Jefferson’s writings are really infused with this high-minded libertarian rhetoric. While Jefferson was himself a soft-spoken man, his pen was a sharp cudgel.

I’m almost tempted to say that Jefferson should often be taken seriously but not literally, though that may be underestimating Jefferson’s commitment to what he saw as political liberty. So when an Ammon Bundy takes an almost literal sword out from its scabbard to defend what he perceives as threats to liberty, I think he’s genuinely trying to live up to Jefferson’s idealism. He believes he is defending the masses from an oppressive and intrusive government. The Bundys of the world see themselves as conquering heroes thwarting off the evil jackboot of the government. It they have to refresh the tree of liberty for the greater good, so be it.

Now perhaps I’m as guilty as those who threw around “neocon” so casually a decade ago in ascribing any of this to populism. Indeed, when authentic populism is – unfortunately – on the rise in America and elsewhere, it is tempting to attach it to anything one doesn’t like. Yet it’s the first thought that popped into my head as I read about Bundy’s latest threats, and it seems to me there is something connecting Bundy to Jefferson through a certain quirky strand of libertarianism that is a very destructive force.

Besides, when all else fails, just blame Thomas Jefferson is what I say.

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