Randy Simmons, the libertarian mayor of the small town of Providence, Utah, opines that “Most elected Utah Republicans are populists, not conservative. They want to run people's economic and private lives.”
Simmons complains that he “once thought the Republican Party believed in individual rights, free markets, and property rights,” but that nowadays “Republicans want a big government (look at the TARP vote in the Senate for example) and Democrats want a bigger one.” He charges that “City Councils are even worse as they are infected with a do-gooder mentality. Instead of asking what the proper role of local government is they assume they can fix things.”
The definition of the term populist is kind of slippery, since it has different or layered meanings. It almost always denotes competition between the elite class and the broader populace. It was once tightly associated with the briefly tenured and fairly radical Populist (or People’s) Party of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but it has since obtained a more varied definition.
Simmons’ use of the word populist, however, seems to simply denote the political class employing government power in the name of the people — using a top-down approach to place burdens on some for the benefit (or presumed benefit) of ‘the people.’ Using ‘the people’ to justify political actions is a common trick employed by politicians of almost all persuasions.
Whether the politicians’ belief that they are accomplishing overall public good through government coercion is genuine or not, it does not necessarily follow that their actions are morally correct, the majority agree with the particular policy at hand, the rights of the minority have been properly respected, or the claimed benefits are actually achieved.
The frustration Simmons expresses with the Republican Party seems to be twofold. 1) The GOP is comprised of such a broad conglomeration of viewpoints that it is difficult to define what the party stands for. 2) The general center or prevailing view of the GOP has become less libertarian and more populist in recent years.
On point #1, Simmons is right that the GOP doesn’t currently know what it stands for. Following the spectacular implosion of the GW Bush doctrines that were in many ways a repudiation of the doctrines of the 1994 revolution, there is currently a huge struggle for power and ideology going on within the party. Although the Left has succeeded in uniting the GOP in opposition to leftist policies, there is otherwise little internal coherency as to what direction the party ought to go.
Point #2 also has some validity. Although his actual policies were far less than libertarian, Ronald Reagan succeeded in infusing the GOP with the idea of limited government. The 1994 Republican revolution was ushered in on a promise to actually implement these ideals.
While the GOP congress held the line on government expansion to some degree during the Clinton years, the effort to maintain a ‘sustainable majority’ led the inheritors of the revolution to engage in every type of corruption of which they had accused the Democrats. With the advent of GW Bush’s compassionate conservatism, all pretence of limited government and devotion to liberty went out the window.
Today, not only do the ragtag remnants of the Republican Party have little clue as to what principles the party stands for, the faction that claims to stand for limited government has no legitimacy inside or outside of the party. Any limited government bona fides that ever existed were run through the shredder during the preceding decade and it will take a long time to earn them back.
Although the GOP has suddenly found some backbone to stand up against big government policies (just at the moment when such opposition is completely meaningless on votes where it really matters), is there anyone — anyone — out there that thinks matters would be substantially different if John McCain had won last November, even if he had by some miracle gotten a Republican congress? Maybe some priorities would be slightly different, but populist sentiments and political paybacks would still be the order of the day.
The Utah GOP has a strong ‘conservative’ base. But if you attend the conventions and listen to what these ‘grass roots Republicans’ want, you will have to conclude that Simmons is right. They are mostly populists. And most elected GOP officials in Utah are also mostly populists. The arguments between the ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’ camps devolve down to which populist policies ought to be pushed.
This leaves the question as to whether it is more profitable for liberty-minded people to work within the GOP to help shape the party’s future or to scrap that approach as futile and work from the outside. I have been told (see comments) that working from the outside is the only way to effect real positive change. As I note in my responses, I remain unconvinced that this is so.
Like Simmons, I am very dissatisfied with the Republican Party. But I find myself even more at odds with the Democratic Party. Are my only choices to be a pariah inside of the GOP or else a pariah completely outside of mainstream party politics?
A man I respect was sitting next to me at a Republican caucus meeting. As we chatted about his views before the meeting, I noted that he'd probably fit in better with a Democratic caucus. He nodded his head in agreement, but noted that if he wanted to have any influence, he had better luck in Republican circles.
There is an important distinction between national and local government. It seems that the Founders were quite comfortable with a variety of local laws that would have been intolerable to them at a national level. From what I've read about religious laws in early America, the 1st Amendment was a restriction only on the national government, for example.
Do you think a person can appropriately be libertarian with respect to the national government and populist (though that doesn't feel like the right word) with the local government?
I believe you can accomplish your goal from either end; especially if you're looking to start off in local government. I personally have become so disenfranchised with the populist Republicans in Utah that I don't consider myself a Republican anymore. It doesn't mean what it used to. In Utah it boils down to whether government should be involved in your morals or your money. Either way though, the majority of people want the government involved. I believe real individualists can effect change both within the Republican party and a member of a third party. Either way seems to have the same shot within our local government. It's a stretch, but it's and attainable goal.
I think that the closer government is to the individuals, the more likely it is that government can reflect the will of the people. This model permits broad disparity in policies between various localities. This helps inform people as to whether to choose to live in a place or not.
Town governments that are closer to the people governed can do things that it would never be appropriate for a state or a federal authority to do. Take zoning laws, for example.
A few years ago, a group of libertarian minded folks in my community made a loud and persistent argument that government should have no right to implement zoning laws at any level. They said that this kind of control over private property constituted an immoral taking of another's property.
They got a referendum on the ballot to scrap zoning laws. This failed by a 3-1 margin. Most people didn't buy the argument. The thought of someone being able to build a fertilizer plant in the middle of a residential community didn't sit well with most voters.
But I see my city officials going overboard in many ways as they legislate silliness such as how many of which kinds of plants businesses must have in their private parking lots. I think this kind of stuff infringes too much on private property rights and is counterproductive. Tellingly, many businesses vote against this kind of policy by leaving the city or by ignoring my city when considering spots favorable to business expansion.
Your analysis of the state of the republican party is spot on. Statism runs extremely strong in both parties. The problem seems to be a general ignorance of correct principles--or at least a general failure to make the effort to consider and apply them.
People are usually easily swayed by emotion--whether for right or wrong. While many conservative voters respond well to a candidate who charismatically articulates correct policies based on correct principles, they are equally easily swept up in excitement surrounding a well-spoken candidate who is entirely inconsistent with correct principles--provided he's a member of their party.
If republican voters just sought to be consistent with the principles they claim to adhere to, there would be much less disagreement within the party. To a certain extent, the same applies to members of both parties and inter-party disagreements.
On what you said about libertarians seeking to abolish zoning laws--they definitely had principles on their side. Such laws clearly infringe on the individuals natural rights. What they seem to have lacked was the ability to spread the message about a moral alternative to such government overreach. If they could have illustrated, for example, that under a properly functioning legal system, a fertilizer plant would not be able to infringe on others property rights through noise or air pollution, they may have had success. As demonstrated per the Coase theorem, the free-market would place the true value on such activities for both parties and pareto optimality could be achieved. The concept of covenants also are a viable alternative to immoral zoning laws in other instances.
Without the ability or means to communicate the truth of correct principles, their few consistent advocates will always be viewed as pariahs. It's a tough road to hoe, but at least there's always the company of a clear conscience and Ron Paul.
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