Populism Can Be More Libertarian, But Libertarianism Will Never Be Populist

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 1 2013 12:36 PM

Populism Can Be More Libertarian, But Libertarianism Will Never Be Populist

I've been meaning to write a deadly dull low-traffic blog post on the subject of "libertarian populism" for a while now, and I think my bottom line is this—economic populism can (and probably should) become more libertarian, but libertarianism can never be populist.

For the sake of this discussion, a "populist" economic policy idea is one that transfers economic resources from a privileged minority to the masses. There are many instances in which a libertarian or deregulatory impulse would have this effect. Upzoning of expensive urban and suburban land is my personal favorite agenda. Call it "deregulation" if you want to be libertarian or call it "land reform" if you want to sound like populist, but either way it's a good idea. Similarly, altering "scope of practice" regulations that privilege doctors and dentists over nurses, hygenists, and patients is both populist and libertarian. Good times.

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That said tax the rich and use the money to finance transfers to the poor and broad social insurance schemes for the middle class will always be a populist idea and will never be a libertarian one. At a time when various large-scale economic forces seem to be increasing the returns to capital and the "superstar" premia enjoyed by a few very successful people, this particular form of populism is also a good idea.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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