The Republican Party has been in an identity crisis since the Cold War. Its old fusion of national defense, social conservatism, and free markets doesn’t have the power it once did, mainly because we no longer spend every day in dread of a nuclear holocaust and our military engagements since that time have been an occasion for disillusionment. Anti-terrorism has not proved to be the force for political cohesion that anti-communism once was.
In the face of Barack Obama’s promotion of a state-mediated equality predicated on economic redistribution, conservatives have struggled to give a better answer than Mitt Romney’s private (but then embarrassingly publicized) belief that something like 47% of Americans are dependent on the state and are unreachable by appeals to freedom. Enter the libertarian populists.
We are familiar with libertarians in American politics. They talk about having an absolutely minimalistic government, abolishing the welfare state, returning to the gold standard, and doing away with drug laws. The libertarian populists are different. They aren’t concerned so much with the standard list of libertarian concerns as they are with helping Americans to see how the growth of the state can actually privilege what they call “the Bigs” over everyone else.
Most Americans tend to imagine a battle of corporations against the government. Republicans, they think, align themselves with the businessmen. Democrats, on the other hand, side with government agencies and unions. Libertarian populists point out that far too often the big players are working together.
Big corporations frequently seek out governmental regulation. Why? Because they have the resources to comply with burdensome rules while their smaller competitors don’t. The result is an advantage to the mega-corporations who can use the apparatus of the state to their advantage. They can maintain their position at the top and effectively pull up the ladder behind them.
If you want a case study, you might consider my beloved Amazon from whom I have bought so many books over the years. The company made a career out of fighting state sales taxes on the premise that they did not operate brick and mortar stores using state services. Today, they are going the opposite direction. They are arguing for such taxes because they have the sophistication and the resources to handle the difficulty of arranging the right tax rates in a million localities. Their new strategy will give them a leg up over smaller sellers, like those on Ebay, and will create an opportunity for them to market their services to other merchants for managing tax calculation and payments.
Amazon v. Ebay is not a bad way to think about libertarian populism overall. The lib-pops want you to remember that the big players always get theirs. The question is how much power you want to give them to play the game.
*This post originally appeared in The Jackson Sun.