Populism, Personal Responsibilty and Politics

Populist is a word people use to describe many of the candidates running for office in recent times. While it’s clear the message of a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders can be quite different, they are both clearly populist messengers.

A populist message is signaled by two characteristics:

⁃ A scapegoat for all the problems people feel.

⁃ The answer being politically punishing the scapegoat as a magical bullet solution.

Here is the prototype of different populist messages…

Right-wing populism: The reason your life is so hard is that poor minorities and immigrants are taking advantage of your tax dollars while trade deals with other nations result in jobs leaving. The answer is to keep the immigrants out, end welfare and strong arm trade with other nations in our favor. Vote for me, you don’t need to do anything.

Left-wing populism: The reason your life is hard is that rich white corporate executives have lobbied for trade deals that let them exploit cheap labor overseas taking your jobs cutting your welfare to cut taxes for those corporations, fund wars for those corporations and deport immigrants back to lower wage countries for further exploitation by those corporations. We need to tax these corporations to restore your welfare and regulate them so they have to give you a high paying job. Vote for me, you don’t need to do anything.

Libertarian Populism: The Government is inherently corrupted by all sorts of special interests has been interests to serve those interests resulting in taxes, regulations and other policies that make it too expensive to start businesses, employ labor, and pursue all levels of opportunity. We need to reduce the size and scope of government so those opportunities can be available again. Vote for me, you don’t need to do anything.

The problem with a purely populist message, even a libertarian one is that it puts all the necessary change solely on government policy. This takes away any sense of personal responsibility for one’s life outcomes leaving them to believe there is nothing they should be doing to improve their lives beyond voting for their favorite populist.

This is why populism sells, because it’s appealing to believe that the only thing you need to do to change your life is Vote. While voting can have a very real impact on the world around us, at the end of the day our own lives are still very much within our own control despite very real challenges created by policy. Also any change in any direction cannot sustainably work without each of us taking responsibility over what is within our control.

Populism sells, but populism sucks.

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Thin and Thick Libertarianism and Sustainable Liberty

So when are you a Libertarian?

A question that is debated when people discuss the idea of ”thin” versus ”thick” libertarianism. Those in the thin camp argue that libertarianism is simply a rejection of the inititiation of violence. (you don’t think the worlds problems are solved by having someone else hurt others and take their stuff to force your ideals). While those in the ”thick” camp argue that libertarianism should go further into stronger advocacy for the oppressed, multiculturalism, essentially really advocating that people can and should make an effort not just coexist but thrive together.

I agree with both, I just feel they are answering very different questions.

The ”thin” crowd is arguing for a strict and clear definition of being libertarian as a view on the use of violence in governing society (violence is bad). They don’t want other virtues or social values to be added in because then it becomes unclear and drives people into a neverending fight on definitions. This bothers the ”thick” crowd because someone with social or cultural views they may abhor can fall within the libertarian banner as long as they don’t think violence and especially violence through government is the answer to bringing upon their worldview. Although we can’t redefine every aspect of ourselves to reduce commonalities with those we don’t like. I’m a male, and there are other males who’ve raped, murdered, etc. but I don’t suggest people redefine male to exclude those who do those things.

Although I do think the particular social virtues and values you promote play a role in building a world where Libertarianism can grow and thrive. One of the things that brings many to look into libertarianism is when they begin to see the effects that individual freedom has on general welfare. Many of these effects come from the network effects of markets, the exchange of good, services and ideas that create wealth and innovation. The smaller that network of interacting individuals the smaller these effects may become.

So to illustrate when I’m getting at I’ll make use of a rhetorical tool called a ”reductio” (taking things to their extreme). Let’s imagine a world where everyone rejects violence but their personal values and virtues still lead to isolated communities that voluntarily don’t trade, don’t travel, don’t talk. Many of the most positive effects of the market may not quite play out leading to less prosperous communities which can lead to an environment where the isolation and struggle leads to a reversal on the use of violence. (it’s easier to use violence on people you don’t know and especially when your struggling)

Throw in tolerance, forgiveness, empathy and pluralism in the virtues we promote, it may be beyond the scope of libertarianism but would contribute to an environment where libertarianism can sustainably be a value that travels generation to generation. The market network effects will create prosperity and non-violence that would reinforce continuing down that path. The interaction of individuals makes calls for violence that much more difficult.

Will the world hit either extreme, probably not. Although in the hopes of a sustainable libertarianism it seems valuable to want to push in the direction of the later extreme.

Why Whataboutism matters

The left recently complained about “whataboutism”, the pointing out that left administrations did many of the same bad policies as the current right wing one. (Cronyist trade dealings, mass deportations, global intervention, massive deficits, accommodative monetary policy, etc.)

This is Important because why should I listen to someone telling me to vote differently if what they are telling to vote for will get me the same? I vote Libertarian in the hopes of actually electing someone that will do something different such as intervene less in the affairs of other nations, promote actual free trade, balance the budget and let interest rates be set by markets.

The odds may be high, but if things go my way, even a little, at least there will be genuine substantive change versus merely a change in tone, rhetoric and in whose cronies get political favors.

Shareholder Buybacks aren’t evil

Shareholder buybacks do two things that do create economic value:

– Provide liquidity to exiting investors so they can go invest in other businesses creating economic investment elsewhere

– Allows the remaining shareholders to have non-taxable appreciation but also creates headroom for capital raising later when the company needs it.

Shareholder buy back are not a bogeyman for you to complain about because you wish they spent the money your way.

Left and Right are alright…

I talk to people on the right and left and often times find myself agreeing with their sentiments and concerns but always find two problems as the conversation progresses.

1. The concerns of one side are rarely mutually exclusive of the concerns of those on the other side, often times both have legitimate concerns which both need a solution.

2. The solution to any problem isn’t “I’ll have government make people do things this way using other people’s money”. The solution usually requires outreach, voluntary community organizing, and/or creating enterprises that can find a profitable model of providing a solution so the it can fund itself and develop improvements.