This was written in January 1992.
WHAT IS RIGHT-WING POPULISM?
The basic right-wing populist insight is that we live in a statist country and a statist world dominated by a ruling elite, consisting of a coalition of Big Government, Big Business, and various influential special interest groups. More specifically, the old America of individual liberty, private property, and minimal government has been replaced by a coalition of politicians and bureaucrats allied with, and even dominated by, powerful corporate and Old Money financial elites (e.g., the Rockefellers, the Trilateralists); and the New Class of technocrats and intellectuals, including Ivy League academics and media elites, who constitute the opinion-moulding class in society. In short, we are ruled by an updated, twentieth-century coalition of Throne and Altar, except that this Throne is various big business groups, and the Altar is secular, statist intellectuals, although mixed in with the secularists is a judicious infusion of Social Gospel, mainstream Christians. The ruling class in the State has always needed intellectuals to apologize for their rule and to sucker the masses into subservience, i.e., into paying the taxes and going along with State rule. In the old days, in most societies, a form of priestcraft or State Church constituted the opinion-moulders who apologized for that rule. Now, in a more secular age, we have technocrats, “social scientists,” and media intellectuals, who apologize for the State system and staff in the ranks of its bureaucracy.
Libertarians have often seen the problem plainly, but as strategists for social change they have badly missed the boat. In what we might call “the Hayek model,” they have called for spreading correct ideas, and thereby converting the intellectual elites to liberty, beginning with top philosophers and then slowly trickling on down through the decades to converting journalists and other media opinion-moulders. And of course, ideas are the key, and spreading correct doctrine is a necessary part of any libertarian strategy. It might be said that the process takes too long, but a long-range strategy is important, and contrasts to the tragic futility of official conservatism which is interested only in the lesser-of-two-evils for the current election and therefore loses in the medium, let along the long, run. But the real error is not so much the emphasis on the long run, but on ignoring the fundamental fact that the problem is not just intellectual error. The problem is that the intellectual elites benefit from the current system; in a crucial sense, they are part of the ruling class. The process of Hayekian conversion assumes that everyone, or at least all intellectuals, are interested solely in the truth, and that economic self-interest never gets in the way. Anyone at all acquainted with intellectuals or academics should be disabused of this notion, and fast. Any libertarian strategy must recognize that intellectuals and opinion-moulders are part of the fundamental problem, not just because of error, but because their own self-interest is tied into the ruling system.
Why then did communism implode? Because in the end the system was working so badly that even the nomenklatura got fed up and threw in the towel. The Marxists have correctly pointed out that a social system collapses when the ruling class becomes demoralized and loses its will to power; manifest failure of the communist system brought about that demoralization. But doing nothing, or relying only on educating the elites in correct ideas, will mean that our own statist system will not end until our entire society, like that of the Soviet Union, has been reduced to rubble. Surely, we must not sit still for that. A strategy for liberty must be far more active and aggressive.
Hence the importance, for libertarians or for minimal government conservatives, of having a one-two punch in their armor: not simply of spreading correct ideas, but also of exposing the corrupt ruling elites and how they benefit from the existing system, more specifically how they are ripping us off. Ripping the mask off elites is “negative campaigning” at its finest and most fundamental.
This two-pronged strategy is (a) to build up a cadre of our own libertarians, minimal-government opinion-moulders, based on correct ideas; and (b) to tap the masses directly, to short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites, to rouse the masses of people against the elites that are looting them, and confusing them, and oppressing them, both socially and economically. But this strategy must fuse the abstract and the concrete; it must not simply attack elites in the abstract, but must focus specifically on the existing statist system, on those who right now constitute the ruling classes.
Libertarians have long been puzzled about whom, about which groups, to reach out to. The simple answer: everyone, is not enough, because to be relevant politically, we must concentrate strategically on those groups who are most oppressed and who also have the most social leverage.
The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of “corporate liberal” Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America. Therefore, the proper strategy of libertarians and paleos is a strategy of “right-wing populism,” that is: to expose and denounce this unholy alliance, and to call for getting this preppie-underclass-liberal media alliance off the backs of the rest of us: the middle and working classes.
A RIGHT-WING POPULIST PROGRAM
A right-wing populist program, then, must concentrate on dismantling the crucial existing areas of State and elite rule, and on liberating the average American from the most flagrant and oppressive features of that rule. In short:
l. Slash Taxes. All taxes, sales, business, property, etc., but especially the most oppressive politically and personally: the income tax. We must work toward repeal of the income tax and abolition of the IRS.
2. Slash Welfare. Get rid of underclass rule by abolishing the welfare system, or, short of abolition, severely cutting and restricting it.
3. Abolish Racial or Group Privileges. Abolish affirmative action, set aside racial quotas, etc., and point out that the root of such quotas is the entire “civil rights” structure, which tramples on the property rights of every American.
4. Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not “white collar criminals” or “inside traders” but violent street criminals – robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.
5. Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.
6. Abolish the Fed; Attack the Banksters. Money and banking are recondite issues. But the realities can be made vivid: the Fed is an organized cartel of banksters, who are creating inflation, ripping off the public, destroying the savings of the average American. The hundreds of billions of taxpayer handouts to S&L banksters will be chicken-feed compared to the coming collapse of the commercial banks.
7. America First. A key point, and not meant to be seventh in priority. The American economy is not only in recession; it is stagnating. The average family is worse off now than it was two decades ago. Come home America. Stop supporting bums abroad. Stop all foreign aid, which is aid to banksters and their bonds and their export industries. Stop gloabaloney, and let’s solve our problems at home.
8. Defend Family Values. Which means, get the State out of the family, and replace State control with parental control. In the long run, this means ending public schools, and replacing them with private schools. But we must realize that voucher and even tax credit schemes are not, despite Milton Friedman, transitional demands on the path to privatized education; instead, they will make matters worse by fastening government control more totally upon the private schools. Within the sound alternative is decentralization, and back to local, community neighborhood control of the schools.
Further: We must reject once and for all the left-libertarian view that all government-operated resources must be cesspools. We must try, short of ultimate privatization, to operate government facilities in a manner most conducive to a business, or to neighborhood control. But that means: that the public schools must allow prayer, and we must abandon the absurd left-atheist interpretation of the First Amendment that “establishment of religion” means not allowing prayer in public schools, or a creche in a schoolyard or a public square at Christmas. We must return to common sense, and original intent, in constitutional interpretation.
So far: every one of these right-wing populist programs is totally consistent with a hard-core libertarian position. But all real-world politics is coalition politics, and there are other areas where libertarians might well compromise with their paleo or traditionalist or other partners in a populist coalition. For example, on family values, take such vexed problems as pornography, prostitution, or abortion. Here, pro-legalization and pro-choice libertarians should be willing to compromise on a decentralist stance; that is, to end the tyranny of the federal courts, and to leave these problems up to states and better yet, localities and neighborhoods, that is, to “community standards.”
Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice president of the Mises Institute. He was also editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and appointed Lew as his literary executor. See his books.