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Fox News host Tucker Carlson took to the airwaves of this popular show last night to lambaste Austrian economics and libertarianism, which he views as twin pillars of a failed ideology that doesn’t protect American workers and their interests.
The GOP, he argues, is in thrall to free-market corporate interests and esoteric economic theories from dusty textbooks. Republicans remain wedded to unbridled libertarian political philosophy, tax cuts, deregulation, and unilateral free trade, all of which enrich elites but hurt average people. Meanwhile, presidential aspirants like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders offer the American electorate real-world solutions to economic insecurity, jobs, and healthcare.
It’s a compelling story, but untrue. Does Carlson honestly think Republican members of Congress are overly theoretical and ideological? And here we thought they were a bunch of unprincipled and poorly-read hacks!1
Does he honestly think the budget-busting GOP of recent political memory, from Bush II (Iraq War, Medicare Part D, Department of Homeland Security, Patriot Act), John McCain, Mitt Romney are ideological libertarians? Why did Ron Paul and Rand Paul fare poorly among Republican primary voters, if in fact free-market ideology and its donor class dominate the party? And hasn’t the party been overtaken by Trumpist protectionists?
Of course we’re pleased when Right populists recognize the influence of the Austrian school, just as we’re pleased when Left-liberals at the New Republic convince themselves that Misesean “neoliberalism” has taken over the world. We note that Mises and Rothbard continue to receive criticism decades after their respective deaths, a testament to their deep (and apparently nefarious!) influence and an honor given to few economists.
Carlson, a onetime Cato Institute staffer and Weekly Standard writer, understands both Republican politics and the DC world of think tanks and punditry. When he references the Austrian school or libertarianism, it’s shorthand for “Koch money and influence” rather than any real ideology. It’s his shorthand for the “self-interests of rich guys,” interests given an intellectual veneer by academics and writers who are happy to accept billionaire crumbs in exchange for cozy non-profit sinecures. “Conservatism, Inc.” (or “Libertarianism, Inc.”) has become an self-serving industry unto itself, sclerotic and ripe for criticism.
There is truth to this. But it’s not an ideological truth. Tucker Carlson knows better. He knows full well how tariffs make society overall worse off, how markets make poor Americans far better off than the poor in many countries, why government medicine doesn’t work, and how minimum wage laws hurt the least-skilled workers. His argument is about priorities and strategy (and TV ratings), not ideology. And it accepts a fundamental tenet of the Left: self-interest for me is noble and warranted, self-interest for others (especially the rich) is suspicious if not sinister.
In other words, Carlson presents a fundamentally zero-sum perspective, which is to say a fundamentally political perspective.
That said, his populism—particularly his antiwar stance—should not be dismissed. Populism per se is not an ideology, but rather a strategy. It can be imbued with any political philosophy, and thus can be equally dangerous or beneficial. At its core populism questions not only the competence of elites, but also their worthiness. It asks whether elite interests comport with those of average people, and in most cases correctly concludes that political elites have interests at odds with those people.
When elites are state-connected or state-protected, i.e., when they maintain or even derive their wealth and influence through their relationship with the state, libertarians have every obligation to object. Elites in the West—from politicians and bureaucrats to central bankers and media figures to defense contractors and patent-coddled pharmaceutical execs—richly deserve our ire. They screwed things up, and ought to be held accountable.
Tucker Carlson is right about that.
Read more: Rothbard on Libertarian Populism
- 1. As I write this, I’m privileged to sit in a conference room at
the epicenterof Austrian economics. A group of graduate students from aroundthe world is in residence at the Mises Institute this summer, and thisweek they’re discussing (chapter by chapter) Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State . the GOP forgot to send its congressional delegation to attend. Apparently
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