Illustration by Matt Dorfman
Illustration by Matt Dorfman

Never one to waste time, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has gone on the attack against a tiny conservative political movement before most people have heard of it or, indeed, it has really come together as a movement.

Krugman’s column trashing “libertarian populism,” which showed no evidence of first-hand familiarity with the work of anyone who might claim the label, ran on July 11. It was not until Monday that Tim Carney, a libertarian-populist writer (and a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute), got around to publishing a manifesto for the group. It is a document that contains several good ideas -- but not a viable political strategy for conservatives.

The main focus of Carney’s work is that big government and big business collude at the expense of the little guy, and he recommends that Republicans run against that collusion in order to win working-class votes. In particular he wants them to break up the big banks, end corporate-welfare programs, clean up the tax code so that powerful interests no longer profit from it, and end regulations that protect established businesses from competitors (regulations that stifle food trucks, for example). He would also cut the payroll tax and end government policies that favor employer-based health insurance.

I’m sympathetic to most of the items on Carney’s list -- and those on the list that fellow populist Conn Carroll has compiled. Taken together, though, they do not seem to amount to a winning political platform. A Republican party that took on the U.S. Export-Import Bank might improve its image a bit, but how many Americans really care enough about the issue to change their votes based on it? Nor does freeing the food trucks seem like it would win many votes, however right it might be as a policy matter.

The libertarian populists sometimes seem to make the same political mistake as left-wing populists: Assuming that because most voters distrust big business and do not believe they share its interests, they are therefore looking for the politician who will most vocally take it on.

Cutting the payroll tax, unlike most of these ideas, would tangibly affect most people’s lives by raising their take-home pay. If Republicans proposed it, though, they would surely be accused of jeopardizing Social Security and Medicare, which seems like a rather large political defect. Other Carroll proposals, such as ending student loans and the mortgage deduction, seem likely to be unpopular even at first glance.

Republicans ought to propose conservative answers to the concerns that are uppermost on most voters’ minds. The libertarian-populist method seems to be to start with the solutions and then to imagine that voters have the relevant concerns. And while many of the proposed solutions have great potential appeal to conservative voters, few would do much to expand their ranks.

The upside of that appeal to the Republican base is that it may lead the part to adopt parts of the libertarian-populist platform. (Breaking up the banks, on the other hand, is a proposal I’d expect only a few Republican politicians to support.) The libertarian populists even have something of a champion in Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Paul’s version of sticking up for the little guy, though, includes raising his taxes.

At a time when many Republican politicians seem to feel no great urgency about coming up with new ideas, the libertarian populists deserve some credit for trying to think anew. But there’s a lot of work to be done in making the specifics of populism popular.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter.)