As a libertarian watching the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, it is difficult to know exactly what to think. One can’t help but be impressed by his hold-no-prisoners first weeks in office, but his confrontational style and generosity with the truth is both bizarre and controversial. His effect on the left-liberal constituency has been joyous and grotesque to behold. His rhetoric on trade has been disturbing and ignorant, his plans for major infrastructure spending is misguided as is his planned increase in military funding – but he has sounded encouraging on tax, deregulation, foreign policy and in his attitude to the Federal Reserve (at least during the campaign).
So, what to think? At closer look, there appears to be several reasons to welcome the new administration.
First, consider Trump’s profoundly antagonizing effect on the Left. It should be obvious that he deserves credit for this. After all, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The election of Trump is the most significant blow yet to the cancer of political correctness and identity politics that is making a mockery of higher education and infesting mainstream political debate.
Second, Trump represents a possible showdown with the neo-conservative, regime-changing, interventionist doctrine that has been dominating US foreign policy for generations (though the floating of the name of arch neo-con John Bolton for a top job in the State Department caused some consternation). Trump even called out the Iraq war as based on a lie during the campaign. The US may be stepping back from the role of international police man.
Third, consider not the rhetoric but the implications of Trump’s stance on international trade. Withdrawing from trade deals is not in itself a rejection of free trade, as we point out here. NAFTA, which Henry Kissinger called ‘a first step towards a new world order’, is more about harmonization of regulation than free trade and these types of deals often have hidden geopolitical agendas. The TPP was to act as a ‘check on China’. Unfavourable trade deals with South Korea and Japan, which Trump rightly criticises for taking advantage of the US, is quid-pro-quo for allowing the stationing of US troops. It’s ‘the price we pay for imperialism’, as Justin Raimondo from antiwar.com puts it. That said, Trump does convey ignorance on the mutual benefits of free trade and the division of labour.
Fourth, Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ rhetoric is not in conflict with libertarian ideals. Globalism has not led towards a free market utopia, but rather created a layer of unaccountable international governance. His criticism of NATO is pertinent, though unfortunately he has been backtracking. NATO is the supra-national extension of the warfare state. Collectivisation of defence risk, like any other risk socialisation, encourages risk taking, as recently seen in Turkey’s antagonism versus Russia. NATO’s ludicrous 2% defence spending target serves primarily to enrich the military industrial complex. Trump’s stance on immigration has been interpreted as illiberal, but there is nothing anti-libertarian per se in a strict immigration policy. Public ownership of land makes the discussion obsolete from a libertarian standpoint, as we point out here.
Fifth, Trump deserves credit for the criticism he has levelled towards the Federal Reserve in general and Janet Yellen in particular, calling the Fed out on having kept interest rates too low for too long. Having correctly described the US stock market as a ‘big, fat, ugly bubble’ during the campaign, he has however now foolishly taken ownership of the post-election rally. He will live to regret this. Own the bubble; own the crash.
Sixth, Trump is a declared climate change sceptic and is likely to restrain the regulatory overreach that characterised the Obama administration. We share the presidents doubts over the climate consensus and it is timely with a dissenting voice in the chorus of climate hysterics dominating mainstream politics. Dogmatic reverence to the politically correct standpoint is a cancer in all its forms.
Seventh, in his maybe most obviously libertarian of pledges, Trump has sounded very encouraging on regulation. He has had a promising start by signing an executive order requiring federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new regulation they implement and ordering a review of the insanely overreaching Dodd-Frank financial regulation.
Let’s be clear, aspects of Trumps platform, rhetoric and behaviour is naïve, wrongheaded or even disturbing. His planned massive infrastructure spending programme seems to reflect a thinking that government can ‘fix inner cities’ and know where to allocate resources to bridges, tunnels, airports etc. The likely end result will be wasted resources and white elephant projects. His proclamation that the projects ‘will put millions of our people to work’ is Keynesian drivel at its worst. The planned increased military spending is wrongheaded, even more so in the light of hope for a less interventionist foreign policy. We have on this blog called out Trump on his simplistic thinking on trade balance and foreign exchange. His relationship with reality is sometimes bizarre and the administration’s concept of ‘alternative facts’ evokes Orwellian newspeak. And his liberal use of executive orders to force his agenda is disturbing, though of course nothing new.
Also, there has been a certain dilettantish amateurism to the start of the presidency. Diplomatically, Trump’s first weeks in office has resembled a car crash, with a war of words with Australia, condemnation across the EU and a breakdown in relations with Mexico. But as David Stockman points out, the silver lining could be less willingness on behalf of US’s traditional allies to foolishly tag along if Washington engages in another military conflict on foreign soil.
A lot has been made of the parallels between Trump and Brexit. Both represent a backlash against the ‘world government’ agenda: the order set by the EU, NATO, NAFTA, The World Bank and other supranational organisations. The scaling back of this new world order in some ways represents the biggest roll-back of government power since the American revolution and should be welcomed.
Much of Trump’s agenda and rhetoric is hard to embrace, but that doesn’t mean libertarians should abstain from picking sides. As libertarians, we may still be on the margins of the political landscape, but we do have a side in mainstream politics and need to recognise what side that is. Libertarians will remain on the fringes of politics for some time yet and Trump is not a vehicle for minarchism, let alone anarchy. But blows to the established order should be welcomed, even if they are only small steps in the right direction. Let’s acknowledge that the election of Donald Trump is such a step.