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In Defense of Economic Populism

Populists’ aversion to institutional restraints extends to the economy, where they oppose obstacles placed in their way by autonomous regulatory agencies, independent central banks, and global trade rules. But while populism in the political domain is almost always harmful, economic populism can sometimes be justified.

CAMBRIDGE – Populists abhor restraints on the political executive. Since they claim to represent “the people” writ large, they regard limits on their exercise of power as necessarily undermining the popular will. Such constraints can only serve the “enemies of the people” – minorities and foreigners (for right-wing populists) or financial elites (in the case of left-wing populists).

This is a dangerous approach to politics, because it allows a majority to ride roughshod over the rights of minorities. Without separation of powers, an independent judiciary, or free media – which all populist autocrats, from Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump detest – democracy degenerates into the tyranny of whoever happens to be in power.

Periodic elections under populist rule become a smokescreen. In the absence of the rule of law and basic civil liberties, populist regimes can prolong their rule by manipulating the media and the judiciary at will.

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