Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In which I succumb to the inevitable and write about Ron Paul

I haven’t talked about the Ron Paul candidacy here before, because it wasn’t something I had an especially strong opinion about either way; I feel neither the intense enthusiasm for him of the Mises Institute/ lewrockwell.com paleolibertarians nor the hostility of the Voluntaryist/ Agorist anti-voters or Reason/Cato “cosmopolitan” libertarians.. I’ve liked Paul for a long time, enough that I’d seriously consider breaking my eight-year nonvoting streak if he somehow got to the general election, but my natural inclination is not to get excited or hopeful about things, and that goes double for politics. I seriously doubt that he’s a racist; more to the point, I don’t think his policy views are racist. I’ve finally got some thoughts on it, mostly inspired by the recent revelations about the racist content of some of Paul’s newsletters.

I’ve never thought Paul had any chance of winning. His potential value is as an educational tool. If you don’t think he’s useful towards that end because of his stances on abortion and immigration, or you think the taint of racism on Paul will become associated with libertarianism as a whole, or you just think electoral politics are an inappropriate strategy in general, I’m fine with that. I certainly don’t think it’s some sort of libertarian litmus test, and I think it’s unfortunate that some Paul supporters have tried to turn it into that.

Likewise, I can understand “purist” libertarians who reject Paul because of the content of his newsletters, though I think that’s an overreaction. Racism is not logically incompatible with libertarianism, but it can be considered anti-libertarian in another sense- widespread racism would have a tendency to undermine support for libertarian values, in both individual minds and societies, by giving people an additional incentive to violate those values. Hating a group of people doesn’t make it impossible to support respecting and defending their rights, but it certainly makes it harder. So racism should not be a non-issue to libertarians, even though it is not in itself a rights violation that can be justly countered with force.

With all that said, a certain aspect of the recent uproar over the racist content of some of Paul’s old newsletters sticks in my craw. It’s actually not new, but the Paul affair has made me think about it more.

Specifically, it’s the way a lot of Paul’s libertarian detractors- and detractors of paleolibertarians in general- draw the boundaries of libertarian purity. Consider the war issue. The paleolibertarians, most obviously at the Mises Institute and lewrockwell.com, have been resolutely antiwar. On the other hand, outfits like Reason and the Cato Institute have no problem welcoming vocal hawks into their ranks. (Cato’s position was against the war, but they still had pro-war thinkers like Brink Lindsay among their ranks; Reason had no official line, if memory serves, but it likewise has had no problem having hawks on its staff...)

That’s not necessarily wrong. Brink Lindsay’s views on Iraq don’t mean that he has nothing of value to say on free trade. But, reading comments on many libertarian websites, many libertarians will accept warmongers, but seem to consider racists –even if they do not support racist laws- to be morally beyond the pale. Indeed, some would seem to expand that to anyone with conservative moral or cultural views. This is quite at odds with my interpretation of libertarianism. For instance, I think that supporting an aggressive war that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people is worse than having made or endorsed racist remarks 15 years ago, or for that matter today. But that’s just me. Then again, I’ve noticed that a lot of Paul’s (and paleolibertarianism’s) loudest detractors- Tom Palmer, Virginia Postrel, Timothy Sandefeur, Brink Lindsay- are or were themselves pro-war, so I shouldn’t be surprised that their values are not in line with my own.

Likewise, I think having and tolerating supporters of military aggression, mass murder, and the warfare state among us is a hell of lot more likely to corrupt or poison the libertarian movement as a whole than tolerating people who don’t want to live near blacks and think gays are going to go to Hell, however distasteful the latter group may be. Thus, I think the call to purge the paleolibertarians from the movement is ridiculous, even if the paleos really are the ogres that the “cosmopolitan” libertarians say they are. (Which I doubt.) I’m a big-tent sort, and I don’t think Sandefeur, Postrel, Lindsay, et al. should be drummed out of libertarianism, but if I had to choose I’d throw them over the side a hell of a lot faster than I would Han-Hermann Hoppe

However, I can understand people wanting to cut Paul loose for racism while continuing to accept war supporters on purely strategic grounds, and I’d have a lot more sympathy for the cosmopolitan libertarians if I thought that was all this was about. Electoral campaigns are tools, and there’s no shame in discarding one that’s broken. Racists are generally hated more than warmongers, so associating with the former looks worse than the latter. The revelations about Paul’s newsletters may well mean an end to Paul’s usefulness as a conveyor of libertarian ideas, though I’m hoping it doesn’t. The American public and (perhaps more importanatly) the respectable press and intelligentsia seem to consider saying nasty things about nonwhites to be much worse than advocating slaughtering them en masse. But I expected more sense from libertarians.

More thoughts on some related issues coming soon.

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austroman said...

Great post! I mostly agree -- though I would add that the rush by many libertarians to declare that, e.g. Randy Barnett no longer counts as a libertarian because he's pro-war strikes me as equally silly.

One caveat, though: while Tom Palmer is certainly one of the loudest detractors of LRC and the Mises Institute, he’s not one of the loudest detractors of Ron Paul; most of the mentions of Paul on his website have been tepidly favourable. And he's been more antiwar than otherwise.

John Markley said...

Thanks, I appreciate it. And I agree- the attempts to drum out Barnett (or Lindsay, etc) were pointlessly destructive.

Concerning Palmer: I believe his position is that the war should never have happened, but that since it has the U.S. ought to continue the occupation to contain the chaos. I consider that much better than supporting the initial invasion, and I don't doubt that his intentions are good, but it does place him on the interventionist/pro-war side of what is now the most important issue for anti-interventionists.