In the wake of TNR’s article about Ron Paul, several libertarian websites and newspapers expressed upset and disavowal. The recent posts in The Liberty Papers are more or less indicative of the general tone. David Boaz of the CATO Institute also had some condemning words for Paul: “We had never seen the newsletters that have recently come to light, and I for one was surprised at just how vile they turned out to be. But we knew the company Ron Paul had been keeping, and we feared that they would have tied him to some reprehensible ideas far from the principles we hold.”
That’s rich. For the last several months, Boaz and CATO wouldn’t explain why they dismissed the Ron Paul movement, which proposed the first viable libertarian presidency since quasi-libertarian Ronald Reagan. Now they suddenly recall that it was Paul’s associates all along. Maybe they mean it, but they mean it with a smug satisfaction
Let us be clear about Paul’s involvement in the newsletters: From Liberty Papers and CATO to Andrew Sullivan and Reason.com, no one actually believes Paul wrote the newsletters. The letters can’t be reconciled with the wealth of Paul’s books or speeches, nor his ideology or political platform. Instead, they complain that he is guilty of some kind of publisher’s negligence, and I agree. Being Ron Paul, he probably overlooked the newsletters because of some libertarian, live-and-let-live subscription to the free expression rights of the authors. So I admit that Ron Paul may be just too libertarian to safely rent out his name and I charge him with failing to require authors’ bylines in exchange for his name. But if that’s the worst of his failures, I’d be more worried if he ignored a sexual harassment claim at Ron Paul Barbeque.
In reality, libertarians seem to distance themselves because Ron Paul isn’t the perfect libertarian. Every think tank has its ideological nuances and they won’t always square with Paul’s brand of libertarianism. That may seem trite and it probably is, but keep in mind that libertarian writers spend their lives honing ideological twists and pursuing literary achievements instead of learning the law and becoming active. They don’t need to compromise their positions or reconcile their separate idiosyncrasies to form any sort of consensual movement, so they can’t be expected to suddenly change now that there’s a specific brand of libertarianism on center stage. One wonders if this theory-to-practice threshold is a common obstacle for partisan architects when their ideologies make an actual political debut.
With the stakes so high, perhaps the most confusing part of all this is what libertarian authors hope to gain from inaction. Front-runners in both parties pushing pro-federal agendas so Ron Paul could be the last stop on the U.S.’s way to irrevocable statism. By the time another viable libertarian comes along, the federal government may have abrogated so many civil rights and tinkered with the economy so badly that citizens will be carrying IDs to walk on the sidewalk and applying for permission just to turn a profit. Moreover, the internet may be regulated, which may eschew any chance at another Ron Paul-style net-roots campaign. Worse, every economist from the Comptroller General to Alan Greenspan predicts a long-term recession and recessions are hardly the time to propose limited government solutions when voters are looking to the government to solve their woes. A libertarian society may weather economic depressions better than other social constructs, but they need economic momentum to begin with. If the aftermath of the New Deal is any indication, it will take another 60 years after the next recession before libertarianism becomes tasteful again.
The tragedy of all this is that Paul seems to be the only candidate interested in protecting America’s most oppressed minority: the United Sates military and its family members. Over 4,000 Americans have died tragic, inglorious deaths far across the planet from their loved ones. Tens of thousands more are returning home with melted skin, amputated limbs, and blood filled with pathogens due to Halliburton’s negligence. They cannot afford the liberty movement to become fractured over an anachronistic perspective on some nonsense newsletters designed to provoke a newly-minted, politically correct era. They have even said so; by donating more to the Paul campaign than any other, military families are screaming for libertarians and conservatives to take a stand on his behalf. If libertarians wait for some perfect candidate to descend from Plato’s Heaven, they will abandon these people who desperately need them for nothing but a long-shot gamble that something better will come along.
Paul’s brand of libertarian-conservatism deserves an endorsement if for no other reason than it approximates the ostensible positions of Liberty Papers and CATO. There is no question that Paul subscribes to the core tenets of Von Mises, Ayn Rand, Thomas Jefferson, and John Locke and he appears to approach them with deontological rigidity. Whatever libertarian authors' real beef with Paul is, it is so subtle to the layman that one would probably find more disagreement between Richard Pearle and Bill Kristol. And while I have been extremely critical of those two, I will note that at least they had the gumption to take a chance on George W. Bush.
Moreover, there is no question that Paul is legitimate. He has been endorsed by Goldwater the younger, shilled by heavyweight conservative Richard Viguerie, and praised by John McLaughlin (several times). When Carl Cameron of Fox News asked Paul an obnoxious question about Paul’s credibility with Republicans, Paul embarrassed Cameron so badly that Fox cut the clip out of its debate rebroadcast.
In spite of all this, CATO chooses to shuffle Paul out. In so doing, it narrows the scope of acceptable libertarian brands and it alludes to a preference for impotence over risk. It prioritizes a fear of being associated with racial insensitivity over a host of other problems including dead Americans and out-of-control federal spending. Worse, it sets a tone for libertarians to refrain from acting on the fortuitous chance that a wart-less, history-less candidate will charm his way onto the national stage.
Libertarian think tanks should give themselves a reality check. They should compare Paul’s newsletter problem with the problems associated with other candidates. McCain flippantly promises to keep an American presence in Iraq for the next 100 years. In fact, no one but Paul can really be trusted not to. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all promise massive entitlement programs despite dire predictions by the Comptroller General about our ability to follow through with our current entitlements. No candidate even tries to rebut Paul’s predictions about the economy, which is wise, because Paul has anticipated every economic turn since 1997, yet they all assert fiscally wreckless proposals. And the irony is that no one but Obama is likely to be alive to watch the real havoc this fiscal irresponsibility will wreak on our economy. I am dismayed that Paul’s old, denounced publication appears to matter as much as any of that.
Perhaps many libertarian idealogues don’t care. Perhaps they are more content to be right than to do anything about it. Perhaps that’s even a morally neutral choice. But at some point the liberty movement stops looking useful and starts looking opportunistic. And libertarians cannot claim to fight the good fight when they only pick the easy ones.
In case you didn’t read the CATO Institute’s condemnation, here is their best argument: “That’s an odd claim on which to run for president: I didn’t know what my closest associates were doing over my signature, so give me responsibility for the federal government.” I am surprised that even libertarians misunderstand Paul this fundamentally. In reality, Paul says, “I allowed writers to use my name to express their views regardless of whether I appreciated their positions. Now, I want to strip the powers of the executive branch so that people can make their own decisions regardless of whether I appreciate their positions.” Nor does Paul want "responsibility" for the federal government so much as he wants to divest it of the responsibilities that it cannot help but mismanage. That is as libertarian a position as one could responsibly ask a presidential candidate to have. It is difficult to see how the liberty movement can ever succeed if libertarians refuse to stick up for the candidate who adheres to it, especially one who adheres to it without compromise, special interest money, or concern for political ostracization.