Friday, January 11, 2008

Megan McArdle on the Ron Paul fallout

In her Atlantic blog, Megan McArdle asks an important question: will the decline and fall of Ron Paul be good for libertarianism? Her answer is a guarded "yes":

Ron Paul's unfortunate moment, and the outing of Lew Rockwell and Jeff Tucker as the probable authors of the bile, have given libertarians the opportunity to make decisive break with that past--and thankfully, they all seem to be taking it.
As anyone who delves into my blog knows, I distrusted the Ron Paul "Movement" almost from the very start. In part, I'm suspicious of movements of all kinds, but the level of support Ron Paul received from neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, 9/11 Truthers, and other assorted nuts and "white nationalists" was an additional reason to withhold my support (such as it is.)

Unfortunately, I can't share McArdle's optimism about the libertarian response to this mess. After plowing through countless blogs and reading about a zillion comments, I can divide the responses from Ron Paul supporters to the newsletter fiasco into maybe three or four:
  1. Ron Paul does not believe these things. Just look at his record! And he likes Mises, who was Jewish!
  2. Ron Paul does not believe these things, but even if he did, most of them are true, and y'all know it.
  3. Ron Paul can't be racist. It's impossible for libertarians to be racist!
All of these responses are troublesome and leave no room at all for the people who make them to "move past" Ron Paul into a more thoroughgoing, thoughtful libertarianism.

The third is an a priori appeal to a certain conception of libertarianism that is frankly quite false. Insofar as libertarianism is understood as a political doctrine, it sure is possible for a libertarian to be a racist. There are some more robust, comprehensive versions of libertarianism that incorporate a more substantial ethical core. However, these versions suffer a tension between their free market absolutism and the broader conception of the good such views espouse.

For example, if one believes it is very bad to be a racist, and that all humans are equal in their moral dignity, then one should have to explain why federal law should not be used to prevent some forms of racial discrimination. After all, if it is bad to be a racist in Arkansas, it's equally bad to be a racist in Michigan. In my case, I resolved this dilemma by breaking with free market absolutism in favor of federal civil rights legislation. I think this position is very defensible, both morally and politically.

Most people agree with me: it should be illegal everywhere in the United States for employers to hire solely on the basis of race. Some things are more important than the property rights of business owners. As for the equal dignity of every human, that should be recognized in every state, and not subject to variation as a result of the machinations of the invisible hand or local city councils.

The second response from Ron Paul supporters is a version of the crypto-racism I saw over and over again on white nationalist message boards. These neo-Nazi pin-heads invariably believe that lots of Americans agree with them, but are too afraid to say so. Their biggest worry is not that Ron Paul is a closet racist, but that someone like Kirchick will open the closet door before the good doctor has a chance to wipe out the hated 14th Amendment.

I have little to offer by way of counter-argument here: I'm not going to argue racism with a racists. If you agree 100% with those newsletters, I've got nothing to say to you, and my fondest hope is for you to stab yourself in the heart with the spike on top of one of those old German army helmets from the first world war.

Finally, there are those who simply refuse to believe that Ron Paul could have anything at all to do with the newsletters. That position -- an absolutism in its own right -- no longer appears entirely defensible. The personal details printed in the newsletter push the burden of proof back on to those who hold the most extreme position, i.e. those who say they're completely certain Paul had nothing to do with the newsletters.

This certainty is an enemy of the kind of evolution McArdle is hoping to see. Libertarians should have a natural distrust for politicians -- yes, even for Ron Paul. Trusting Ron Paul when he says he had nothing to do with the newsletters and believing that his personal views must be perfectly aligned with his public ones is a dangerous attitude for one to take toward any politician.

In this particular case, the attitude tethers Ron Paul's own presidential ambitions to libertarianism so well that if the former fails (and it will), then the holder of the attitude is likely to reject the latter as well. The irony is that those who loved Ron Paul the most unreservedly are the least likely to remain libertarians once this is all over and the good doctor has returned to his home in Lake Jackson, Texas.

Libertarianism isn't dead. But it isn't exactly alive, either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please stop calling yourselves libertarians. The Megan McArdle types are nothing more than Corporatist/Globalist Bankster funded shills.It really comes down to the American people vs. the Federal Reserve. Without the complete elimination of the privately owned Federal Reserve money cartel, freedom and prosperity in America is doomed.