Now that prominent respectable libertarians are denouncing Paul en masse, I think it’s time to think about what we as a group might learn from the whole embarrassing event. But first a preliminary observation: in 2003, I attended an event where Ron Paul spoke, and he instantly set off my crackpot alarm. I knew immediately there was something wrong with the man, although it was only much later that I delved and discovered details—many of which are not covered in the TNR piece, but which I discuss in these posts—which ruled him out entirely for me. How sad it is that libertarians did not detect it earlier.
I suspect the reason is primarily that libertarians are so desperate for someone who articulates their message—a message grounded in common sense and rigorous theory, but which is regarded as too extreme to be taken seriously by the media and “mainstream” commentators. For someone to talk openly about limited government is such an enormous relief that many of us are willing to embrace him instantly, without due diligence. This is something that has embarrassed the LP often enough as to destroy its credibility completely. So perhaps that is the first lesson: to paraphrase Jefferson, let’s not bite at the bait until we’re sure there’s no hook beneath it. As a fringe group—face it, we’re a fringe group in this world—we are particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by con men who count on our intense idealism and secret hopes, like the freshman girl whom the senior asks to the prom.
Second, we need to face up to the serious conflict within our ranks, between the neo-Confederates at the Mises Institute on one hand, and what James Kirchik calls “the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine” on the other. Many libertarians, myself included, have criticized the orthodox Objectivists for refusing to have anything to do with libertarians (let alone the LP), on the grounds that political alliances can include different philosophical backgrounds. I still think that’s true, but the Objectivists are also right that such an alliance is bound to have big fissures in it—fissures that may very well destroy your chances of accomplishing your goals. All politics is, to some degree, a big tent, but if you make that tent too big, you are bound to include some crazy-ass people in there, who will ultimately destroy your movement and your credibility.
I would like to see the libertarian community as a body repudiate the Lew Rockwellers entirely. They are not libertarians, they are paleo-conservatives who do not share our primary concern with individual liberty and constitutionalism. Ultimately they lack a grounded perspective on what liberty means and why it is important. Their moral and cultural relativism, their traditionalism and their alliances (both intellectual and strategic) with southern-style paleo-cons have misled them in many ways. They are stasists; we are dynamists. We are a variety of liberal, they are old-fashioned conservatives who believe in “popular sovereignty,” oppose judicial independence, think states should be free to violate individual liberty without federal intervention, and that foreign dictators should be able to tyrannize without hearing complaints from the United States. These guys are the creationists of the libertarian movement, and we would all be much better off slamming the doors on them entirely.
Unfortunately, the down side to that is that they are a very large part of the contemporary libertarian community—so large that this is probably not possible as a practical matter. Given that reality we ought to at least make it a point to be as honest as possible about these two camps and as clear as possible about who belongs in which. We should prevail upon our leading intellectuals to make their positions clear on these matters and, if they take the wrong side, we should make our judgments as clear as possible.
Consider, for example, Walter Williams. Dr. Williams is highly regarded in the libertarian community, and rightly so—he’s an effective and powerful voice for economic liberty, not to mention a lot of fun when he guest hosts for Rush. But Dr. Williams has unfortunately flirted with the neo-Confederates to such a degree that he even wrote the foreword to DiLorenzo’s ridiculous Lincoln book. He should be prevailed upon to distance himself from that crowd, and if he refuses to do so, others in the community should make it a point to condemn him for it whenever possible.
I think we must face the fact that the libertarian community does include many racists and other unsavory characters who see in our message of limited government an opportunity to act on their creepy impulses—people whose own hostility to the state is rooted not in a love of individual freedom and human initiative as ours is, but in an opposition to modernity, secularism, equality, urban life and bourgeois values. We must make it clear that they aren’t welcome in our big tent. You don’t have to be an Objectivist (or a Christian or a whatever), but you do have to believe at least in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this will happen. Doing it would require asking deep and uncomfortable questions. Basically, it would require a Reformation within the libertarian community—a straightforward confrontation with complicated and challenging issues. Libertarians do love fighting with each other, but in the end, two elements stand in the way: Pragmatism and libertarian orneriness.
Pragmatism—that is, the consequentialism of which Mises is the most obvious spokesman—was designed exactly to avoid these questions, because they lead to such conflict. We’ll just create a wertfrei libertarianism, Mises thought, and then we can avoid all this morality stuff and just get to designing a free society. The upside? You can convert people of different moral backgrounds to libertarianism. The downside? It collapses at the touch of those who take relativism seriously, and reject the practical arguments for liberty because they’re concerned more with their allegedly moral vision of a totalitarian state. Yet despite its obvious weaknesses, consequentialism is so prevalent in the libertarian community that some years ago R.W. Bradford declared it the winner.
And then there’s the orneriness—the libertarians who think they’re special because they reject all those old-fashioned moralizers like Rand and Jefferson and whatnot. They’re much too sophisticated and mature, you know, for discussions over morality and objectivity and deontology and whatnot, and if you suggest that there’s something wrong with a libertarianism that is not grounded in ethics, you’re just, like, totally lame.
Libertarianism needs to take a good, long, sober look in the mirror and think about what it stands for. And it needs to articulate its principles in unequivocal language that takes account of man’s spiritual nature as well as his economic circumstances. It needs to articulate an integrated vision that goes much, much deeper than “getting out of Iraq and returning to the gold standard.” It wouldn’t be that hard to do—it could be done by conscientiously declaring principles and differences openly and rigorously and letting the chips fall where they may. And the best first step would be to make a clean and clear break with the Mises Institute crowd—the sooner and the more unambiguously, the better.