Blogs > Liberty and Power > To Paul Or Not To Paul, Part 3

Jan 3, 2008 4:46 am

To Paul Or Not To Paul, Part 3

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Okay, so what do I think is the proper libertarian response to Ron Paul’s candidacy? Well, I don’t think there is a single proper libertarian response. Let me say why.

The two best arguments for supporting Paul’s candidacy, as I see it, are these:

1. If Paul were to win, he would produce, on balance, much more libertarian results than any of the other current candidates; in particular, he would bring our troops home and thus save thousands of lives, as well as reducing our attractiveness as a terrorist target.

2. Even if Paul does not win, his campaign is an opportunity to build awareness of, interest in, and enthusiasm for libertarianism.

The two best arguments against supporting Paul’s candidacy, as I see it, are these:

3. Electoral politics is the wrong strategy for the libertarian movement.

4. Even granting the legitimacy of the electoral strategy, Ron Paul’s deviations (e.g. on abortion, immigration, gay rights, constitutional fetishism, or even minarchism itself) make him an inappropriate object for libertarian support.

Let me say a bit more about each of these arguments.

As far as I can tell, (1) is correct in arguing that Paul, despite his deviations, would likely pursue policies whose direct results would be significantly more libertarian than otherwise. (About indirect results, more anon.) His control over military policy would after all be greater than his control over immigration policy or abortion policy. I think that’s a reason to hope he does well, and I do hope he does well. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if there were a button such that pushing it would guarantee Paul’s election, while not pushing it would guarantee the election of Giuliani or Clinton or Romney or Obama or Huckabee or Edwards or McCain or ... then I would happily push it.

This case for supporting Paul must be evaluated in the light of his low chances of election, however. Now I agree with the claim, made by Paul’s supporters, that the mainstream media are probably underestimating his chances; in particular I agree that telephone polls probably undercount Paul’s supporters by excluding those (younger, “hipper”) voters who rely primarily on cell phones. However, I also think that Paul’s supporters are probably overestimating his chances. (I suspect both sides are guilty of a bit of wishful thinking.) I don’t believe Paul has a realistic chance of winning in today’s political climate. I could be wrong – and I’ll be following with interest his fortunes in the upcoming Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. But if I’m right that his chances of being elected are small, then the good consequences, if such they would be, of his hypothetical presidency become correspondingly weaker reasons to vote for him.

Yet of course there may often be good reasons to vote for someone you think is unelectable – as indeed I’ve argued elsewhere. A strong showing for Paul, even if it fell short of electing him, might put pressure on the winner to end the war, or if not, might lay the groundwork for a more successful run later on. And of course there’s the general movement-building potential invoked by argument (2).

True enough, but argument (2) needs to be balanced against argument (4). Would the kind of libertarian movement that a Paul candidacy would help to build be a movement deeply entangled with Paul’s anti-immigration, anti-abortion, constitutional-fetishist views? I don’t know; maybe. Those of us who think, on “thickness” grounds (see part 2), that libertarianism requires lefty values for its implementation and/or stability are going to be unenthusiastic about building a right-libertarian version of the libertarian movement.

Defenders of Paul may say: “Okay, but even granting the point about left-libertarian thickness, wouldn’t it be better for a right-libertarian ethos to prevail than for a statist ethos to prevail? And so isn’t that a reason to support a right-libertarian movement in the short run? After all, you can always work on moving it toward the left in the longer run.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that argument per se. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with resisting it. Let me explain. In any movement one has to make trade-off decisions between short-run gains and long-run gains, where the long-run gains are typically greater but iffier. And I don’t think such decisions can be settled by information about probabilities alone. Information about probabilities is relevant, to be sure, but a person’s individual talents and proclivities are relevant too. If Helen has a flair for writing abstract libertarian theory while Klytaemnestra has a flair for preparing position papers on the privatisation of social security, then it might be perfectly reasonable for Helen to specialise in promoting the ultimate triumph of 100% libertarian purity, and for Klytaemnestra to specialise in shorter-term reformist projects. And this reasonable difference in goals might lead them to differ, reasonably, when it comes to trade-offs.

Suppose, for example, that supporting Ron Paul’s candidacy contributes to saving lives by ending the current war and/or preventing new wars – either because Paul gets elected as per argument (1), or because his campaign helps build a stronger antiwar movement as per argument (2). Yet also suppose that the best way to help ensure the long-term triumph and stability of libertarianism – thus saving far more lives in the long run, though at still longer odds – is to work on building a movement that embraces left-libertarian thickness, and that a right-libertarian candidacy would be likely to detract from that project. It seems to me that Helen and Klytaemnestra might reasonably assess these rival options differently. (So am I saying that Ron Paul’s supporters have higher time-preference than his left-libertarian critics? I confess that gives me a chuckle.)

Finally, let me turn to argument (3). How strong is the libertarian case for rejecting electoral politics altogether? The Voluntaryist moral argument that electoral politics involves impermissibly lending one’s sanction to the state I continue to find unpersuasive, for reasons I’ve explained previously. But the Agoriststrategic argument is one that I find more convincing than I used to.

The Agorist line is that, given the informational and incentival constraints on state behaviour, the ultimate triumph of liberty is unlikely to come through top-down political action. Hence the more effective strategy is to encourage the withering-away of the state through education, building alternative institutions, and encouraging the withdrawal of support via La Boétie-style mass civil disobedience. But this means that we should be trying to wean people away from the political process – that we should be encouraging them to ignore the state, not to become energetically involved in political campaigns.

David Gordon writes that “Rothbard scorned those who disdain political action. Interested only in their supposed ideological purity, they retreat to an intellectual pantisocracy and display little interest in actually securing libertarian political objectives.” But this is a misunderstanding, I think. Those who disdain political action in the sense of electoral politics are not necessarily disdaining political action in the sense of action aimed at achieving libertarian political goals; they just think that the best way to do the latter is to resist, rather than to embrace, the former. It’s sometimes said that anarchists and minarchists are headed in the same direction, and so might as well ride on the same train for the time being, with minarchists merely getting off a stop or two before the anarchists do. But if the Agorist argument is right, they’re not really riding on the same train; and the minarchist train encourages a mindset that tends to undermine the success of the anarchist train.

To paraphrase Nietzsche just a tad:

What if a symptom of regression were inherent in libertarian electoral politics, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present was possibly living at the expense of the future? Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely? – So that precisely libertarian electoral politics would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that precisely libertarian electoral politics was the danger of dangers?

Since the Agorist case against electoral politics is a strategic rather a moral argument, however, it doesn’t have the same kind of exceptionless force that moral arguments aspire to have (at least for us deontologists). As a pragmatic rather than a moral argument, it establishes a general presumption against electoral politics, but not, as far as I can see, an absolute prohibition. On this point I part company with my Agorist comrades. (I also think that, come the Agorist revolution, we’d be well-advised to have some fifth-columnists placed in the state apparatus; that’s another reason Agorists shouldn’t eschew electoral politics entirely. But this point seems to apply to a period when the revolution is imminent, which certainly isn’t now.)

As I see it, there’s no apodictic necessity that a political campaign must lend more support to an electoral mindset than it does to an anti-electoral mindset. Hence a sufficiently strong electoral candidate could be worthy of an Agorist’s vote. Applying this argument to Ron Paul, however, strikes me as problematic, precisely because his strong emphasis on constitutionality, on (in his words) taking his “marching orders” from the Constitution, does seem to be at odds with the kind of strategy an Agorist seeks to promote. (I know there’s dispute in the libersphere as to the extent to which Paul’s constitutional fetishism is sincere versus being a way of selling libertarian ideas to constitution-revering American audiences; but the Agorist worry about such a campaign’s effects will be the same in either case.)

Suppose the Agorists are right (as I think they are) that our best shot for achieving long-term 100% libertarianism is to promote a bottom-up approach of bypassing the state; and suppose they are also right (as again I think they are) that the constitutional-fetishism of Ron Paul’s candidacy is likelier to frustrate rather than advance such an approach. Suppose, too, that the left-libertarian thickness approach is right in holding that the best (both most reasonable and most effective) form for a libertarian movement to take is a left-libertarian one, and that supporting Ron Paul’s right-libertarian candidacy tends to detract from that desideratum as well. Are those decisive arguments against supporting Paul’s presidential bid?

No, I don’t think so. The most that these arguments show is that supporting Paul, while it might bring about some advance toward liberty in the short run, tends to undermine the chances of achieving a thoroughgoing libertarian society in the long run. But that by itself might not be a good enough reason.

Suppose, for example, that you think the chances of ever achieving a thoroughgoing libertarian society are, objectively, so abysmally low that they’re not worth taking into consideration, and that the most one can hope to do is to push back the forces of darkness a little bit and for a little while. In that case the fact that supporting Paul might reduce the odds of long-run libertarian victory from vanishingly small to even more vanishingly small would be irrelevant.

But once again, deciding such trade-offs needn’t depend on probabilities alone. Whether a long shot is worth pursuing depends not only on the odds that it can be gotten but on how good you are at pursuing such a goal, how fulfilling you would find it, how much weight you place on long-term versus short-term satisfaction, how eager you are to see some success in your lifetime, and what your other commitments are – and these are matters that can legitimately vary from person to person. (Aristotle calls this the “mean relative to us.”)

By analogy, suppose I think that cathedrals are better than gas stations, and suppose I also think that if I use these materials to build gas stations, there’s a good chance that there won’t be enough left over to build a cathedral. Does it follow that I should refrain from building gas stations with the materials at hand? Not necessarily. I might be good at building gas stations and lousy at building cathedrals; or I might recognise that cathedrals take longer to build than gas stations, and value gas stations now over cathedrals later. Or maybe I just like to live dangerously, so I go ahead with my gas stations and hope I’ll still be able to complete my cathedral later. (Between the impermissible extremes of cowardice and rashness lie a range of permissible degrees of risk-aversion.)

I don’t support Ron Paul’s candidacy, then, because my own talents, proclivities, and commitments lie with the Agorist and left-libertarian projects, and I value the promotion of those projects over the short-term benefits that Paul’s candidacy might gain at the expense of those projects. But I can’t see that this preference is compulsory for everybody. Even if every libertarian ought to be an Agorist and a cultural lefty (and so they ought! – there are limits to my Aristotelean pluralism), it seems to me that it does not follow that every libertarian ought to make the trade-off between those long-run projects and the possible short-run gains from Paul’s candidacy the same way I do.

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Less Antman - 1/3/2008

Until recently, that was my reason for supporting the Paul campaign. But his campaign staff has sabotaged it all.

Look at the home page: not a word about Iraq or war or non-intervention. Consider the two ads on which they've been spending their big money: they've been blanketing Iowa and New Hampshire with that fear-mongering ad about immigrants and an empty "we have the answer" ad without a single answer, with nothing about foreign policy clearer than "our troops are spread too thin", and another swipe at immigrants with "our national borders are ignored." National sovereignty is now the theme. The antiwar and foreign policy message was abandoned, and the independents (not to mention liberals) are losing interest.

When Paul talks, he (usually) advances the message of liberty. But with all the money (most of which probably came from non-Republicans), he now has a staff of PR experts appealing to the worst elements of the traditional Republican party and trying to bury his libertarian messages.

Anthony Gregory - 1/3/2008

Ron Paul has undone a lot of damage to the cause of liberty done by rightwing libertarians over the years. He has made it clear that opposing the warfare state is more central to libertarianism than opposing the welfare state, that secret prisons are a more immediate threat than food stamp programs, that corporate welfare is a bigger problem in America than run-of-the-mill welfare. He has helped Americans realize that a libertarian is likely to want to bring the troops home now, shut down the empire, and reduce taxation, but sees taxing and spending domestically as not as immoral as taxing and killing, or locking peaceful people into cages. Finally, the most important issues are being associated with libertarian thought.