Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Question for Critics of Ron Paul's Critics

Dec 4, 2007 5:05 pm

A Question for Critics of Ron Paul's Critics

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Most of my libertarian comrades seem to think that Ron Paul is either a) the Second Coming, or b) the Apocalypse. (The former viewpoint dominates at, while the latter dominates, with some exceptions, at See also, of course, the L & P exchange – 86 posts and counting – here.) I’m somewhere in between: I have a lot of serious problems with his candidacy, but I admit I’m also gratified every time I see his poll numbers rising.

But there’s one argument that the (a) group offers the (b) group that I find very puzzling. This is an argument directed primarily to those members of group B who oppose Paul’s candidacy because of his stands on some particular issues (e.g., immigration, abortion, gay rights, constitutionalism), as opposed to those who oppose his candidacy on the basis of a rejection of electoral politics in general – i.e., it’s directed toward those who would be open in principle to supporting a political candidate and just have problems with this one.

The argument goes like this: “Even if you think Paul is wrong on some particular issues, he’s still far, far more libertarian than any of the other candidates, so why not support him?”

The reason I find this argument puzzling is that those who make it would not, I suspect, find it plausible in most other contexts.

Imagine, for example, that instead of Ron Paul it’s Randy Barnett who’s running for President. Paul and Barnett have a lot in common; they’re both fairly thoroughgoing libertarians, they’re both enthusiasts for the Constitution, and they both take some positions that many libertarians regard as deviations.

I suspect that a Barnett candidacy would be far less popular among Group A folks than a Paul candidacy. Barnett’s two major deviations, from their point of view (and mine too, for that matter), would be his support for the war and his insufficiently decentralist approach to federalism. Yet the argument that they have offered on behalf of Paul would seem to apply equally well to Barnett: “Even if you think Barnett is wrong on some particular issues, he’s still far, far more libertarian than any of the other candidates, so why not support him?”

Now maybe that would be a good argument and maybe it would be a bad argument, but whichever it is, it seems like an exactly analogous argument. So if, as I bet, most members of Group A would resist the pro-Barnett argument (I base my guess on Group A’s furious reaction to Barnett’s Wall Street Journal article), why should they expect Group B folks to accept the analogous pro-Paul argument?

Perhaps the reply will be that Paul’s deviations, if such they be, are still consistent with libertarianism, while Barnett’s are not. But if “consistent with libertarianism” means “consistent with libertarian principle properly understood,” then to call something a deviation is precisely to say that it is not consistent with libertarianism. On the other hand, if “consistent with libertarianism” means “consistent with the proponent’s still counting as a libertarian,” then it seems to me that both Paul’s and Barnett’s deviations are consistent with libertarianism in that sense. (If Ludwig von Mises – advocate of conscription and the Cold War, and admirer of Abraham Lincoln – counts as a libertarian, how could Barnett fail to do so?)

Or perhaps the reply will be that Barnett’s deviations are important and fundamental, while Paul’s, if any, are minor and peripheral. But of course Group B folks are not likely to agree that Paul’s deviations are minor and peripheral. Consider the case of immigration (since that’s an area where Paul explicitly favours federal enforcement rather than merely turning things back to the states). Now libertarians disagree over immigration; some see a difference between keeping people inside one’s borders and keeping them out, while for others there’s no difference. I think the second position is the right one (if the party doing the enforcing doesn’t own the land on either side of the border, then it doesn’t make much moral difference whether the enforcing party itself is located on the territory being migrated to or the territory being migrated from); but whether it’s the right one or whether it isn’t, it at least seems clear that it’s no surprise that those who do find the two policies precisely analogous are going to find Paul’s immigration policy non-trivially objectionable, since they’ll see it as on a par with supporting the Berlin Wall. Now maybe there’s still a good case for supporting generally libertarian candidates whose stands on some particular issues you find horrifically anti-liberty; I can see arguments pro and con on that. But those in group A who would not support a Barnett candidacy owe Group B an explanation of why the two cases differ. (Of course any member of Group A who would support a Barnett candidacy is exempt from the charge of inconsistency.)

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Jim Davidson - 12/7/2007

Let me say here, now, and for the record that if Randy Barnett were to raise $20 million in one calendar year for his campaign, as Ron Paul seems to be doing, and were to show 8% in the polls in New Hampshire, as Ron is doing, then, yes, I would support Barnett's candidacy to the extent that I support Ron's - though Barnett would have to oppose the war in Iraq as a condition of my support. I seem to recall an essay by Barnett extolling enthusiastically for the warfare interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I wonder if he's the ideal libertarian candidate, or at all libertarian, really.

I don't like Ron's position on the border. I don't like Ron's position on abortion. But, I do like Ron's position on the war, on the idea of limiting government with a constitution, on the constitution giving too much power to the national government even as written (Ron has said he would have been an anti-federalist at the time the constitution was drafted), on taxes, on the IRS, on the size of government, and on the Federal Reserve.

There is certainly no reason for me to be upset if someone chooses not to support Ron Paul on grounds of electoral politics being inherently aggressive. I myself do not plan to vote for Ron Paul, nor for anyone else, ever. There's also no reason for me to be upset if someone sees no reason to support Ron Paul even though they would support another candidate. Everyone has choices to take, and more choices is a better situation than fewer.

But, here's why I'm supporting Ron, again, this year, with money and time. As I see it, the letter from L G Knight Duquesne in the Libertarian Enterprise
offers the key insight.

There are a bunch of trains heading east, which represent the candidacies of various nationalist socialists of Republican or Democrat parties. There are a few trains sitting in the station, not really moving, or just barely getting up steam, which are going to head West, and which would, if they ever got going, really go where I want to be. But, I've seen them sitting in the station for decades, now, and the various Libertarian Party (and Boston Tea Party) candidates I've encountered don't seem able to go anywhere. I have no issue with anyone who wants to climb aboard one of those and buy a ticket and sit patiently while it goes nowhere. Equally, I have no illusion that it is going to suddenly head West and get very far, either.

Then there's one other train, which is clearly headed West. That's the train I'm on. I know it isn't going all the way to where I want to be. I know that I'm going to have to get off at some point and walk away from it. Less metaphorically, I know that Dr. Paul is going to do only so much, assuming he gets elected, and isn't assassinated, and I'm going to have to go further by myself if I want real freedom. But, by gosh, he's going in the correct direction.

And his train is moving. There are over 75,000 people involved in his campaign as volunteers in various Meet Up Groups. There are over 85,000 people who have donated to his campaign. He has money. He is starting to poll much higher than earlier this year. There is a serious opportunity for his candidacy to do two important things:

1. He can raise awareness of issues that most other nationally visible candidates have studiously ignored, like the Federal Reserve, and the IRS.

2. He has motivated tens of thousands of people who are doing fun things - creating and waving signs, organizing fund raisers, working together, and meeting each other, as well as canvassing early states. Those people are evidently not fired up about any other candidate, so if you want to meet some of them and move a few of them toward a fuller understanding of political philosophy, you have to go where they are.

I think it is about ten times as likely that Ron Paul is going to win the GOP nomination compared to the likelihood that Steve Kubby, Christine Smith, or any Libertarian nominee is going to poll 1% in the general election next November. And if Ron's chance of winning the nomination is a long shot, I'd rather bet on a long shot than on a nationalist socialist from either party.

Finally, ultimately, as the supporters for any LP candidate are free to do as they choose, I believe that I'm free to do as I please. It is my time, and my money, and it isn't like I'm committing aggression since I am refusing to vote.

Anthony Gregory - 12/5/2007

I am both anti-immigration controls and antiwar. I agree that, from a certain radical perspective, immigration controls can be seen as the equivalent of emigration controls — though it does depend on circumstance: a restriction against entering a small town, even if governed by an illegitimate city-state, still does not strike me as anywhere as bad as the Berlin Wall. Keeping someone outside a tiny town is not nearly as bad as keeping someone inside a tiny town. But I certainly oppose US borders.

The thing is, under the same radical analysis, war is not just the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, but Stalin's purges. It is not just tyranny but genocide. By any assessment, slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent foreigners is worse than forcibly keeping them out. To support something like the Iraq war is far worse, in my opinion, than supporting immigration controls, or universal health care, or gun control, on drug prohibition, or taxation. It is supporting the murder and displacement of millions of people and the destruction of an entire society. There can never be any justification for this. Even if all of the United States were a private property institution, it would have no right whatsover to conduct a US-style foreign policy, whereas it would have a right to keep people out.

And so while I can see how, if we want to be very charitable, we can regard pro-war libertarians as simply people who in good faith have adopted an error, their error is far worse than the error adopted by immigration restrictionists.

Under Ron Paul's immigration policy, the most aggression you could argue that he has called for is the punishment of visa violators. He has not called for mass deportations or a police state to stop illegals. Most of his proposals are libertarian — cutting welfare and privileges — even if some of us might not agree with the priority. But in the case of war, the libertarian supporters have defended atrocities far worse than anything Ron Paul comes close to advocating. Shock and Awe alone was completely indefensible from a methodological individualist perspective. To be wrong about dropping explosives on children, no matter how charitably we construe the error, is much, much worse than being wrong about immigration.