Tuesday, December 27, 2011

UNPACKING MY THOUGHTS ON RON PAUL

Despite over 20 years of calling myself a libertarian, there's a reason why the name "Ron Paul" almost never comes up, and why I have extremely mixed feelings about his recent success, if that's what you want to call it. I probably would have voted for him in 1988, as I've fruitlessly voted for nearly every loser Libertarian Party candidate since that year, had my free minds/free markets consciousness arrived a couple years earlier. However, I was a wavering Democrat then, and pulled the lever for Michael Dukakis (!). A few years later, when I started devouring libertarian magazines like LIBERTY and REASON and paying visits to San Francisco's one and only libertarian bookstore - now long gone - I quickly gathered enough about the two strains of libertarian thinking to choose my path. I've stayed on that path every since, with some deviations and detours along the way, but very rarely in the direction of Ron Paul and what he represents.

Let's talk about those two key strains of libertarianism, which are both bursting into public consciousness this week with the big media and the Republican establishment freaking out about a potential Ron Paul victory in the Iowa caucus, and with the reemergence of a very old story about Paul's racist, militia-friendly 1990s newsletters. Both strains of libertarianism have a strong degree of overlap, but at some point you're going to need to pick your side if A.) You want to win an election (or don't care) and, B.) If your commitment to libertarian purity doesn't trump your commitment to rationality (or if it does). The two strains can be defined thusly: The Classic Liberal vs. The Paleolibertarian.

The former cares primarily about economic liberty, and secondarily (importantly, but not obsessively) about freedom from government intervention in his individual choices. The classic liberal knows that the freedom and liberty from regulation, excessive taxation and government interference of all kinds is what drives prosperity for all forward, and that markets are the engine of growth and of social evolution. While individual matters are very important - freedom to love whom we want to; freedom to travel unhindered; freedom to take risks with our own health by eating, smoking and drinking what we wish - they don't and shouldn't trump the importance of a smart, rational, and nearly government-free set of economic first principles. 

Of course I'm oversimplifying, and of course not every classic liberal feels precisely the way I do about things. Yet the institutions I admire and follow like the Reason Foundation and Cato Institute are far and away more a part of this libertarian strain than they are its ugly stepbrother, paranoid Paleolibertarianism. This, unfortunately, is where Ron Paul mostly resides, and has always been most comfortable. His is a populist sort of me-first libertarianism that elevates the individual above all else, and is far more concerned with ideological perfection and creating a utopia than it is in a set of principles that might fit into the American mainstream. I can understand where his former ability to lay low and let his underlings write stupid drivel in his name comes from - there was a time when libertarians and our views weren't openly mocked in the media, because no one knew who the hell we were. It was very easy to say obnoxious things to a crowd of hundreds and lay low, because no one cared. They do now.

Paleolibertarians have always defined themselves as "in reaction" and in opposition to everyone else. When blacks, Jews or gays are ascendant in the culture, this is something to be feared. Ron Paul's ridiculous newsletters from the 90s, the ones he disavows now, were part and parcel of the vanguard of this conspiratorial strain since the dawn of the word "libertarian". These are the people trying to sell you gold on late-night TV and in crude magazine ads; who draw up frothing pamphlets about coming catastrophes (AIDS! Race war! Avian flu! The Fed!); who defend lamebrained militia idiots "who just want to be free"; who plan floating paradise cities on the ocean; and who never seem to really care all that much about the practicality of implementing the free market side of the libertarian equation even while espousing it.

The prime movers on the paleo side are the deceased Murray Rothbard; the very much alive Lew Rockwell, "Taki" and, of course, Ron Paul. Even creepy curmudgeon Republican Pat Buchanan is copacetic with this crew. If I spent even ten minutes with any of these guys it would make my skin crawl.

Now let me be clear: Ron Paul potentially winning an election in Iowa is to me good news. It shakes up an ossified establishment and makes them sweat. I love it. The Republican candidates are clearly all simps, and having someone forcefully and clearly make liberty his defining raison d'etre, and to have it actually gain traction, is frankly amazing to me. (Though I suspect he will not actually win that caucus, nor anything else ever again). It's incredible to see his campaign driven not by 70-year-olds like himself, but by twentysomethings who aren't automatically hopping on the Democratic handout bandwagon, or the Republican cultural stupidity train. I love seeing the media squirm, and I love that the word "libertarian" actually is known and respected by thousands more people every single day.

Furthermore, Paul to his immense credit has not backed down from his key themes (end the war, end the Fed, end the drug war etc.) in order to pander to the electorate. If I really believed that he were a true, consistent social liberal/fiscal libertarian whom America could actually rally behind - and not just a former zealot, goldbug & closet troglodyte with absolutely no ability to actually lead a nation that's not already firmly in his corner - well, then he'd be my guy. Another thing about these true-blue libertarians, particularly the paleo kind: they pick their battles poorly, and tend to lose all sense of proportion in judging what truly makes a difference in people's lives.

For instance - I'm moderately in favor of loosening many of the drug restrictions, mandatory minimums and so on. I also don't enjoy seeing overzealous police work and elements of the Constitution subverted by local police departments or individual cops. Yet when compared with the much greater and far more impactful crimes going on in Washington and State Capitols all around this country - the untold waste of tax dollars, human potential and the squandering of opportunities to lift millions more out of poverty - there's no comparison. Yet Paul, and many of his ideological brethren, act as it there is, and scream the loudest when some doltish cop sprays pepper spray on a doltish protester. College kids love this stuff. Hence the "Paulistas". Grown ups (should) know better.

Paul (and I) may want to "end the war now" in Afghanistan, but I'm convinced that there is no such thing as a real-world (meaning one that would actually work) doctrinaire foreign policy that exists on the Left, Right or Libertarian sides of the triangle. Foreign policy is something that develops simultaneously both ideologically and in reaction to what's really going on - who your friends are, what friends you might need; and most importantly - protecting the American people from true harm (a.k.a. defense), even if it means fighting wars in which people on both sides die. I just don't see any nuance in this guy, and don't trust him as a leader.

I see the embrace of Ron Paul by thousands of newcomers as an opportunity, but also as a potential setback for the slice of the political spectrum that I call home. His newsletters are bile, pure and simple, and if he was stupid enough to let a bomb-throwing numbskull like Lew Rockwell write whatever he wanted under his name, then he's too stupid to be president. Brian Doherty at REASON thinks it's not important, and attention to it mars the triumphant narrative he wants in place right now. I believe Doherty sets his sights way too low. Attention to libertarianism now, after years in the wilderness, is a good thing. It's also an opportunity to jettison the baggage that's been accumulating all these years from the cranks, crackpots and angry pamphleteers on the paleolibertarian side, and actually start electing people who can truly resonate with a simple social liberal/fiscal conservative message. That isn't Ron Paul. The struggle, I'm afraid, is not even close to being over, and settling for a terribly flawed messenger does the cause no favors.