Here’s how far American politics, and libertarian politics in particular, have progressed in two short decades: On January 21, 2008, supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul launched an unofficial “money bomb” for the libertarian congressman on Martin Luther King Day, raising $1.9 million online while exhorting participants to “believe in the dream!” What a difference from just 17 years earlier, when, in between congressional stints, Paul was making good money with monthly newsletters that savaged King as a “lying socialist satyr” who “seduced underage girls and boys” and mocked the very idea of dedicating a holiday to the civil rights leader.
“In 1988, when I ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket,” the Ron Paul Political Report stated in January 1991, “I was berated for hours by LP members because I had refused to vote, while in Congress, for a Martin Luther King national holiday. I didn’t know then about his plagiarism, but the rest of King’s crimes were clear. J. Edgar Hoover once called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Who would have known the danger would continue after his death and threaten to strangle our culture?”
There aren’t many libertarians left who would choose the freedom-loving bona fides of the serially abusive former FBI chief over those of the man whose name has become synonymous with peaceful resistance to unjust laws. As Paul himself said on CNN in January, while denying authorship or even knowledge of such racially charged early-1990s quotes, “Martin Luther King is a hero, because [he] practiced the libertarian principle of civil disobedience, nonviolence.”
How to explain that 17-year switcheroo? Paul has done an incomplete job of it over the years. In 1996, when the newsletters first became a political issue during his hotly contested campaign to re-enter Congress, Paul did not deny writing such statements as “95% of the black males in [Washington, D.C.,] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal,” instead maintaining that his quotes expressed a “clear philosophical difference” with his political opponents and were in any case being taken “out of context” by his “race-baiting” competitor.
The congressman changed his tune in an October 2001 Texas Monthly profile, distancing himself from the sentiments while taking “moral responsibility” for their publication. “I could never say this in the campaign, but those words weren’t really written by me,” he said. “It wasn’t my language at all. Other people help me with my newsletter as I travel around.” Then this January, after The New Republic unearthed a large cache of obnoxious newsletters published from 1989 to 1994, Paul told CNN he had “never read” some of them before. “I absolutely honestly do not know who wrote those things,” he said.
The newsletter flap never really took off as a national news story, and it probably had little impact on Paul’s presidential campaign. As David Weigel notes a few pages hence, the Paul juggernaut was hobbled before takeoff by a hugely disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, whose primary was held just hours after the New Republic story was posted online. Aside from the newsletters themselves, no convincing evidence was ever offered that Paul was either racist or obsessed with Martin Luther King’s sex life.
Certainly the inspiring rEVOLution that sprang up around him has had nothing to do with playing on white fears of black criminality.
So why discuss the issue at all? Especially if, like me, you find Paul’s candidacy a refreshing injection of limited-government principle into the flabby carcass of a national GOP that has grown careless with power at home and abroad?
There are, I think, a few good reasons. In a narrow campaign sense, if indeed Paul had no idea about the origins and content of “Ron Paul”-branded newsletters that were bringing in nearly $1 million a year (according to a Weigel/Julian Sanchez report you can read at reason.com/rpnewsletters), that certainly speaks badly of the would-be commander in chief’s managerial competence. The fact that he actually defended the newsletters in 1996 suggests either that he once believed in their content more than he currently lets on or that he was willing to look in the camera and pretend to endorse ideas he didn’t actually believe.
If Paul ever really wanted to find out who was writing bizarre, first-person rants under his own name, all he’d have to do is ask his longtime friend, former employee, and vice president of Ron Paul & Associates, Llewellyn Rockwell Jr. According to more than a half-dozen sources contacted by Sanchez and Weigel, Rockwell, head of the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of the popular LewRockwell.com website, was Paul’s chief ghostwriter during the years in question. (Rockwell has denied responsibility for the statements, to reason and to others, and has decried journalistic interest in the story as amounting to “hysterical smears.”)
But ultimately Paul’s management style and personal relationships don’t interest me much, since, barring the biggest political upset in U.S. history, he won’t become president anytime soon. What’s more intriguing to me is the broader historical context of the self-styled “paleolibertarian” movement of the early 1990s, launched by Rockwell and libertarian movement titan (and former reason columnist) Murray N. Rothbard, who together hoped to rile up the “rednecks” in support of rolling back the welfare state and giving police more power.
“Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment,” Rothbard wrote in a manifesto titled “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement,” which appeared in the January 1992 Rockwell-Rothbard Report. The historical model for this new program? Sen. Joe McCarthy, whom Rothbard praised as “fascinating,” “exciting,” and having “a sense of dynamism, of fearlessness.” The modern-day exemplar? “Right-wing radical” David Duke. Rothbard and Rockwell rejected the “upper-middle class yuppie suburbanites” of Beltway-based kowtowing libertarian think tanks, and instead wanted to “lead the charge against the cultural and social decay which agitates the American public.” They were closely aligned with Ron Paul (whose newsletters from this era are nearly indistinguishable from the Report), sounded regular alarms against the coming “race war,” focused constantly on cases of minority violence, and rallied around Pitchfork Pat Buchanan for president in 1992.
I should hasten to add that this whole intramovement squabble was utterly unknown to me until this year. Back when people were assembling new ideologies and political factions in the wake of the Cold War, I was more interested in poking through the rubble of communism abroad. But I’ve always wondered why and how the issue of race relations has hovered uncomfortably around the edges of libertarian politics, in a way that goes far beyond philosophical debates over welfare, affirmative action, and federalism. By now, the “free minds and free markets” strain in American politics and culture should be secure enough in its own place to withstand and even welcome uncomfortable discussions about its less-than-stellar moments.
And it’s clear that, for a short while at least, some of libertarianism’s leading lights let their focus on minority group behavior lead them down decidedly illiberal paths. After the brutal 1991 police beating of Rodney King, for example, Rockwell wrote in the Los Angeles Times that he was “beginning to wonder about [banning] video cameras.” Empowering police to mete out street justice on dark-skinned youth does not square with any notion of limited government I’m familiar with. Indeed, Rockwell himself is no longer hitting those notes in his writings on law enforcement.
Happily enough, these ancient-sounding race debates play no role in the Ron Paul rEVOLution of 2008. Paul was incorrect to say, as he did on CNN, that “libertarians are incapable of being a racist,” but he was right to note that “racism is a collectivist idea.” And like other forms of collectivism, it’s an idea that has less and less resonance among a younger generation that’s growing more and more culturally libertarian. It turns out that spreading a “freedom message” directly is more effective than trying to camouflage it in collective resentment.
Matt Welch is the editor in chief of Reason.