Is He Good for the Libertarians?

Why some libertarians don't want to join the Ron Paul revolution.


Republican congressman from Texas (and 1988 Libertarian Party presidential candidate) Ron Paul seems to be doing pretty good for libertarianism these days. He's gotten more press exposure and more Internet buzz than any libertarian movement political figure, and has done so outside the dead-end third party context. A surprising amount of the attention has even been respectful and positive—and for a candidate as ignored and excluded as Paul, any press short of a full-on hostile shredding is good news.

Sure, he still has zero traction (well, 2 percent) in conventional polling. And any respectable reporter would sooner fail to check whether his mother loves him than neglect to mention the apparently settled fact that Paul has no chance of winning the nomination.

But some Ron Paul Revolutionaries insist that the mainstream media are putrid corpses in brackish water, and conventional polls are for losers who still answer their landlines. Paul's support—by more postmodern measures—continues to grow. He's still the king of meetup.com, which does generate real-world crowds, and even real-world food drives. He's also the political king of YouTube (22,157 subscribers). We won't find out for months if these netroots measures mean anything in electoral terms. And that's just fine for a thrifty message-oriented candidate, who psychically benefits from running (and builds up more fundraising resources for any future effort) even if he fails utterly with vote totals.

This past Sunday he hit a political respectability jackpot, with a long, thorough, serious, and critical-but-respectful profile in the New York Times Magazine. Most of the Ron Paul press tells, however questioningly, of a politician dedicated to severely limited government that doesn't want to interfere in our personal lives, doesn't want to investigate us and control us, wants to abolish the income tax, and wants to bring troops home and dedicate our military only to actual national defense—a politician against the federal drug war, against the Patriot Act, against regulating the Internet, and for habeas corpus.

Still, many libertarians are either ambivalent or actively unhappy with Paul's campaign and the public attention it has gotten. They feel either that Paul is not libertarian enough in all respects, or are unhappy with linking libertarianism to certain aspects of Paul's rhetoric, focus, or past. You'll hear: If, after this campaign, whenever anyone thinks of libertarian, they think, oh, you are like Ron Paul?—will that be good for libertarianism in the future? And would you feel personally comfortable with it?

One prominent version of Libertarian Ron Paul Anxiety comes via noted and respected anarcho-legal theorist Randy Barnett in The Wall Street Journal. Barnett has decades of hardcore libertarian movement credentials behind him and is one of Lysander Spooner's biggest fans. (Spooner, the 19th century individualist anarchist, famously declared the state to be of inherently lower moral merit than a highway bandit.) But the mild obstetrician, family man, and experienced legislator Ron Paul is too radical for Barnett in one respect—the respect that is key to most of Paul's traction to begin with: hisconsistent, no-compromise, get-out-now stance against the war in Iraq.

Barnett is eager to dissociate libertarianism writ large from Paul's anti-Iraq War stance, claiming that many libertarians are concerned that Americans may get the misleading impression that all libertarians oppose the Iraq war—as Ron Paul does—and even that libertarianism itself dictates opposition to this war. It would be a shame, he suggests, if this misinterpretation inhibited a wider acceptance of the libertarian principles that would promote the general welfare of the American people.

This is doubly curious. First, because opposition to non-defensive war traditionally is a core libertarian principle (to begin with, since it inherently involves mass murder and property destruction aimed at people who have not harmed the people imposing the harm) and is, in fact, the position of the vast majority of self-identified libertarians. Second, why would one worry that libertarianism can be damaged by an association with an idea that is in fact immensely popular? And, to boot, a popular position in which Paul has unique credibility for being right, and right from the beginning, unlike pretty much every other candidate.

Paul does, though, believe some things many libertarians don't, and some libertarians think these issues are so important that his libertarian credentials should be revoked. For example, he'd like to eliminate Roe v. Wade and would be happy to allow states and localities to ban abortion—and personally considers abortion a moral crime.

But this position, however hard to explain to one's liberal friends who ask a libertarian about this Ron Paul guy, doesn't place him outside the libertarian pale. If you see a living human fetus as a human life the same in morally significant respects as any born human, then supporting a ban on it is as consistent with libertarianism as laws against murder.

On trade, Paul takes a position that is perfectly proper from a radical, no-compromise libertarian position. That is, he's for free trade, but against government managed trade agreements. In practice, though, this seems to block off the only way tariff reductions and eliminations actually happen in the real world, a politically tone deaf stance that makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

When it comes to immigration, Paul believes the federal government can legitimately defend the border, and thinks that, in a world of government benefits and minimum wage laws, it is appropriate for government to do so stringently. I strongly disagree with how border defense has been done in practice, as do most libertarians. But as Paul told me, it doesn't mark him as essentially unlibertarian, but rather falls within a potentially legitimate set of actions for non-anarchist libertarians who do believe in the nation-state.

Paul's concern with immigration is of a piece with his right-populist strains, an obsession with "sovereignty" that feeds his fevered opposition to international trade pacts and the UN. Combined with his strong emphasis on trash-talking the Federal Reserve and advocating a return to gold, it's the sort of thing that strikes many other libertarians as, if not inherently unlibertarian, sort of cranky and kooky, and that led me to note to The New Republic that many libertarians (though not me) think of Paul as a bit of a yokel.

And a yokel with some ugly things in his past that no libertarian wants to be linked with. As The New York Times Magazine, among others, reported, Paul's newsletter during his years out of Washington contained some ugly race-baiting comments about the overwhelmingly criminal nature of black males in D.C. Paul says the comments were written by a staffer, but he's refused to say who and hasn't gone through any serious garment-rending and regret about it, though he did disavow them.

Some unhappy with Paul's presence in the GOP race are just Libertarian Party partisans who think no good for political liberty in America can arise from someone flying under the GOP flag. But LP-associated blogger Thomas Knapp presented a more interesting and detailed version of why Paul and the Paul movement can't do good for libertarianism (which he framed, unfortunately, in a jokey 9-11 Truther baiting frame, in which he seemed to be saying that because the GOP will benefit in the long run from Paul's campaign, that Paul was recruited for the task by Karl Rove).

Knapp argues that Ron doesn't always call himself libertarian, selling himself sometimes as a constitutionalist or small-government conservative depending on his audience; that he's accomplished almost nothing specific that furthers libertarian goals as a congressman while sucking lots of money out of libertarian donors; and that because of Paul's campaign, the LP won't do very well in 2008. Of course, there is nothing about these complaints that wouldn't apply to any almost-entirely-libertarian federal politician short of the libertarian revolution. It seems a classic best-enemy-of-the-good maneuver, or perhaps an inadvertent declaration that libertarian electoral politics, LP or major party, is inherently pretty useless for furthering libertarian policy change.

And Paul undoubtedly falls short of his reputation as a hardcore, no-compromise-ever libertarian constitutionalist. For example, he happily inserts earmarked pork spending that benefits his district in spending bills, to keep them happy—and then votes against the bills, to keep his free-market constituents nationwide happy.

Paul argues that the voting against the total bill is enough, that the rules of Congress mean the earmarks don't actually increase total federal spending anyway, and that while he'd rather the government didn't take the money, it's not inherently a crime to try to get some of it back for his constituents.

Sure, he's trying to have it both ways. Something about Paul that sometimes evades both his fans and opponents: He's a very, very successful politician. He's won election to Congress as a nonincumbent three times—an extraordinary record. And he's won as an incumbent 7 times, with steadily growing percentage totals. One of his political skills is a chameleonic quality: Without changing the roots of his message, he's able to seem a lot of things to a lot of people by intelligently strategic choices about which Ron Paul to sell. He's a libertarian, he's a constitutionalist, he's a true conservative. When I saw him speak earlier this month at FreedomFest to an audience of mostly self-conscious libertarians, he never once mentioned immigration, emphasizing rather war and money.

So, yes: Ron Paul is by no means the perfect candidate for most American libertarians. Some find his stance on trade obtuse, his stance on abortion tyrannical; the race-baiting, however disavowed, stupid, wrong, off-putting to most Americans, and dangerous for libertarians to be associated with; his position on earmarks sleazy politician logic-chopping. They envision a horrific Ron Paul's America in which abortion and immigration are banned, the federal drug war ended but a state-level one ongoing, and a financial system wrecked with reckless goldbuggery—and libertarianism tarnished forevermore.

Libertarians leery of Paul should ask themselves (while bearing in mind that of course no one, certainly no libertarian, is under any obligation to support or advocate or vote for any politician ever): Have we ever seen a national political figure better in libertarian terms—better on taxes, on drugs, on spending, on federalism, on foreign policy, on civil liberties? And for the pragmatic, cosmopolitan, mainstream libertarian: Why is Ron Paul the place where making the non-existent best the enemy of the good becomes the right thing to do?

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.