Will Wilkinson Calls Ron Paul "an Embarrassment to the Creed" of Libertarianism


The other day I had occasion to link to Senior Editor Brian Doherty's March 2010 essay "A Tale of Two Libertarianisms," which traced a decades-long cultural/philosophical split to a conflict between Murray Rothbard and F.A. Hayek. Sample paragraph (leaving out various to-be-sures and shades of gray):

The uneasy relationship between Rothbard and Hayek is echoed to this day, with modern Hayekians such as Will Wilkinson and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel publicly lamenting the conflation of their worldview with Rothbard-style beliefs. Writing on his blog, Wilkinson has complained that when he defends "something like the arguments for an economic safety net [Hayek and other] giants of libertarian thought actually set forth, lots of libertarians accuse me of not really being libertarian at all. And many liberals act surprised, as if I'm being saucily iconoclastic by wandering so far off the reservation." Postrel once wrote in Cato Unbound that "to an outsider, official libertarianism…does indeed look like a doctrinaire sect with a well-rehearsed catechism….Everything flows from a single principle: self-ownership or non-aggression. It's political philosophy as simple algebra." She then notes that such a definition of libertarianism leaves no room for the Hayekian style she embraces, since its advocates do not "adhere to the deductive reasoning promoted by Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard. They aren't 'principled' or 'hard core.'" All sorts of intra-libertarian internecine squabbles follow along the same rough lines of the split between the hardcore, no-compromise, anti-statist Rothbardian and the more classical liberal, utilitarian, fallibilist, and prudential Hayekian.

Today comes further evidence for Doherty's thesis, in the form of a Wilkinson piece in The New Republic titled "A Libertarian's Lament: Why Ron Paul Is an Embarrassment to the Creed." Specifically, Wilkinson is embarrassed about Paul's stances on immigration and civil rights:

[W]hen it comes to protecting the wealth of propertied Americans, Paul is an absolutist who will brook no compromise. Taxation is slavery! But when it comes to defending an equally basic, principled commitment to free immigration and unrestricted labor markets, Paul develops a keen sensitivity to complicated questions of feasibility, hemming and hawing his way to a convoluted compromise that would continue to affirm the systematic violation of the individual rights of foreigners who would like to live and work in America, and those of Americans who would like to live and work with them.

"I strongly believe in the principle of peaceful civil disobedience," Paul begins in a chapter on that subject. "Those who resist the state nonviolently, based on their own principles, deserve our support," he says. But when it comes to mostly poor foreigners who break immigration laws that straightforwardly violate Paul's own principles, the congressman can hardly summon a flicker of sympathy. "The toughest part of showing any compassion or tolerance to the illegal immigrants…is the tremendous encouragement it gives for more immigrants to come illegally and avoid the wait and bureaucracy," Paul writes. In other words, if we allow ourselves to go soft on brown people with bad English, even more of them may wish to exercise their "individual rights that derive from nature and cannot be granted or taken away by government."

As a rule, libertarians have an unhealthy tendency to apply their principles without due regard to America's history of state-enforced slavery, apartheid, and sexism, or to the many ways in which the legacy of these insidious practices persists to this day. Paul represents this tendency at his worst. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Paul has argued, led to "a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society." […]

[I]t appears that Paul is least tolerant of ambiguity and complexity when it muddies the case for protecting privilege. To deny that structural discrimination, with or without the backing of the state, can limit an individual's liberty more injuriously than a sales tax requires the triumph of dogmatism over commonsense. But Paul's career is a case study of such bullheadedness. Not only does he deny that anti-discrimination statutes have anything to do with promoting liberty, he insists, again and again, that anti-discrimination policies have only heightened resentments between man and woman, black and white, and do nothing whatsoever to improve social amity. He would have us believe that the enormous gains over the past several decades in racial and gender equality, the dramatic rise of mixed-race marriages, and the happy detente in the gender wars have all occurred despite recent attempts to rectify centuries of legal oppression through law.

There is also some interesting discussion about how "a system of secure property rights is a means to a peaceful society of mutual benefit, not an end in itself." Conclusion?

Thanks to Ron Paul, libertarianism of a certain stripe may be more popular than ever, and its influence on the Tea Party and the broader conservative movement is not hard to see. All the same, this brand of libertarianism is never going to "cross the chasm," as the marketing folks like to say. It's destined to remain a minority creed, and that's not because most Americans are stupid or immoral. It's because libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that theirs is a uselessly abstract ideology of privilege for socially obtuse adolescent white guys. Ron Paul sure isn't helping.

Disclosure: I am much more aligned with Will Wilkinson than Ron Paul when it comes to immigration and abortion and (probably?) interracial marriage*, though I daresay the 75-year-old has a much more impressive baseball swing. That said, I am not now nor have I ever been very persuaded by the whole "Person X is bad for the brand of libertarianism" argument. There may be any number of biases leading me to that point of view–Reason is an outreach magazine, not a fortified compound of definitional libertarianism; and I have zero interest in policing the proper usage of the term. But ultimately I'm far more concerned with whether America is getting more libertarian (particularly in its politics and public policy), and in my judgment it most definitely has. And I don't see how you can arrive at that conclusion without giving heaps of credit to Rep. Ron Paul.

Anyone here watch the last Republican presidential debate, in Iowa? There was about a 15-minute section where it basically seemed like Ron Paul was moderating the thing, and the various other candidates had to react to his strong and unorthodox libertarian views on foreign policy and the Federal Reserve. Where once you could see eyes roll at Paul's eternal return to the subject of government-induced "malinvestments," now you saw Newt Gingrich mouthing very Paulian lines on monetary policy. Where Rudy Guiliani once nearly snapped Paul's head clean off over foreign policy, now you have many Republicans expressing doubt over military overstretch in Afghanistan, Libya, and even Iraq. The party is moving in his direction on the issues that matter most right now–economic, fiscal, and foreign policies–and I think you certainly have to apportion some of that credit to the more-popular-than-ever Ron Paul.

As for Paul's views on the less pressing issues of immigration and the Civil Rights Act, I am much more aligned with these remarks by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, writing about Paul critiques by liberals Adam Serwer and Matthew Yglesias:

Serwer writes that Paul's oeuvre "too often comes across as an agenda of individual freedom for straight white men." Yes, that is unfortunate. But what is more important, how it "comes across" or the effect Paul's policies would have on minorities? Obama "comes across" as being much friendlier to minority concerns, yet under his tenure the policy that is most harmful to American blacks and Latinos, the War on Drugs, isn't being challenged or reformed in the least.

As it happens, Paul wants to completely end that very same program. And Yglesias and Serwer both agree that the status quo, the one Obama is perpetuating, has the very ruinous effects Paul says it does.

Despite this, these two progressive policy wonks, writing posts about Paul and civil liberties, neglect to mention the War on Drugs at all. Instead, they spend time on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the fact that Paul's campaign slogan, "Restore America Now," reminds Yglesias of "conservative impulses and nostalgia for the much-less-free America." Am I to accept that the implicit priorities reflected in their posts are plausibly the right ones for any voter in Election 2012? […]

I just don't get it when Yglesias righteously points out that Paul's "interest in freedom doesn't extend to the freedom of anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country."

If Yglesias wants to vote for a candidate whose interest in freedom does extend that far, I invite him to register as a Republican and vote Gary Johnson in the 2012 primaries. Instead, he's going to wait until the general election, and vote for Obama, another guy whose interest in freedom "doesn't extend to the freedom of anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country."

But it isn't just that Paul and Obama would both execute the laws that keep lots of armed guards on our southern border, and meanwhile deport lots of illegal immigrants. What Obama is going to do, on top of that, is wage undeclared drone wars in multiple countries that kill lots of innocent people because collateral damage in undeclared wars is okay if you're "unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country." And he's also going to continue sending the DEA abroad, where its agents will exacerbate a drug war that has killed tens of thousands in Mexico and wipe out the crops of subsistence farms in Latin America. In extreme ways, Obama behaves as if his avowed convictions don't extend to various folks "unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country." […]

All I ask, as they critique Paul's sometimes flawed conception of freedom, is that they acknowledge that they're perfectly willing to vote for a guy who embraces most of the executive power excesses of Bush/Cheney, wages war without congressional approval, ramps up drone strikes that kill innocents, spies on innocent Americans, says marriage should be between a man and a woman, and perpetuates the War on Drugs, among other policies. I also wish they'd come around to the proposition that, while all Paul criticisms are fair game, some, like the political correctness of his campaign slogan and his position on the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, seem absurd to regard as relevant enough to focus on, given the immediacy and significance of other issues.

Reason on Ron Paul here.

* I see in the comments that people are misinterpreting this reference. This is not a comment about Ron Paul's views on whether people of different races should marry (I am more than confident that Paul has zero issue with interracial marriage per se), this is a direct reference to the blog post that I linked to at the top of this entry, which was entitled (based on a quotation from a relevant blog post by the Ron Paul-supporting David Gordon), "What do you think of interracial marriage? It would be hard, offhand, to think of a question less relevant to libertarianism." I would presume that Paul thinks more like Gordon on the issue, hence the difference between us would be whether we find the issue "relevant to libertarianism."