Ron Paul, on Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell: "They enjoyed antagonizing people, to tell you the truth, and trying to split people"


On Monday, Jacob Sullum noted a New York Times front-pager about Ron Paul's relationship with his supporters that had a bizarre characterization of libertarianism's alleged two essential camps (basically, economic freedom types backed by monocle-wearers, and personal-liberty Constitution fanatics). The article also contained long sections that re-stated long stretches of reporting in a January 2008 Reason.com article by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez that focused on the context of Ron Paul's notorious newsletters: a short-lived early-'90s "paleolibertarian" political strategy laid out by Paul associates Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard. Weigel and Sanchez have now both dinged the Times for adding little (besides obfuscation) to their original reporting. From Sanchez:

It cites exactly the same essays and materials we did, takes for granted the identity of Paul's chief ghostwriter and newsletter editor (which our article spent a fair amount of space publicly establishing for the first time), and even interviews exactly the same sources on the same subjects. (I'll buy that any reporter would have phoned Ed Crane up; I'll eat my left shoe if the authors had the first idea who Carol Moore or Mike Holmes were before they read our piece.) […]

I still probably wouldn't have bothered with a post just to lob a brickbat at some lazy journalism, but in this case it's actually germane to the substance of the story. The implication, after all, is that even though the newsletters were a focus of national attention four years ago, Paul's fellow travelers were content to gloss over this ugly history—quietly complicit in this pandering to racism—until the bold bloodhounds at the Times sniffed out the scoop. It looks rather different if the Times is just rehashing the highlights of what a libertarian magazine explored in greater details years ago. […]

So readers got this mangled account—including an incredibly confused idea of what the faultlines in contemporary libertarianism are about, assuming anyone cares about these internecine pissing contests[.]

Oh God, do we care about internecine pissing contests. Especially those of us with urine on our shoes. But the average Ron Paul voter in Iowa, or on college campuses all over the country, or just the average humanoid who cares about politics? That's a bit tougher to imagine.

I share Sanchez's critique of the Times' ham-fisted coverage of libertarianism (a recurring theme at the paper), if not quite his venom. But the Times article actually contained one of the most relevant sections of reporting on libertarian cat-fighting (and Ron Paul's position vis-a-vis) I can remember reading. It is:

[Cato Institute founder] Crane, a longtime critic of Mr. Rockwell, called Mr. Paul's close association with him "one of the more perplexing things I've ever come across in my 67 years." He added: "I wish Ron would condemn these fringe things that float around because of Rockwell. I don't believe he believes any of that stuff."

Mr. Paul said in the interview that he did not, but he declined to condemn Mr. Rockwell, saying he did not want to get in the middle of a fight. "I could understand that, but I could also understand the Rothbard group saying, Why don't you quit talking to Cato?" he said.

Mr. Paul described Mr. Rockwell and Mr. Rothbard as political provocateurs. "They enjoyed antagonizing people, to tell you the truth, and trying to split people," he said. "I thought, we're so small, why shouldn't we be talking to everybody and bringing people together?"

So many faultlines (and blurs between) suggested in those three short paragraphs.

For those interested in such history, Todd Seavey has more. And for a clearer accounting of libertarian camps, featuring some of the same characters, see Brian Doherty's 2010 essay "A Tale of Two Libertarianisms." Or better yet, just buy his 2007 book, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. You can also pre-order Doherty's forthcoming Ron Paul's rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired.