Ron Paul: He's Got the Kids, and He's Got the Numbers, and He's Furthering the Spread of Libertarianism


In case there was any doubt….Beth Fouhy of Associated Press yesterday surveyed the much-talked-about and even true appeal of Ron Paul to the youth, the future of these here United States:

Nearly half of all voters under 30 went for Paul in the first two states to vote, helping to propel him to a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and third place in Iowa's leadoff caucuses….

Paul's campaign events are charged with an energy that any politician would love, attracting an eclectic band of youthful activists ranging from preppy college students to blue collar workers to artists sporting piercings and dreadlocks. At his party after the New Hampshire primary, there were spontaneous chants of "Ron Paul Revolution! Give us back our Constitution" and "President Paul! President Paul!"

A tickled Paul told the cheering crowd: "Freedom is a wonderful idea, and that's why I get so excited. But I really get excited when I see young people saying it."

Paul's strong New Hampshire second is giving him a poll bounce, with one American Research Group poll having him in third in South Carolina at 20 percent (though that polling group has had questionable results in the past) and one Reuters poll (pre-New Hampshire) having him at third nationally. UPDATE: Rasmussen today also has Paul tied for third in South Carolina, with Santorum.

As someone who has been actively participating in and reporting on and writing histories of the libertarian movement since 1987 or so, I believe that Ron Paul's presidential campaigns last time around and this have been a godsend for the spread of libertarian ideas.

Matt Zwolinski writing at Daily Caller believes that the academic aid, training, and seminar organization Institute for Humane Studies, to the contrary, is kicking Paul's ass and deserves more attention and respect and support than does Paul's campaign:

Two things have happened in the past year that ought to be of some interest to libertarians. The first is the phenomenon of the Ron Paul campaign. The second is the 50th anniversary of an organization called the Institute for Humane Studies. My guess is that almost everyone reading this post is familiar with the former, and almost none with the later. And this is a terrible, terrible mistake. Libertarians, like everyone else, have limited time, money and other resources. And if we want to advance the cause of liberty, we should use those resources in the way that has the highest expected return. The Paul campaign is not it.

A lot of libertarians are excited about Paul because they believe that a Paul presidency could help put an end to the drug war, or to overseas military adventures, or that it could bring about a return to a golden era of sound money and constitutional constraint. But how likely is any of this? Even after New Hampshire, Paul is still a longshot to win the Republican nomination. But suppose that he does? Before he can start making any of the changes libertarians are hoping for, he'd still have to win a general election in which his libertarian views on environmental regulation, Social Security, health care and a host of other issues would be a much bigger target than they are in the Republican primaries. And even if he won that election, he'd still have to implement policy with a Congress and judiciary that is largely hostile to many of his views.

Of course, Paul himself is smart enough to know this. As recently as the Iowa caucuses, Paul admitted that he doesn't see himself waking up in the White House. What he sees himself doing is producing a philosophic revolution. He is convinced, he says, that "a nation does not change just for partisan/political reasons. What has to happen is there has to be an intellectual revolution to energize the people and get people to understand the problems in economic and political terms."

So, you ask, can't the Paul campaign contribute to the cause of liberty by educating people about these ideas? Maybe, but don't hold your breath. As political theorist Jason Brennan has written, "politics teaches enlightenment in much the same way that fraternity parties teach temperance." As human beings, we are subject to all kinds of rational defects and biases. And researchers like psychologist Drew Westen and political scientist Diana Mutz have shown that politics makes these defects worse, not better. We're set up to view politics as a game of us vs. them, and in a game like that, the search for truth and new ideas does not fare well.

This all seemed so resolutely dedicated to ignoring reality right in front of the author's eyes I didn't know how to react, but a few points. I should preface this with: I admire IHS; the two most important events in 1988 that cemented my own libertarian ideas and career were the 1988 Ron Paul campaign and attending an IHS seminar; I lecture on IHS's behalf when asked and I believe it has been and will continue to be a very important part of the libertarian social and intellectual change project. (In IHS's case, it made me way more radical than Paul's '88 campaign did.) I believe an article arguing that IHS's academic approach is, like Ron Paul's campaign, a great way to further libertarian ideas, would be entirely correct.

That said:

*Does not the very fact that Zwolinski leads with, that everyone has heard of Paul and no one has heard of IHS (roughly) indicate that political campaigns are in fact a great way to expose people to these ideas? This does not mean that the context of a political campaign is the most thorough or universally effective way to ensure that exposure to ideas will lead to intelligent consideration or acceptance of them. But even a minuscule rate of success of politics compared to academic seminars will still equal to a higher raw number of new libertarians. I am pretty sure when I look at the crowds, the money donated, the polling numbers, the sheer number of bodies and minds discussing these ideas intelligently on social networking sites, that we are seeing this successful spread of libertarianism happen with Ron Paul.

*There's a lot of goalpost shifting in just these paragraphs: are we talking about electing a libertarian-minded person president, or exposing/converting people to libertarian beliefs? Because that whole part about Paul's electoral prospects, or prospects for success with pushing through libertarian ideas in Congress with certainty in the short term, seems off point. Because if that's the standard Paul is falling short on that applies equally to IHS, which is not, I think, doing well in any presidential polls right now or pushing through policy.

*And Zwolinski's dealing with the patently obvious fact that Ron Paul is "educating people about these ideas" with a quick  "Maybe, but don't hold your breath" and falling back on some poli sci theory about how people absorb or accept ideas and truths in a strictly political science context is just ignoring what is visible: all the new young (and old) people who very much because there is a national politician with all the attendant attention paid to him pushing these ideas, are hearing them and deciding they make sense, and that they want to help spread them. 

Again, this does not mean I think every polled Paul supporter or Paul voter is now or will become a full-on movement libertarian. But I do think in raw number terms it will produce more of them than an IHS strategy aimed almost entirely at graduate students and those who will be taught by them or read what they write. There is a hugely important section of American life, culture, and ideas that will never come near the old Ivory Towers of grad school, first hand or second hand. For better or worse, elections are the very context in which most Americans are at all prepared to grapple with political philosophy and ideas. And with Ron Paul there is a politician actually selling, with more rigor than you might expect from a politician (especially in his books and the books his books point you to), a real and good political philosophy. (And a surprising number of his young fans do go beyond the speeches and the YouTube videos to the books, and the books they are led to from there.)

Hayek's social change ideas emphasized academics because it was thought academic ideas trickled down to masses. Paul is taking them straight to the masses, and doing a shockingly good job of it. It is not an epiphenomenon or coincidence that him being a politician is why he is such a great mind-changer. Again, the context of electoral politics may not be the best way to change minds. But for an enormous number of people, it's the only way. 

I've been engaging with many movement libertarians lately who want to deny any of this is true--if there isn't gold standard social science surveys proving it, they don't want to believe it, and that is their right. Alternately, some seem to think it would be great if someone they liked better than Paul were running for president, how much better that would be for spreading libertariaism. I believe it is exactly Paul being who he is, believing what he believes, and selling his ideas the way he sells them that is responsible for his success. I just don't see how you can look at the world of discourse, the world of giving, the world of votes and bodies at rallies, and not understand that Ron Paul has been very, very good for libertarianism.

Back to the gritty world of electoral politics, where ne'er a mind is changed:

As state senator Tom Davis, a Tea Party leader, is said to be ready to endorse Ron (giving some credence to my declaration yesterday that Tea Partyers, if they are still out there, should be ready to run for Ron when it's just him and Romney) South Carolina Sen. Jim Demint continues to publicly love Paul without an explicit endorsement:

Ron still has a son, and that son is still taking flack on TV for his father's positions, and making decisions designed to make dad proud, like returning a half-million of his office budget to the Treasury and holding up treaties that he thinks will give the IRS too much snooping power. From the Hill:

The pacts would allow the United States and the three European countries to more freely and broadly share tax information — and also bring the countries' information-sharing agreements in line with standards developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a key forum of market economies.

Treasury officials have called the pacts an important tool in fighting tax evasion, as the United States works to close a tax gap — the difference between what's owed the IRS and what's paid on time — that grew to $450 billion in 2006.

Reason's Paul archives. My forthcoming book Ron Paul's Revolution.