Blogs > Liberty and Power > Ron Paul and Libertarianism One Last Time: Replies to Gordon and Kinsella

Dec 10, 2007 6:59 pm


Ron Paul and Libertarianism One Last Time: Replies to Gordon and Kinsella



David Gordon and Stephan Kinsella raised questions in the comments to my last post that require a long enough reply to be a post of their own. After this reply, I'm going to try to restrain myself from further replies for awhile, at least long ones, as I do have "real" work to do. For those just jumping in, my previous posts can be found here and here. And for those who didn't see it, there was a piece in The Nation on the Paul campaign in the last few days that explores the internal libertarian debates over the campaign. Worth a look.

David Gordon writes:

In my article,I didn't mention by name Steve Horwitz, or any other critic of Ron Paul, because I was trying to avoid exchanges like this one. I'm sorry if Horwitz took this to indicate lack of regard for him; I didn't intend this.

No problem then David.  To be honest, I’m getting tired of exchanges like this myself, especially since I have my “real” work to attend to. 

I said in my article that some people subordinate libertarianism to cosmopolitan values. Horwitz denies that he does this, but he has a different view of libertarianism from mine. He thinks cosmopolitanism "is part and parcel of a rightly understood commitment to liberty". On this view, clearly, someone who refuses to support Ron Paul because he doesn't accept cosmopolitanism is not subordinating libertarianism to cosmopolitanism. I don't share this view of libertarianism: I think that the tie between libertarianism and feminism, e.g.,is no stronger than what Charles Johnson in his very useful and careful comment on Narveson calls "conjunction thickness." On my view of libertarianism, my remarks about subordination still seem to me valid. ( But see below.)

I can certainly accept that we have two different views of libertarianism and that, if one accepts mine, I wouldn’t be seen as subordinating my libertarianism to some other value.

Horwitz also says that Johnson's point that "libertarianism, rightly understood, is both compatible with and mutually reinforcing with the cultural values of radical feminism" was "my point as well." Johnson's claim, though, is weaker than the claim by Horwitz just discussed. A position can be "compatible with and mutually reinforcing with" some other view without being "part and parcel" of it. I think that Horwitz should clarify whether he not only accepts Johnson's claim but goes beyond him as well.

Fair enough.  Blame it on my being too quick when I write for blogs. I shouldn’t have grabbed on to radical feminism as an example for making my point.  I don’t think the inclusion of it, for example, is a necessary condition for being a libertarian.  I do think, though, that a broader and weaker “commitment to cosmopolitanism,” which need not go far as radical feminism, is part of libertarianism as I understand it (and would prefer it).  Something like radical feminism may well be “compatible with and mutually reinforcing” but not a necessary part.  

I guess my point is ultimately this:  when the Paul campaign, for all of its other libertarian strengths, takes up an immigration position that strikes me as both unlibertarian (in its implicit call for stronger state enforcement – see Sheldon Richman’s earlier post) and as against the cosmopolitan spirit of the liberalism that animated Mises, Hayek and others, and takes up other positions that are couched in ways that appeal to nationalism and nativism, I simply find myself very uncomfortable supporting it. I think on a few substantive positions, the Paul campaign is not libertarian and I also think in the way it has presented itself, it appeals to a constituency that does not share the cosmopolitan outlook that is, and has been, part of the libertarianism that I wish to be associated with.  The Mises of “Liberalism” and “Nation, State, and Economy” is a good example such a libertarianism.

There is a way, though, that Horwitz can counter my claim of subordination, even on my narrow view of libertarianism. He might hold that Ron Paul's lack of commitment to cosmopolitan values is harmful to libertarianism narrowly conceived, not just harmful to libertarianism defined so that it includes cosmopolitanism. If he thinks this, refusal to support Ron Paul because he isn't a cosmopolitan would not show that he subordinates libertarianism to other views. Of course, my response here would be that lack of commitment to cosmopolitanism is not harmful to libertarianism.

Yes, that would be both my response and yours.  I do think the elements of RP’s campaign that either reject or decline to support those cosmopolitan values are potentially damaging to libertarianism (narrowly conceived), at least in the long term, and I said so in my original post.  Part of that claim is a claim about what I think libertarianism “should be” but it’s also an empirical claim about what sort of libertarian movement is likely to command the broadest public support.  So I do think we’re just going to have to disagree about the the question of harm here, which is fine by me.  I may well be wrong on both counts.  What has bristled me the most in all of the back and forth the last 10 days is the “subordination” claim.  As someone who has committed a life and career to liberty, my pique was perhaps understandable.

One other point on this issue:  the claim of “subordination” would be valid if I were supporting another candidate and one who was less libertarian and more “cosmopolitan.”  But I’m not.  The age-old libertarian option of “sitting this one out” is where I am right now.  Call it “conscientious abstention” if you wish, but given my luck with buzzwords, maybe that’s not a good idea.  I would agree that libertarians who actually vote for candidates who are notably less libertarian than RP in the name of some other value, including "electability," deserve serious criticism and perhaps the charge of "subordination" of their libertarianism. I would also agree that there are some, to use a term I don't particularly like, "beltway libertarians" who seem to be contorting themselves to great lengths to find libertarian reasons to support other GOP candidates who I believe are deeply hostile to liberty. They deserve criticism. "Socially liberal and fiscally conservative" is not enough, especially if he or she is a hawk. My skepticism about Ron Paul is not in any way an endorsement of any other, far less libertarian, candidate.

In any case, it is precisely because my commitment to libertarianism, at least as I understand it, is so strong, that I cannot get on the Ron Paul bandwagon.  If all we are doing is disagreeing over what libertarianism is or should be, then I hope we (and I mean that “we” in as “all libertarians”) can conduct the ensuing conversation without assuming that the other side’s libertarianism is in question.  I need to remember this as well.

Stephan Kinsella writes:

What do you mean, "and not just by accident"? I am really not clear what you are trying to say here. You seem to want to exonerate Paul of being "like" these people, or of being "responsible for" their liking him, while at the same time blaming him for their liking him.

See my comments above.  On a couple of issues, I think his substantive positions, though not argued for in the way that such groups would, line up with theirs in ways that explain their support.  In other words, their support is not unrelated to his positions.  I think in other cases, it’s a matter of how the campaign has framed issues and who Paul has been associated over the years that have opened him up to being seen by such groups as someone they could support.  Neither requires that I believe that Paul is a racist, etc., only that he has, perhaps shrewdly from one perspective, created a campaign that can appeal to such groups as well as more “mainstream” libertarians.

What I do not blame Paul for is holding substantive views akin to said groups and thus getting their support for that reason, because I have no evidence he does.  What I do blame Paul for is running a campaign that takes positions and discusses issues in ways that allow, if not encourage, such groups to believe he is worthy of their support.  I wish he were running a campaign that left much less doubt that such groups could see him as an agent of their goals.  And I wish he would clearly, forcefully, and publicly distance himself from them because I believe, as Sudha Shenoy put it in an earlier comment on the second post, they have "anti-libertarian aims."

One need not be a racist to take up positions or frame issues in ways that would appeal to racists.  That’s the line between blaming and not blaming that I’m trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to walk.

Here's what pops out at me. Surely you, as most here, as libertarians, have (say) pro-gun right views; and oppose (say) laws penalizing private racist or sexual discrimination in the workplace. No?

You are correct, even as I am repulsed by, and would say so publicly, those who engage in private discrimination on the basis of race, gender, etc.. To paraphrase Mark Twain on free speech, I believe in freedom of association even if I think lots of people use it in really noxious ways.

Now, it is my impression that our general libertarian movement draws a clearly disproportionate share of loonies--conspiracy nuts, "Common Law Court" types, militia and gun nuts (who for some reason seem to have a diproportionate number of conspiracy theorists, and maybe even skinhead and anti-semite types, in their ranks), racists (who agree with us that racism and prejudice in the workplace should not be penalized legally).

I.e., Steve, surely you, and even Cato, etc.--not just "Dr. Ron Paul"--all attract a disproportionate number of anti-semites, gun-nuts, and racists. So what? Socialists attract disproportionate numbers of, well, outright *socialists*, and liberals of other ilk.

What mystifies me is why you can single out Paul as attracting undesirables, when the libertarian movement as a whole--of which you and Cato are part--does too. Why blame Paul?

Because David Beito asked the Ron Paul skeptics to step up, so that’s who I posted about. He didn't ask for an analysis of libertarians everywhere. I find it interesting, by the way, that you put the “gun nuts” in with the racists and anti-semites.  I don’t believe I’ve ever said a word about the “gun nuts.”  I have much less of a problem, if any, with them than the other groups you mentioned.

If the conversation were about where libertarianism in general should go, I would be first in line to say that we should aspire, as a movement, to do as much as we can to articulate our positions (and, in some cases, adopt substantive positions consistent with liberty) in ways that minimize their possible appeal to racists, anti-semites, nativists, etc.. Ron Paul is hardly the only libertarian who could do better on this score.  Can we ever reduce that appeal to zero?  Probably not.  But if, like me, one thinks libertarianism is and should be cosmopolitan in the way I've argued, one has an obligation to do all one can to reduce one's appeal to groups who reject that cosmopolitanism. In my view, the Paul campaign has not only not tried to reduce that appeal, it has not rejected their support and in some cases made choices that seem willing to accept it.

As I said at the outset, I hope this is my last long post on this topic. Thanks to everyone who commented here and elsewhere and who emailed me privately. I think this discussion is an important one for libertarians to have, and I hope that we continue to have it and can do so respectfully and civilly.


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Craig J Bolton - 12/12/2007

I suppose that the problem I'm having is that I'm not dealing in hypotheticals [e.g., "couldn't a consistent racist be a libertarian?"] but in what typically happens. What typically happens is that conceptual collectivism, where "the threat" is "those others" translates itself into political collectivism where the government "protects us from that horrible threat" by enacting special restrictions on the liberty of "those others" or gathers them into "detention centers" or simply kills them.


I suppose that the other problem is that I'm not really that concerned with what people say, but with what they do. If you want to claim that you've concluded that the government should be diminished in size and scope because that will make Americans more acceptable to the Grays who fly around in saucers and live in hollow earth, go to it. I may still think you're a nut case, and may do my best to not associate with you, but you aren't per se dangerous to more than yourself. Same way with the guy in the Nazi uniform who goes around prating about how we've got to cut back on government. [Hint: The mass murder of Jews and the domestic murder of Blacks was done by people who were either a part of their respective governments or had the local judge and sheriff in their pockets, not by those who were merely mentally deranged and viewed as such by their fellow citizens. The Militia Movement, to use your example, was not populated by those who were on the governing board of the local country club or were Rotarians, it was populated by those who were loons to start with, and who "everyone" viewed as loons. Not so the Nazis or Mussolini's fascists.]


Bill Woolsey - 12/12/2007

During the heyday of the "militia movement," one organizer, from Montana, I believe, advocated "Christian Identity" theology. I am not an expert, but my recollection was that white people come from Adam and Eve. Black people come from mud (which from my recollection of Genesis, is like animals.) Jews were some kind of mix, decended from Satan and either the white people or else black people. I don't remember.

Pretty looney racist stuff.

He decribed his political views as "patriot," and was strongly devoted to the U.S. Constitution. However, I could find nothing in his policy views that were not libertarian.

He didn't favor having government stamp out moral vice, etc.

I believe he is also "famous" for "proving" that the 16th amendment wasn't properly ratified. Therefore, no one has to pay income tax....

Didn't some libertarians respond to McCarthism with the view that the solution to communists in government was to roll back the government? If one were inclined to believe in Jewish conspiracies, why couldn't one apply the same reasoning.

Similarly, those afraid of black people might well beleive that the rule of law, suppression of crimes against person and property, and voluntary association would be take care of their problems. Isn't the mainstream view that without government action to supress prejudice, racial separation will be maintained in perpetuity? Most of us may consider that verty unlikely, but perhaps run-of-the-mill racists may not understand it.

Regardless, the racists supporting Paul do so because he is better than the altnernatives. Or so they say.


Craig J Bolton - 12/12/2007

"If the conversation were about where libertarianism in general should go, I would be first in line to say that we should aspire, as a movement, to do as much as we can to articulate our positions (and, in some cases, adopt substantive positions consistent with liberty) in ways that minimize their possible appeal to racists, anti-semites, nativists, etc.."
=================================

What I don't understand in my simplistic way is why it is that libertarianism would ever be associated with any of those views. Maybe I just have different understandings of those terms, but I my world they all have to do with actually using government for certain ends rather than being, say, a "philosophic racist" or a "philosophic Jew hater." The advocates of such views never stop at being personally hateful, they want to whip up other people to "put and end to the threat of ___" through, of course, legal domination, concentration camps and other such devices. Isn't that anti-libertarian, and, conversely, isn't the notion that you can't use the state to "preserve the White Race" or "end the International Jewish Conpiracy" unappealing to racists and Jew haters?

Somebody help me out here re why that is wrong....


David Gordon - 12/10/2007

I agree with Steve Horwitz that neither side should call into question the other side's libertarianism, and I'm happy to acknowledge that he is a libertarian of long standing. It's a consequence of his view of libertarianism, though, that people who don't accept the "broader and weaker commitment to cosmopolitanism" don't count as libertarians. They are at best partial libertarians.


Keith Halderman - 12/10/2007

Amen to this comment. Racists, anti-Semites, gun nuts, marijuana smokers, johns, all have one thing in common they want the government to leave them alone. If Ron Paul does not feel it is his place to criticize someone for using their freedom to visit a brothel or light up a joint why should he do so if someone uses their freedom to think badly of Blacks or Jews. I think we should all worry a little bit less about "libertarianism" and a little bit more about "fascism" and when I look at circumstances such as the Patriot Act and the plummeting dollar it is clear that we do not have the luxury of sitting this one out.


Stephan Kinsella - 12/10/2007

NSK: "What mystifies me is why you can single out Paul as attracting undesirables, when the libertarian movement as a whole--of which you and Cato are part--does too. Why blame Paul?"

SH: "Because David Beito asked the Ron Paul skeptics to step up, so that’s who I posted about. He didn't ask for an analysis of libertarians everywhere."

I don't understand this reply. I'm assuming you do not blame all libertarians for adhering to and promoting a doctrine that attracts certain "bad" people. So I'm wondering why Paul is "worse" in this respect.

"I find it interesting, by the way, that you put the “gun nuts” in with the racists and anti-semites."

Good point. Maybe I should distinguish actual gun nuts, from "gun rights nuts," which we all are, as libertarians. From what I've seen, a disproportionate number of "gun nuts" types tend to be the types that would flirt with militia stuff (which is also largely nutty and conspiracy laden) etc.

"If the conversation were about where libertarianism in general should go, I would be first in line to say that we should aspire, as a movement, to do as much as we can to articulate our positions (and, in some cases, adopt substantive positions consistent with liberty) in ways that minimize their possible appeal to racists, anti-semites, nativists, etc."

I suppose that is a goal of ours, sure--but clear communication is of course always a background goal in order to clearly articulate our views. But if a racist likes the fact that we oppose anti-discrimination laws, what can we do? Sure, we can point out that we favor these policies because we think minorities will do even better in a color-blind (legal) world than at present--which might not go over with the racists; we can emphasize to normal people that we are not against anti-discrimination law for racist reasons but rather for non-racist, benevolent reasons. But if, in the end, a racist (say) prefers our policies to those of the left, we can't be responsbible for this.

Same with federalism. Etc.

"Ron Paul is hardly the only libertarian who could do better on this score. Can we ever reduce that appeal to zero? Probably not."

I suppose I don't see this as our primary obligation or mission. It's just ancillary. I mean at a certain point this becomes handwringing. Remember, Steve, we have NOTHING to be guilty about--remember Galt's face without pain or fear or guilt.

"But if, like me, one thinks libertarianism is and should be cosmopolitan in the way I've argued, one has an obligation to do all one can to reduce one's appeal to groups who reject that cosmopolitanism."

I suppose this is one problem with politics, with activism in general--one is trying to get votes. Granted, one ought not cater to the yahoos, but your mission as politician is to garner votes, to get elected, not to find ways to convince people not to vote for you.


Gary McGath - 12/10/2007

The Nation article told me more than I'd known before about the roots of the Mises-Cato war, and I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about libertarian history.

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