Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Question for Critics of Ron Paul's Critics, Part 2

Jan 1, 2008 11:34 pm


A Question for Critics of Ron Paul's Critics, Part 2



[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

In a post about a month ago, I asked why (many of) Ron Paul’s supporters regard opposition to Paul on the basis of Paul’s views on, e.g., abortion and immigration as misguided, yet would not regard opposition to a hypothetical Randy Barnett candidacy on the basis of Barnett’s views on, e.g. federalism and war as misguided.

My friend Walter Block (whose views on abortion and immigration are, incidentally, closer to mine than to Paul’s) has recently offered an answer to my question. I quote from his answer, interspersing my comments:

First, as stated above, immigration and abortion are unsettled issues amongst libertarians.

True, but so are federalism and war. In any case, why does it matter whether these issues are settled or not? It matters what the correct libertarian position on some issue is; it also matters how important deviations from that position are. But neither of those considerations correlates particularly closely with which issues have achieved a consensus among libertarians and which ones haven’t.

We have to be able to tolerate some degree of uncertainty, of ambiguity, in our perspective.

I’m not sure what that means.

I defy Roderick Long or anyone else for that matter to cite acknowledged leaders of our intellectual movement, such as Rothbard, Hoppe and Kinsella, who favor the U.S. role in the Iraq war.

Well, “acknowledged” by whom? Randy Barnett would ordinarily, I think, be considered one of the intellectual leaders of the libertarian movement. Evidently Walter does not so acknowledge him. But in any case, what does it matter whether a position is or is not held by some “acknowledged leader” of the movement? That seems like an argument from authority (or maybe an argument from absence-of-authority). There was a time when the overwhelming majority of libertarian intellectual leaders rejected anarchism, embraced intellectual property rights, etc. Which proves what?

Second, the issue of what is a threat, what is coercion, is very central to libertarianism, and relatively straightforward. According to that old joke, if you can’t tell the difference between a living room and a bathroom, then “don’t come to my house.” If you can’t tell the difference between aggression and defense, then don’t get into political economy.

But all disputes over the interpretation and/or application of libertarian principles turn on “telling the difference between aggression and defense.” In libertarian disputes over abortion and immigration, no less than in libertarian disputes over foreign policy, each side accuses the other of confusing aggression and defense.

Randy Barnett fails this test dismally, while Ron Paul passes with flying colors. Indeed, to place the two of them in the same sentence in this regard is highly problematic. What can we say about anyone who seriously maintains that the U.S. invasion is justified on grounds of defense against attack from Iraqis? At the very least, it cannot be seriously maintained that they are libertarians at all in any meaningful sense.

I agree that in the case of the war, Randy (IMHO) confuses aggression with defense – just as I think that in the case of abortion and immigration, Paul (again IMHO) confuses aggression with defense. But given that they both draw the distinction correctly in the vast majority of cases, I have no problem saying that they are both libertarians. (Which by itself, I should add, doesn’t settle the question of whether either’s candidacy would be worthy of support. How much of a deviation makes a candidate unworthy of support and how much of a deviation makes a candidate no longer count as a libertarian seem to me different questions.)

In sharp contrast, abortion and immigration are highly complex issues, as the voluminous scholarly literature on them eloquently attests.

I agree that abortion and immigration are complex issues, though I think foreign policy is too. (And it’s not as though there isn’t a “voluminous scholarly literature” on the justice of war as well.) But I can’t see how the complexity of an issue matters to this debate. Is Walter assuming that how important, how seriously bad, a deviation from correct libertarian principle is, is inversely correlated with how complex the argument for its being a deviation is? I don’t see why that should be so.

Nor are they at all at the very core of our libertarian philosophy; rather, they are implications of it.

Here Walter seems to slide from opposition to aggression’s being central to libertarianism, to war’s counting as aggression being central to libertarianism. But why wouldn’t it be just as justifiable (or just as unjustifiable) to slide from opposition to aggression’s being central to libertarianism, to restrictions on abortion or immigration counting as aggression being central to libertarianism? What’s the difference?

Elsewhere in his article Walter elaborates on his remark on libertarian authorities:

[W]hen expert libertarian philosophers disagree with each other, it is a bit much to declare either side anti- or non-libertarian. It is therefore highly improper to castigate Dr. Paul for taking a position on immigration and abortion incompatible with libertarianism ....

Perhaps an analogy may be of use in this context. When physicists are not of one mind on a problem (is matter a wave or a particle) it is altogether too harsh to castigate an engineer from taking either side.

Of course, Walter’s use of this argument depends on a choice of which people will be regarded as authorities. Walter himself is certainly willing to castigate people who agree with Randy about the war – because he does not regard Randy as a libertarian expert. But isn’t there a danger of circularity here? Randy, despite what are surely prima facie credentials for inclusion, is excluded from the ranks of libertarian experts because of his position on the war – and deviation on that issue is grounds for expulsion from the ranks of libertarian experts because it’s not an area where libertarian experts disagree!

In any case, surely the relevant question is not whether Ron Paul (or Randy Barnett for that matter) is to be castigated for his deviations. Talk of “castigation” suggests that what’s at issue is whether a given deviation is, as it were, epistemically innocent or epistemically blameworthy – whether it was arrived at by culpable evasion or honest mistake. But again, it sounds to me as though Walter is assuming that how seriously bad a deviation is, must be reliably correlated with how intellectually culpable someone is for arriving at it; and that’s far from obvious to me. After all, I think there are plenty of reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned non-libertarians (benighted souls though they be); so I have no problem granting that there are likewise plenty of reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned “deviationist” libertarians. The question is not whether Paul’s deviations are grounds for castigating the poor guy (who I’m happy to stipulate is as intellectually conscientious as a summer day in Reykjavik is long) but whether they are grounds for declining to vote for him and/or support his candidacy. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think there are decisive reasons either for or against libertarian support for Ron Paul’s candidacy per se, though there may well be decisive reasons for particular libertarians to support or to oppose it; I’ll explain what I mean in a future post.)

In a comment on my earlier post, my friend David Gordon offers an argument similar (though not identical) to Walter’s, so I’ll quote it here too:

Some positions, e.g., support for conscription, can’t be defended as libertarian; someone who favors conscription can still count as a libertarian, though, if he holds a sufficient number of other libertarian views.

Thus far I think David may actually disagree with Walter, in that by David’s criterion here Randy would certainly have to count as a libertarian.

I think, though, that there are important issues, e.g., abortion and immigration, in which libertarian principles don’t mandate a single position as the only permissible libertarian one. There may well be, on these issues, a single best interpretation of what libertarianism requires; but we can’t say that anyone who adopts a different view is to that extent unlibertarian.

That’s the part where David seems to be taking a position similar to Walter’s. I’m not sure, though, that I understand David’s distinction between a position that deviates from libertarian principle and a position that deviates from the “single best interpretation” of libertarian principle. If a position deviates from the single best interpretation of libertarian principle, why isn’t that a way of deviating from libertarian principle?

Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten my promise to say more about the David Gordon / Charles Johnson debate. Coming soon!


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Robert Paul - 1/8/2008

If you read my posts again ("...the word as it was used..."), you'll see that nothing in your post contradicts anything I've said.


Jeff Riggenbach - 1/4/2008

Ah! The myth of the "Old Right" rears its ugly head. The so-called "Old Right" was never on the Right in the first place. It consisted mainly of refugees from the Democratic Party, who were labeled "conservative" by the ever uncomprehending mass media because they had (foolishly) joined the Republican Party. That they never had even the slightest influence within the GOP is reflected in, among other things, Robert Taft's failure to win the GOP presidential nomination in 1952. (Goldwater, significantly, was an Eisenhower delegate at that nominating convention, not a Taft delegate.) And by 1956, Bill Buckley and his gaggle of ex-communists had made it clear that "conservatism" meant mindless lip service to rhetoric about small government and free markets combined with a bellicose foreign policy.

The positions taken by Ron Paul have never characterized conservatism in this country or anywhere else. They are, and always have been, the positions of a classical liberal or (modernly) a libertarian.

JR


Robert Paul - 1/3/2008

I stand corrected; I should have been more specific. Try going back to Taft.


Jeff Riggenbach - 1/3/2008

During the Goldwater era, a "conservative" meant someone who thought he could have free markets and a bellicose foreign policy all at the same time. That stance is not, and has never been, Ron Paul's stance.

JR


Robert Paul - 1/3/2008

He's not "confused" about it. He's using the word as it was used during the Goldwater era. You and I wouldn't use it that way, but he's in the *GOP* primary.


Keith Halderman - 1/3/2008

He can win because the polls are not accurate.


Bill Woolsey - 1/3/2008

Could you please explain how Ron Paul can win the Republican nomination and then the Presidency? I will grant that if we did those things, the result would likely be a much improved U.S. foreign policy. It is the first two steps (getting the Republican nomination and then winning the general election) that seem to be the problem.

He is doing much better than I anticipated. Perhaps I still underestimate his chances for victory in November. Still, I think the most realistic way to look at the campaign is what does it do for the libertarian movement. Does it create a foundation for future campaigns. I think decades is the proper time frame.





Keith Halderman - 1/2/2008

Maybe there are some things that are more important than "voting for him to advance libertarianism in the public eye" like changing a foreign policy that constantly has involved in wars and occupation not mention keeping the country from going bankrupt.


Roderick T. Long - 1/2/2008

Whatever the weaknesses of Block's specific arguments, I am mystified that anyone, let alone you, would think that Barnett's deviations and Paul's deviations are even remotely in the same category.

Certainly it's open to Paul's supporters to argue that Barnett's deviations are worse than Paul's (and not just worse, but sufficiently worse to make the difference between opposition and support). But that's not the argument that Walter was making, is it? I was replying to a specific argument; I wasn't making a positive case against supporting Paul. (As I said in my post, I don't think there is a general case either for or against supporting Paul.)


Roderick T. Long - 1/2/2008

I can think of three plausible choices for a libertarian: Vote for Paul, don't vote, or vote for a least of the evils which have a chance of being nominated.

I can think of a fourth: voting for whoever the LP nominates, if that person turns out to be a purer libertarian than Ron Paul.

(Not necessarily advocating that option, just mentioning it.)

His position on federalism -- notably his claim that applying the Bill of Rights to the states under the extended view of the 14th Amendment -- indicates that he regards the Constitution as such, not individual rights, as fundamental.

The federalism issue is complicated. Not wanting the federal govt. to be empowered to impose libertarian policies on the states doesn't necessarily mean one doesn't care about individual rights. Few of us would want a world govt. to be empowered to impose libertarian policies on the U.S. -- because we think such power is likelier in the long run to cause less liberty rather than more, and when it goes wrong it's harder to escape from then a more local oppression would be.

I don't think that's a decisive argument for turning things back to the states in the U.S. context, however; that depends on further considerations I discuss in the last section of this piece.


John Kunze - 1/2/2008

Discussions about who is the most libertarian are not the most interesting, useful, or important.

The important question is whether Ron Paul should be supported by libertarians. The answer does not depend on whether he is pure, but on whether the prospects for liberty are improved by his running.

Paul is effective in getting much of the libertarian vision into the public debate. Foremost, he shows that a principled non-interventionist foreign policy is a coherent position worthy of public discussion. 2008 presents the best opportunity since Vietnam to make this arguement and he has done it well.

Unfortunately, Paul comes with some baggage. But his opposition to open immigration and so forth do not negate the great opportunity his candidacy presents at this time and place.

In contrast, we would not want Randy Barnett to be out there running on an interventionist position during the Iraq war.

But I dare say that if Barnett were to run on an platform of a return to the Bill of Rights and the rule of law he would do us proud.

Would he be as effective as Ron Paul in the current environment? Probably not, but imagine if Barnett were running and generated half the excitement on a pro-rights theme that Paul has on an anti-war theme.


Jeff Riggenbach - 1/2/2008

". . . there's a sense in which it's actually good that he [Ron Paul] is 'in' the GOP -- it makes obvious to many 'conservatives' that most Republicans aren't really conservative."

Actually, most Republicans *are* really conservative. It is Ron Paul who is confused about what a conservative actually is. Ron Paul is a classical liberal, not a conservative.

JR


Gary McGath - 1/2/2008

I can think of three plausible choices for a libertarian: Vote for Paul, don't vote, or vote for a least of the evils which have a chance of being nominated. The "least evil" approach is a poor one, since one individual's vote has zero marginal effect and counts as support for an evil. So the choice I'm debating is whether to vote for Paul or not vote.

Paul is not representing himself as a libertarian, but as a conservative. He doesn't just hold points which are inconsistent with libertarianism, he stresses them -- notably on immigration and abortion. It isn't just a count of positions which matters, but the way he presents his views to the public. Remember, he isn't going to be elected president; the question is what a reasonable showing for him will help to advance.

His position on federalism -- notably his claim that applying the Bill of Rights to the states under the extended view of the 14th Amendment -- indicates that he regards the Constitution as such, not individual rights, as fundamental. (Except when it comes to birthright citizenship, which he has said he'll overturn even though it's guaranteed by the Constitution.)

He's decided to court the conservatives in order to increase his vote. This makes voting for him to advance libertarianism in the public eye a questionable proposition.


Bill Woolsey - 1/2/2008

The worst part about the Paul campaign is how much extra influence it will bring to the Mises Institute crowd within the libertarian movement.

(And the best part is that it will bring more people into the libertarian movement.)

But, as I have said before, now is time to pull together. Laughing at people who think Hoppe or Kinsella are intellectual leaders of the libertarian movement can wait until next Fall.

By they way, I don't think there is any "philosophical" argument one could make to show that one should support Ron Paul's candidacy while oppose that of Barnett. It is a matter of what issues are most important.


Aeon J. Skoble - 1/2/2008

"he is not running as a Libertarian but as a Republican. This is an essential point that is sometimes either forgotten or ignored by both his supporters and his critics."

This by itself I find unobjectionable. He has first-hand experience of how realistic a third-party run would be. I voted for him when he ran on the LP ticket, but we all know how well that worked out. I'm no fan of the "2-party system," but it's clear that running as a member of one of the major parties has enabled him to get MUCH farther than he ever could have as a LP candidate. First of all, it's possible that he could actually win -- I concede this is a slim chance, but better than any LP candidate could hope for -- and second of all, his views are getting more exposure, as he gets to share the stage with the other GOP hopefuls. Also, there's a sense in which it's actually good that he's "in" the GOP -- it makes obvious to many "conservatives" that most Republicans aren't really conservative.


Less Antman - 1/2/2008

No. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has the authority to determine strategy and tactics, and can unilaterally decide that withdrawing troops is best. The authority to order an attack is not a command to order an attack I also think it is clear that Paul does not support the retention of troops in Iraq, and was simply making the additional point that the action is unconstitutional as a way of convincing audiences for whom constitutional arguments work. I frequently refer to Jesus' pronouncements when talking to Christians about war, along with all the arguments from libertarian principle.

Whatever the weaknesses of Block's specific arguments, I am mystified that anyone, let alone you, would think that Barnett's deviations and Paul's deviations are even remotely in the same category. Perhaps I missed some famous declaration that VISAS ARE THE HEALTH OF THE STATE. At the very least, a body count ought to be taken to determine the relative effects of the different deviations, at which point the Paul/Barnett comparison seems ludicrous to me. There must be some subtlety in your argument that I am missing.

Just to be clear: Paul's handling of the immigration issue makes me sick to my stomach. Probably Block, too.


Roderick T. Long - 1/2/2008

Abortion and immigration law are outside of a president's authority.

True enough. But so, according to Paul, is withdrawing troops; at least, as I understand Paul's view, he'd regard himself as obligated to keep sending troops to Iraq if Congress declared war. Wouldn't he? (I'm echoing Charles' question here.)


Greg Newburn - 1/2/2008

Hoppe and Kinsella as "intellectual leaders" of libertarianism??

If that's a consensus view, should I turn off the lights as I leave this "movement"?


Mark Brady - 1/2/2008

That said, it's worth emphasizing two aspects of Ron Paul's candidature. First, he is not running as a Libertarian but as a Republican. This is an essential point that is sometimes either forgotten or ignored by both his supporters and his critics.

And there's another consideration, too. What marks Ron Paul out from the rest of the Republican pack? His opposition to U.S. interventionism overseas. And what could a president do? Withdraw U.S. troops from abroad. Abortion and immigration law are outside of a president's authority.


Robert Paul - 1/2/2008

To me, what this whole discussion really shows is that any definition of "libertarian" is, of course, completely arbitrary, especially if you don't use the NAP.

I might choose to define it using the NAP, which would mean both Paul and Barnett are not libertarians. Then, the question becomes, who comes closest? I think it's reasonable to say Paul does, by a long shot. Defederalizing abortion and restricting immigration while the welfare state exists both appear less damaging than the Iraq war and an interventionist foreign policy. Let's not forget that the war involves force both in the United States and abroad. Too many liberventionists treat the US as a single actor.

At least Paul's measures, as unlibertarian as they may be, have some loopholes. Not all states would ban abortion, and Paul has voted against restricting travel between states to obtain an abortion. "Legal" immigration would still exist. Libertarians are entirely justified in taking issue with these positions, but how does one escape from a pro-war policy?

It's interesting to me that all three of the unlibertarian positions being discussed - on abortion, immigration, and foreign policy - can partly be blamed on the now disastrous alliance between libertarians and conservatives.


Roderick T. Long - 1/2/2008

I think you've particularly spanked him on the circularity issue.

I was hoping nobody would find out about my spanking fantasies involving Walter!

I also find it interesting that Walter wants to define what is or is not libertarian by the views held by (who he believes are) the leaders of the libertarian movement. Regardless of what one thinks of the three people he designated as his "leaders," that's an interesting position to take by someone who thinks competition is a good thing.

Well, his position allows competition among the leaders -- a view counts as permissible so long as at least one of the leaders hold it. So it's sorta like managed competition .... :-)


Steven Horwitz - 1/2/2008

Very nice Roderick. Very nice.

I think you've particularly spanked him on the circularity issue.

I also find it interesting that Walter wants to define what is or is not libertarian by the views held by (who he believes are) the leaders of the libertarian movement. Regardless of what one thinks of the three people he designated as his "leaders," that's an interesting position to take by someone who thinks competition is a good thing.

History News Network