[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
Most of my libertarian comrades seem to think that Ron Paul is either a) the Second Coming, or b) the Apocalypse. (The former viewpoint dominates at LewRockwell.com, while the latter dominates, with some exceptions, at LeftLibertarian.org. See also, of course, the L & P exchange – 86 posts and counting – here.) I’m somewhere in between: I have a lot of serious problems with his candidacy, but I admit I’m also gratified every time I see his poll numbers rising.
But there’s one argument that the (a) group offers the (b) group that I find very puzzling. This is an argument directed primarily to those members of group B who oppose Paul’s candidacy because of his stands on some particular issues (e.g., immigration, abortion, gay rights, constitutionalism), as opposed to those who oppose his candidacy on the basis of a rejection of electoral politics in general – i.e., it’s directed toward those who would be open in principle to supporting a political candidate and just have problems with this one.
The argument goes like this: “Even if you think Paul is wrong on some particular issues, he’s still far, far more libertarian than any of the other candidates, so why not support him?”
The reason I find this argument puzzling is that those who make it would not, I suspect, find it plausible in most other contexts.
Imagine, for example, that instead of Ron Paul it’s Randy Barnett who’s running for President. Paul and Barnett have a lot in common; they’re both fairly thoroughgoing libertarians, they’re both enthusiasts for the Constitution, and they both take some positions that many libertarians regard as deviations.
I suspect that a Barnett candidacy would be far less popular among Group A folks than a Paul candidacy. Barnett’s two major deviations, from their point of view (and mine too, for that matter), would be his support for the war and his insufficiently decentralist approach to federalism. Yet the argument that they have offered on behalf of Paul would seem to apply equally well to Barnett: “Even if you think Barnett is wrong on some particular issues, he’s still far, far more libertarian than any of the other candidates, so why not support him?”
Now maybe that would be a good argument and maybe it would be a bad argument, but whichever it is, it seems like an exactly analogous argument. So if, as I bet, most members of Group A would resist the pro-Barnett argument (I base my guess on Group A’s furious reaction to Barnett’s Wall Street Journal article), why should they expect Group B folks to accept the analogous pro-Paul argument?
Perhaps the reply will be that Paul’s deviations, if such they be, are still consistent with libertarianism, while Barnett’s are not. But if “consistent with libertarianism” means “consistent with libertarian principle properly understood,” then to call something a deviation is precisely to say that it is not consistent with libertarianism. On the other hand, if “consistent with libertarianism” means “consistent with the proponent’s still counting as a libertarian,” then it seems to me that both Paul’s and Barnett’s deviations are consistent with libertarianism in that sense. (If Ludwig von Mises – advocate of conscription and the Cold War, and admirer of Abraham Lincoln – counts as a libertarian, how could Barnett fail to do so?)
Or perhaps the reply will be that Barnett’s deviations are important and fundamental, while Paul’s, if any, are minor and peripheral. But of course Group B folks are not likely to agree that Paul’s deviations are minor and peripheral. Consider the case of immigration (since that’s an area where Paul explicitly favours federal enforcement rather than merely turning things back to the states). Now libertarians disagree over immigration; some see a difference between keeping people inside one’s borders and keeping them out, while for others there’s no difference. I think the second position is the right one (if the party doing the enforcing doesn’t own the land on either side of the border, then it doesn’t make much moral difference whether the enforcing party itself is located on the territory being migrated to or the territory being migrated from); but whether it’s the right one or whether it isn’t, it at least seems clear that it’s no surprise that those who do find the two policies precisely analogous are going to find Paul’s immigration policy non-trivially objectionable, since they’ll see it as on a par with supporting the Berlin Wall. Now maybe there’s still a good case for supporting generally libertarian candidates whose stands on some particular issues you find horrifically anti-liberty; I can see arguments pro and con on that. But those in group A who would not support a Barnett candidacy owe Group B an explanation of why the two cases differ. (Of course any member of Group A who would support a Barnett candidacy is exempt from the charge of inconsistency.)