A Question for Critics of Ron Paul’s Critics

[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.

Paris Hilton wants you dead 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.)

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42 Responses to A Question for Critics of Ron Paul’s Critics

  1. Steve Horwitz December 6, 2007 at 1:19 pm #

    Somebody close the open italics tag please 🙂

  2. David Gordon December 6, 2007 at 1:50 pm #

    I think a third meaning of “consistent with libertarianism” should be distinguished. 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. 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.

    In my “Open Letter to Libertarians on Ron Paul”, I argued that libertarians who differ with Ron Paul on abortion or immigration should recognize that there was something to be said from a libertarian perspective for his views.
    I didn’t contend that those who differ with him should still support him because he still counts as a libertarian despite what these objectors would regard as his unlibertarian views. ( Obviously, someone who accepts the “Berlin Wall” argument on immigration wouldn’t accept my characterization of Ron Paul’s views on this subject.)

    If someone suggests that libertarians should support Ron Paul despite considering some of his views horrendous, then I think the Administrator is right that he shouldn’t oppose a Randy Barnett candidacy on the grounds that, even though he counts as a libertarian, he holds objectionable views on war and federalism.

    Randy Barnett, as I understand his views, doesn’t argue that aggressive war is justifiable. Rather, he thinks the Iraq war is defensive. His failing, then, is not that he adopts an unlibertarian principle but that he misreads the facts in a way that seems to me to show appallingly bad judgment. This provides sufficient reason to oppose him, should he run for President.

  3. Anthony Gregory December 6, 2007 at 2:55 pm #

    I am both anti-immigration controls and antiwar. I agree that, from a certain radical perspective, immigration controls can be seen as the equivalent of emigration controls — though it does depend on circumstance: a restriction against entering a small town, even if governed by an illegitimate city-state, still does not strike me as anywhere as bad as the Berlin Wall. Keeping someone outside a tiny town is not nearly as bad as keeping someone inside a tiny town. But I certainly oppose US borders.

    The thing is, under the same radical analysis, war is not just the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, but Stalin’s purges. It is not just tyranny but genocide. By any assessment, slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent foreigners is worse than forcibly keeping them out. To support something like the Iraq war is far worse, in my opinion, than supporting immigration controls, or universal health care, or gun control, on drug prohibition, or taxation. It is supporting the murder and displacement of millions of people and the destruction of an entire society. There can never be any justification for this. Even if all of the United States were a private property institution, it would have no right whatsover to conduct a US-style foreign policy, whereas it would have a right to keep people out.

    And so while I can see how, if we want to be very charitable, we can regard pro-war libertarians as simply people who in good faith have adopted an error, their error is far worse than the error adopted by immigration restrictionists.

    Under Ron Paul’s immigration policy, the most aggression you could argue that he has called for is the punishment of visa violators. He has not called for mass deportations or a police state to stop illegals. Most of his proposals are libertarian — cutting welfare and privileges — even if some of us might not agree with the priority. But in the case of war, the libertarian supporters have defended atrocities far worse than anything Ron Paul comes close to advocating. Shock and Awe alone was completely indefensible from a methodological individualist perspective. To be wrong about dropping explosives on children, no matter how charitably we construe the error, is much, much worse than being wrong about immigration.

  4. TGGP December 6, 2007 at 4:39 pm #

    I’m more paleo than Paul (I’m a minarchist but I want the Articles of Confederation rather than the Constitution restored) and more dovish than Chomsky. I would support Barnett to the same extent that I support Paul (I never vote or give money to candidates) if he were running and Paul were not, though between the two I would prefer Paul.

  5. John T. Kennedy December 6, 2007 at 5:23 pm #

    What does it matter if libertarians get behind Ron Paul, or Randy Barnett for that matter?

    By the way, while Ron Paul has certainly played to the Lew Rockwell/nationalist crowd on immigration, after seeing him discuss the matter with people on youtube I don’t think his heart is really in it. I saw him telling a voter the real problem was the incentives which attracted immigrants. I don’t think it would be too tough to convince him that it’s the real problem he needs to face.

  6. John T. Kennedy December 6, 2007 at 5:28 pm #

    Eric Crampton,

    Sit back and think “Am I living in a place that’s likely to make abortion illegal if it had half a chance?” Look around your town. If the warehouse-sized evangelical churches outnumber the McDonalds, you should move. Why do you still live there? What’s wrong with you? If your state legislature has already done other Bible-crazy things like banning sex toys (I’m looking at you, Alabama) or adding intelligent design to the school curriculum, regardless of whether Roe v Wade is overturned, you should be moving.

    But none of these things affect me much. I don’t need any abortions. Though I’m an atheist, churches don’t particularly offend me. I don’t use sex toys. My children are grown. I have Deadwood on DVD. So why should I move to Nw Zealand again?

  7. Robert Paul December 6, 2007 at 11:51 pm #

    As a left-libertarian who strongly supports Ron Paul, I feel oddly unrepresented after reading the posts here [at HNN] and at LRC.

    I missed most of the Cold War, so I’ve always found the link between conservatism and libertarianism in contemporary American politics to be absolutely ridiculous. I do understand the reason for its existence, of course.

    The way I see it, conservatives have been using the rhetoric of libertarianism to win elections for decades. That tactic is coming back to bite them now in the form of Ron Paul’s success. Many conservatives are flocking to Ron Paul because he delivers what they’ve always been promised but never actually received.

    I think Steven’s concerns are overblown. Ron Paul is usually careful to avoid calling himself a libertarian. This is probably for political reasons, but I suspect it’s also because he knows he isn’t a full libertarian.

    That being said, he comes shockingly close for a mainstream candidate, and he’s managed to bring one of the two biggest issues for libertarians, monetary policy, to the forefront in a way I hadn’t thought possible.

    He’s not as strong on education, the other big issue, in my view. His federalist stand on this and many other issues surely irks many libertarians. But if anarcho-capitalists can be expected to support gradual reductions in the size of government, surely minarchists and others can support Ron Paul.

    There’s no reason to worry about Ron Paul making libertarianism look bad. No one who wants him to win would introduce him as a libertarian anyway.

    Thanks for reading.

    Robert Paul (no relation)

    (cross-posted from HNN)

  8. Irfan Khawaja December 7, 2007 at 5:05 pm #

    This is not precisely on topic, but I guess it’s close enough: I’m curious if anyone knows whether Ron Paul has modified his view on the gassing of the Kurds at Halabja. In 2002, his anti-war speeches suggested that the Iraqi government was not responsible:


    Does he still believe that? Does it matter to his supporters one way or the other?

  9. Irfan Khawaja December 7, 2007 at 5:08 pm #

    Sorry, bad link; try this one:


  10. Som December 8, 2007 at 7:00 pm #

    I think support for Ron Paul is legitimate no mater what type of libertarian you are. Being a libertarian anarchist gearing slightly left on the cultural barometer, and an avid reader of the LRC columns and the mises institute, I have had to find ways to reconcile what it actually means to be a libertarian among various disagreements. There is a simple (and mentally relieving!) litmus test that I personally use to determine if a candidate or activist is a real libertarian or not. It’s a principle really:

    1) If the candidate does NOT have any intention or position to increase the power of the state over any issue, while only decreasing it in any aspect(s), he’s a viable libertarian candidate

    2) If the candidate DOES have any intention or position to increase the power of the state over any issue, then he’s NOT a viable libertarian candidate.

    and Ron Paul definitely falls into the former. Even though Ron Paul sees immigration control as constitutional, I don’t ever see him advocating FEDERAL INCREASES of control over immigration. In fact he says over and over in his interviews that he would eliminate the CAUSES of resentment towards immigration by ending welfare privileges and otherwise allow states to deal with their own immigration issues, while not allowing the federal government to interfere with their decisions. He may not get rid of any current federal controls over immigration, but I have no reason to believe he is going to enact new FEDERAL laws against immigration. Ditto with Abortion.

    So my definition of libertarian support simply means that anyone who takes action to REMOVE any aspect of the state from our lives while not increasing state power in any other aspect, deserves support as a viable libertarian candidate. Ron Paul is spreading message of freedom whenever he can, which is all to the good!

    and yes, this also means a viable libertarian candidate to me could be someone running on the position of only cutting the spending bill on pennies, but NOT supporting any other increase in state power within his regime. (although I would not be nearly as enthusiastic about his candidacy!)

    Thus I disagree with the left libertarians that do not support Ron Paul’s candidacy. If say Randy Barnett spread the message of liberty as far as Ron has despite his own personal position on the war, and at the same time has no plans to INCREASE current state power towards the war or federal power over the states, then I would support his candidacy too.

    As far as cultural views goes on sex, natural hierarchies, “bourgeois values” etc. that a viable candidate has, I say, get over it! There is no NORMATIVE view of cultural values in Libertarianism that are ABSOLUTE, but that all must be kept out of the legal arena (a.k.a. Cultural Freedom, not conservatism or “progressivism” or whatever) Real Libertarians should UNITE, SUPPORT, and CELEBRATE any real and absolute decreases in state power that also promises no more state power in some other aspect! As a Leftward Rothbardian, I can say that Ron Paul’s Constitutionalist positions are a hell of a LOT better than we have now.

    By the way, I think one major difference between “right” anarcho-capitalists and “left” anarcho-capitalists is their definition of legal Personhood, where as the former would expand that legal status to corporations and human fetuses as where the latter would not have either one. Interesting

  11. Eric Crampton December 10, 2007 at 5:51 pm #

    Bill: if the choice is between a candidate who’ll restrict liberty at the federal level, requiring you to leave the country to avoid it, and a candidate who’ll allow states to augment or to reduce freedom, I’ll go with the latter.

    John: no particular reason you should move if you’re happy where you are. But folks who 1) complain loudly about easily-avoidable restrictions and 2) don’t move and 3) critique Paul as not being libertarian enough because he’d let some communities that are already nuts on N-1 dimensions also ban abortion, strike me as a little odd.

  12. William H. Stoddard December 12, 2007 at 12:45 am #

    2) If the candidate DOES have any intention or position to increase the power of the state over any issue, then he’s NOT a viable libertarian candidate.

    Ron Paul want to do away with Roe v. Wade and have abortion be decided on a state-by-state basis. That would materially increase the power of the State at the level of many of the several states, in an area I consider vitally important. I live in a state that isn’t at all likely to restrict abortion. But I don’t see any reason that Utah, or Kansas, or Alabama should be allowed to do so, any more than they should be allowed to institute established churches for their states, or impose racist measures such as segregation or anti-miscegenation laws.

    Ron Paul is not a viable libertarian candidate.

  13. Som December 14, 2007 at 2:13 am #

    “Ron Paul want to do away with Roe v. Wade and have abortion be decided on a state-by-state basis. That would materially increase the power of the State at the level of many of the several states, in an area I consider vitally important.”

    – Granted, removing the federal government’s influence from laws will automatically allow state governments to make whatever restrictions they want on the people. But libertarian theory states that decentralized power is actually less power than an overarching federal government that can take control of much more territory. So Ron Paul is still viable, because he will not use his OWN office or any of the federal government to enforce drugs, abortion, etc.

    I was concerned about this too, but this paper clarifies this issue quite nicely to me…https://www.mises.org/story/1872

  14. Administrator January 1, 2008 at 5:11 pm #

    Lots of fascinating comments here, which I hope to get to. At least I did fix the italics thing!

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