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

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

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.

Ron Paul 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!

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8 Responses to A Question for Critics of Ron Paul’s Critics, Part 2

  1. David Gordon January 1, 2008 at 9:15 pm #

    I think the force of the question posed to me depends on a stronger sense of “best interpretation” than the one I had in mind. My cases of “best interpretation” in this context arise only for issues where a single position doesn’t follow from libertarian principles. If libertarian principles do leave open certain questions, it doesn’t follow that all the positions consistent with libertarian principles are equally reasonable. Someone who thinks that libertarian principles do not imply a single correct position on immigration, e.g., might also think that open borders are more in accord with the spirit of libertarianism than a restrictionist view. Someone who thinks this would take open borders to be the best interpretation of libertarianism. But to my mind this doesn’t suffice to show that competing positions on immigration are deviations. I confine the latter term to cases where there is a single position that follows from libertarian principles. I suspect that the Administrator’s problem with what I say is that he thinks that libertarian principles do mandate a unique correct outcome on immigration and abortion, and perhaps on all other important issues as well. When he speaks of “best interpretation”, I think means “correct position.” If so, he is perfectly right that those who don’t adopt the best interpretation deviate from libertarianism. But in my sense of that term, they don’t. Further, I don’t contend that on all open issues, there is always a best interpretation in my sense.

    To turn to Randy Barnett, it violates libertarian principles to support aggressive war. But Barnett doesn’t support aggressive war. Rather, if I have understood him correctly, he thinks that the Iraq war is defensive.
    This contention rests on his assessment of various questions of fact, e.g., the nature of “radical Islam”, the link between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups, etc. I think his opinions on these matters are radically mistaken, but this leaves his libertarianism intact. Further, even if one held that his position on the war was unlibertarian, he would still count as a libertarian overall.

  2. TGGP January 1, 2008 at 9:44 pm #

    As I mentioned in the post you linked to, I would support Barnett if he replaced Ron Paul, as the most libertarian of a bad bunch. I would be somewhat surprised if other libertarians did not do so had such an alternate history occurred. I prefer Paul to Barnett because the Iraq war was a monstrously stupid waste of lives and money that I don’t think the abortion and immigration issues can compare to (though this is partly reflection of my own personal views rather than libertarianism itself, as I really don’t care about abortion even if it is murder and I’m in favor of restricting immigration or using either a merit-based or Gulf State guest-worker style system, though I would prefer a pro-immigration anti-war bundle to a pro-war anti-immigration one).

  3. Administrator January 1, 2008 at 9:53 pm #

    I suspect that the Administrator’s problem with what I say is that he thinks that libertarian principles do mandate a unique correct outcome on immigration and abortion, and perhaps on all other important issues as well

    I don’t think I think that. After all, I’m a fan of application thickness. Perhaps what I do think is that something counts as a deviation from libertarian principle whether the case against it depends on a) the non-aggression principle alone or on b) the non-aggression principle in conjunction with true auxiliary premises. (Whereas it sounds like you’re saying that the case against a position has to be (a), not (b), in order for the position to count as a libertarian deviation.)  And part of the reason I don’t see a crucial difference between (a) and (b) is that I tend to be a coherentist about justification in general.

  4. Robert Paul January 1, 2008 at 11:01 pm #


    Unless Randy Barnett has denounced taxation to fund his “defensive” war, how could his position leave his libertarianism intact?

  5. Administrator January 1, 2008 at 11:46 pm #

    Well, I suspect David wants to use “libertarian” broadly enough that Mises counts as a libertarian. (And that’s fine with me; I don’t regard “libertarian” and “consistent, thoroughgoing libertarian” as synonyms.) And Mises had no problem with taxation. If Mises counts as libertarian, then Barnett, whose first choice would be anarchy, must do so a fortiori.

  6. Robert Paul January 2, 2008 at 12:03 am #

    I suppose I’m quibbling over semantics. I might use “libertarian-leaning” instead, especially in light of Mises’s tepid support for conscription.

  7. Niccolò January 2, 2008 at 6:13 am #

    I posted a rather lengthy reply to the same article at my blog.

    It seems to me that it doesn’t matter what counter-argument you give. In my opinion, it is unfortunate that Block, Gordon, and others believe in Ron Paul and support him as a type of messiah for libertarianism, but they seem to be devoted to him and no amount of argument between us will change that, only after the dreaded caucuses are over will we all be able to look at this issue reasonably.

    For Ron Paul, as I remember it, the Mises Institute and by default LewRockwell.com once stood for the proposition that we should not give into evil, but instead proceed ever more boldly against it, I suppose that motto died with the integrity of the libertarian movement.

    If any one is interested in reading my response:


  8. Jason January 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm #

    I cannot say I am as deep a thinker as some who have corresponded with you on this issue, both here and elsewhere, but I may have something to contribute by way of analogy.

    In a discusson with a socialist about libertarianism, he asked me about government ownership of the roads as a way to trap me – since libertarians in general do not like the idea of government ownership of the roads, yet libertarian in general feel that if the US government were reduced to constitutional levels life would be quite better overall, yet the constitution authorizes the establishment of post roads.

    I responded by saying that if the ownership of the roads were the most pressing issue today I would feel no reason to get involved in politics as we would already be at libertaria, and while I do not favor government ownership of the roads, if I were president it would be ver low on my list of priorities, what with the DHS domestically and GWOT internationally. His answer was to accuse me of not answering, by the way.

    The international situation is a very large and very current issue, moreso than many others. It is such a large issue that those who have the resources to contribute to more than one anti-war candidate simultaneously contribute to Kucinich and Paul. Do Kucinich and Paul have any other platform issues in common aside from the war?

    If someone were largely libertarian and against the current war, their position on abortion would be a secondary consideration to me, and would become relevant if I got to choose between two mostly libertarian anti-war candidates. Their position on road ownership would mean I don’t need to vote at all.

    I do happen to have problems with Paul’s stand on immigration, but as I cannot see a better solution in any of the candidates (including Paul) that one has to take a pass.

    One version of libertarianism that I have problems with are what I have named “the 100 percenters”. I want a 100 percent perfect platform, but would be a fool to want a 100 percent perfect candidate as some do. Yes, it is possible to determine what position is most in line with the concepts of libertarianism, even on issues that divide the anarchists, minarchists, and objectivists among the libertarians.

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