To Paul Or Not To Paul, Part 3

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Okay, so what do I think is the proper libertarian response to Ron Paul’s candidacy? Well, I don’t think there is a single proper libertarian response. Let me say why.

The two best arguments for supporting Paul’s candidacy, as I see it, are these:

1. If Paul were to win, he would produce, on balance, much more libertarian results than any of the other current candidates; in particular, he would bring our troops home and thus save thousands of lives, as well as reducing our attractiveness as a terrorist target.

2. Even if Paul does not win, his campaign is an opportunity to build awareness of, interest in, and enthusiasm for libertarianism.

The two best arguments against supporting Paul’s candidacy, as I see it, are these:

3. Electoral politics is the wrong strategy for the libertarian movement.

4. Even granting the legitimacy of the electoral strategy, Ron Paul’s deviations (e.g. on abortion, immigration, gay rights, constitutional fetishism, or even minarchism itself) make him an inappropriate object for libertarian support.

Let me say a bit more about each of these arguments.

As far as I can tell, (1) is correct in arguing that Paul, despite his deviations, would likely pursue policies whose direct results would be significantly more libertarian than otherwise. (About indirect results, more anon.) His control over military policy would after all be greater than his control over immigration policy or abortion policy. I think that’s a reason to hope he does well, and I do hope he does well. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if there were a button such that pushing it would guarantee Paul’s election, while not pushing it would guarantee the election of Giuliani or Clinton or Romney or Obama or Huckabee or Edwards or McCain or … then I would happily push it.

Ron Paul This case for supporting Paul must be evaluated in the light of his low chances of election, however. Now I agree with the claim, made by Paul’s supporters, that the mainstream media are probably underestimating his chances; in particular I agree that telephone polls probably undercount Paul’s supporters by excluding those (younger, “hipper”) voters who rely primarily on cell phones. However, I also think that Paul’s supporters are probably overestimating his chances. (I suspect both sides are guilty of a bit of wishful thinking.) I don’t believe Paul has a realistic chance of winning in today’s political climate. I could be wrong – and I’ll be following with interest his fortunes in the upcoming Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. But if I’m right that his chances of being elected are small, then the good consequences, if such they would be, of his hypothetical presidency become correspondingly weaker reasons to vote for him.

Yet of course there may often be good reasons to vote for someone you think is unelectable – as indeed I’ve argued elsewhere. A strong showing for Paul, even if it fell short of electing him, might put pressure on the winner to end the war, or if not, might lay the groundwork for a more successful run later on. And of course there’s the general movement-building potential invoked by argument (2).

True enough, but argument (2) needs to be balanced against argument (4). Would the kind of libertarian movement that a Paul candidacy would help to build be a movement deeply entangled with Paul’s anti-immigration, anti-abortion, constitutional-fetishist views? I don’t know; maybe. Those of us who think, on “thickness” grounds (see part 2), that libertarianism requires lefty values for its implementation and/or stability are going to be unenthusiastic about building a right-libertarian version of the libertarian movement.

Defenders of Paul may say: “Okay, but even granting the point about left-libertarian thickness, wouldn’t it be better for a right-libertarian ethos to prevail than for a statist ethos to prevail? And so isn’t that a reason to support a right-libertarian movement in the short run? After all, you can always work on moving it toward the left in the longer run.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that argument per se. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with resisting it. Let me explain. In any movement one has to make trade-off decisions between short-run gains and long-run gains, where the long-run gains are typically greater but iffier. And I don’t think such decisions can be settled by information about probabilities alone. Information about probabilities is relevant, to be sure, but a person’s individual talents and proclivities are relevant too. If Helen has a flair for writing abstract libertarian theory while Klytaemnestra has a flair for preparing position papers on the privatisation of social security, then it might be perfectly reasonable for Helen to specialise in promoting the ultimate triumph of 100% libertarian purity, and for Klytaemnestra to specialise in shorter-term reformist projects. And this reasonable difference in goals might lead them to differ, reasonably, when it comes to trade-offs.

Suppose, for example, that supporting Ron Paul’s candidacy contributes to saving lives by ending the current war and/or preventing new wars – either because Paul gets elected as per argument (1), or because his campaign helps build a stronger antiwar movement as per argument (2). Yet also suppose that the best way to help ensure the long-term triumph and stability of libertarianism – thus saving far more lives in the long run, though at still longer odds – is to work on building a movement that embraces left-libertarian thickness, and that a right-libertarian candidacy would be likely to detract from that project. It seems to me that Helen and Klytaemnestra might reasonably assess these rival options differently. (So am I saying that Ron Paul’s supporters have higher time-preference than his left-libertarian critics? I confess that gives me a chuckle.)

Finally, let me turn to argument (3). How strong is the libertarian case for rejecting electoral politics altogether? The Voluntaryist moral argument that electoral politics involves impermissibly lending one’s sanction to the state I continue to find unpersuasive, for reasons I’ve explained previously. But the Agorist strategic argument is one that I find more convincing than I used to.

The Agorist line is that, given the informational and incentival constraints on state behaviour, the ultimate triumph of liberty is unlikely to come through top-down political action. Hence the more effective strategy is to encourage the withering-away of the state through education, building alternative institutions, and encouraging the withdrawal of support via La Boétie-style mass civil disobedience. But this means that we should be trying to wean people away from the political process – that we should be encouraging them to ignore the state, not to become energetically involved in political campaigns.

anarchist rEVOLution David Gordon writes that “Rothbard scorned those who disdain political action. Interested only in their supposed ideological purity, they retreat to an intellectual pantisocracy and display little interest in actually securing libertarian political objectives.” But this is a misunderstanding, I think. Those who disdain political action in the sense of electoral politics are not necessarily disdaining political action in the sense of action aimed at achieving libertarian political goals; they just think that the best way to do the latter is to resist, rather than to embrace, the former. It’s sometimes said that anarchists and minarchists are headed in the same direction, and so might as well ride on the same train for the time being, with minarchists merely getting off a stop or two before the anarchists do. But if the Agorist argument is right, they’re not really riding on the same train; and the minarchist train encourages a mindset that tends to undermine the success of the anarchist train.

To paraphrase Nietzsche just a tad:

What if a symptom of regression were inherent in libertarian electoral politics, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present was possibly living at the expense of the future? Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely? – So that precisely libertarian electoral politics would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that precisely libertarian electoral politics was the danger of dangers?

Since the Agorist case against electoral politics is a strategic rather a moral argument, however, it doesn’t have the same kind of exceptionless force that moral arguments aspire to have (at least for us deontologists). As a pragmatic rather than a moral argument, it establishes a general presumption against electoral politics, but not, as far as I can see, an absolute prohibition. On this point I part company with my Agorist comrades. (I also think that, come the Agorist revolution, we’d be well-advised to have some fifth-columnists placed in the state apparatus; that’s another reason Agorists shouldn’t eschew electoral politics entirely. But this point seems to apply to a period when the revolution is imminent, which certainly isn’t now.)

As I see it, there’s no apodictic necessity that a political campaign must lend more support to an electoral mindset than it does to an anti-electoral mindset. Hence a sufficiently strong electoral candidate could be worthy of an Agorist’s vote. Applying this argument to Ron Paul, however, strikes me as problematic, precisely because his strong emphasis on constitutionality, on (in his words) taking his “marching orders” from the Constitution, does seem to be at odds with the kind of strategy an Agorist seeks to promote. (I know there’s dispute in the libersphere as to the extent to which Paul’s constitutional fetishism is sincere versus being a way of selling libertarian ideas to constitution-revering American audiences; but the Agorist worry about such a campaign’s effects will be the same in either case.)

Suppose the Agorists are right (as I think they are) that our best shot for achieving long-term 100% libertarianism is to promote a bottom-up approach of bypassing the state; and suppose they are also right (as again I think they are) that the constitutional-fetishism of Ron Paul’s candidacy is likelier to frustrate rather than advance such an approach. Suppose, too, that the left-libertarian thickness approach is right in holding that the best (both most reasonable and most effective) form for a libertarian movement to take is a left-libertarian one, and that supporting Ron Paul’s right-libertarian candidacy tends to detract from that desideratum as well. Are those decisive arguments against supporting Paul’s presidential bid?

No, I don’t think so. The most that these arguments show is that supporting Paul, while it might bring about some advance toward liberty in the short run, tends to undermine the chances of achieving a thoroughgoing libertarian society in the long run. But that by itself might not be a good enough reason.

Suppose, for example, that you think the chances of ever achieving a thoroughgoing libertarian society are, objectively, so abysmally low that they’re not worth taking into consideration, and that the most one can hope to do is to push back the forces of darkness a little bit and for a little while. In that case the fact that supporting Paul might reduce the odds of long-run libertarian victory from vanishingly small to even more vanishingly small would be irrelevant.

anarchists throwing flowers But once again, deciding such trade-offs needn’t depend on probabilities alone. Whether a long shot is worth pursuing depends not only on the odds that it can be gotten but on how good you are at pursuing such a goal, how fulfilling you would find it, how much weight you place on long-term versus short-term satisfaction, how eager you are to see some success in your lifetime, and what your other commitments are – and these are matters that can legitimately vary from person to person. (Aristotle calls this the “mean relative to us.”)

By analogy, suppose I think that cathedrals are better than gas stations, and suppose I also think that if I use these materials to build gas stations, there’s a good chance that there won’t be enough left over to build a cathedral. Does it follow that I should refrain from building gas stations with the materials at hand? Not necessarily. I might be good at building gas stations and lousy at building cathedrals; or I might recognise that cathedrals take longer to build than gas stations, and value gas stations now over cathedrals later. Or maybe I just like to live dangerously, so I go ahead with my gas stations and hope I’ll still be able to complete my cathedral later. (Between the impermissible extremes of cowardice and rashness lie a range of permissible degrees of risk-aversion.)

I don’t support Ron Paul’s candidacy, then, because my own talents, proclivities, and commitments lie with the Agorist and left-libertarian projects, and I value the promotion of those projects over the short-term benefits that Paul’s candidacy might gain at the expense of those projects. But I can’t see that this preference is compulsory for everybody. Even if every libertarian ought to be an Agorist and a cultural lefty (and so they ought! – there are limits to my Aristotelean pluralism), it seems to me that it does not follow that every libertarian ought to make the trade-off between those long-run projects and the possible short-run gains from Paul’s candidacy the same way I do.

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12 Responses to To Paul Or Not To Paul, Part 3

  1. Sergio Méndez January 3, 2008 at 6:47 am #

    After reading all this fascinating discussion around Ron Paul, I think it is desirable that Ron Paul wins the republican nomination for his anti war stance and his anti drug war stance. In the other aspects (immigration, abortion) Ron Paul seems to me exactly like other republican candidates, but he best them for his position in the two first issues I mention. Now, in a general election, I think there is no candidate left to vote for left libertarians, except Kucinich. Yes, Kucinich is a statist, but he shares many of the good stuff of Paul (his anti war stance, his anti drug war stance, which are authentically libertarian) and also have other good points that Paul lacks (his support for abortion right, gender issue equality etc…). I just wonder why so many libertarians don’t consider Kucinich -supposedly for his statist policies, while failing to see many of his libertarian positions- while they systematically ignore or downplay many of the statist trends Paul has.

  2. quasibill January 3, 2008 at 10:36 am #

    Excellent post. Except for one “but!” and a few minor quibbles, I agree totally.

    “But this point seems to apply to a period when the revolution is imminent, which certainly isn’t now.)”

    Do people really foresee revolutions clearly, or are the causes and signs only clear in retrospect? Does it have to be a full-fledged revolution, or will you accept merely a Soviet-style disintegration as a “revolution’? As I’ve argued before, and you note earlier in your post, it’s important to have at least a non-enemy in power for even a Soviet-style disintegration or devolution of power.

    And I would say that a Soviet-style disintegration of the U.S. is desirable, and if not imminent, at least on the horizon (I think it could be imminent, but a lot will depend on the reaction of the federal government as the economy starts to plummet in the next few years). And I’d rather have Paul than Giuliani or Clinton at the wheel when the time comes, much the same that the Soviet people should be happy that it was not Stalin at the wheel in the late ’80s.

  3. Bubba January 3, 2008 at 2:20 pm #

    I’m going to give you the dilettante’s oversimplified solution to the Ron Paul question, and for that matter, all the other candidate’s. That way, all you innerlectuals can stop frettin’, splittin’ hairs, threadin’ needles, and usin’ big words.
    As I see it, all presidential candidates have cooties and none of ’em use a condom. We’s all gonna get screwed somehow or nuther. So which venereal disease do you want to put up with?
    Hell, lets get Ron Paul in the White House and we’ll doctor on him later.


  4. Soviet Onion January 3, 2008 at 10:53 pm #


    Regarding your point about the benefit of installing a few friendly bureaucrats on the inside to help us, I’d say that counter-economics already provides a mechanism for that. Black markets always attract their share of corrupt bureaucrats looking to pull strings for the right price. We need to not go to the politicians; the politicians will come to us.

    So by the time revolution is imminent, corruption would already supply us with all the moles and double agents we could hope for. When the state comes hunting for the Agorists, they could probably be bribed (or, if necessary, blackmail) into into misdirecting those efforts, or tipping us off ahead of time.

  5. Niccolò January 3, 2008 at 11:07 pm #

    Another issue I take with the Ron Paul support comes from the fact that the entire process is an example of allocative inefficiency.

    Let us assume that the revolutionaries and the reformists want the same end-goals, or at least very similar ones. Given the demonstrated nature of Agorism as a market system and political reform as a socialist system, would libertarians adhering to markets as more efficient than socialist systems not be forced to pull support from Ron Paul and reinvest it into the efficient market system?

    To me, Paul represents to the libertarian movement what malinvestments represent in the economy.

    The resources seen given to Ron Paul are quite tremendous – in the context of the libertarian movement – but really how much feed back will the libertarian movement see? What return on the libertarian movement’s investments can there be? Does anyone really believe that when Ron Paul loses and Clinton or Obama are elected that this will equal or succeed the marginal costs applied to the Ron Paul campaign? No doubt, we will see some net returns, and we are seeing them today, but that’s not the point of allocative efficiency. The question that I come to, in the interests of advancing the libertarian movement with the greatest effectiveness, remains, are we better off throwing support at a system that exhibits a net loss on our part? Are we better off ignoring greater alternatives that would reap a larger reward for these losses? Essentially, are we better off losing or gaining ground?

    I think the answer is clear, don’t vote Ron Paul, don’t go reformists – Don’t feed the beast, go counter-economic!

  6. Tomasz January 4, 2008 at 1:24 am #

    I don’t think anyone should be under the illusion Ron Paul will be the next US President. Even if he were to win the GOP nomination the array of interests against him, and the relative lack of a libertarian mind set amongst the voters, make him unwinnable. Still there is some mileage in supporting a losing candidate that both political and agorist libertarians should have common ground on. Both approaches require education and public attention to progress, the Paul campaign is a great educational vehicle for making a larger fraction of the population aware of libertarian ideas, if only in the not-100%-pure version Paul espouses. The likely failure of the Ron Paul campaign is also likely to be educational in itself and may encourage many libertarian inclined people to realise that reforming the beast is unlikely via the beastly electoral route.

  7. Anon82 January 4, 2008 at 5:59 am #

    Yes, Kucinich is a statist, but he shares many of the good stuff of Paul (his anti war stance, his anti drug war stance

    Interestingly I did a search and found a few votes where Paul and Kucinich were alone in voting “No” to a bill to which everyone else voted “Yes”. Too bad there’s no way for Paul and Kucinich to do the fusion dance.

  8. Administrator January 4, 2008 at 2:01 pm #

    Niccolò wrote:

    Given the demonstrated nature of Agorism as a market system and political reform as a socialist system, would libertarians adhering to markets as more efficient than socialist systems not be forced to pull support from Ron Paul and reinvest it into the efficient market system?

    Well, to play devil’s advocate – i.e. to quote my earlier self:

    My answer is that my faith in the power of the free market is undiminished – but in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t have a free market. What we have is a deeply regulated and crippled market, and it is that in which the Voluntaryists are asking us to have faith. Grass-roots education to undermine allegiance to the state is hampered by the fact that most of our audience has been indoctrinated in state-run schools. Counter-economic strategies to build alternatives to the state are hampered by the fact that most of them are illegal, and prospective participants are not unnaturally afraid of being sent to prison. (Even those that are legal are so severely regulated that many are discouraged from participating, and the ardor of those who do participate is somewhat quelled by the knowledge that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders.) Surely it would be absurd to argue as follows: “We libertarians claim to recognize the superiority of private over public solutions, but when we drive to work in the morning we use the public roads. How unimaginative! When we are so boldly and consistently libertarian in other areas, why do we pick such an un-libertarian strategy for getting to work? Don’t we know that private roads are better than public ones? All right then, from now on, if we really believe what we preach, we should use only private roads for driving to work.” Of course private roads are a superior strategy for getting to work – but the power of government has created a severe shortage of private roads, and has thus prevented us from making use of the best strategy. The same applies to purely non-political strategies for dismantling the state.

  9. Niccolò January 4, 2008 at 11:08 pm #

    The comment that we do not live in a free market is highly irrelevant. You don’t need a high level of free markets to work in an efficient way, that is, even if the majority ISN’T market based, the counter-economy is by default, permanently.

  10. Jeremy January 10, 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    Great analysis, Roderick. As a left libertarian who is working directly with the Paul campaign and the Paul grassroots, I can tell you with certainty that just about everybody is (to my very great surprise) interested in a long term, “bottom up” movement for freedom and limited government. It’s probably more of an artifact of Paul’s vast and spontaneous internet support than Paul’s politics or vision, but it’s fascinating to behold.

    Think of it this way: right now there’s a vast, energized bottom up movement that is being educated and polarized along libertarian lines. Many of these are not converts from conservatism or liberalism but rather newcomers to political consciousness in general. Ron Paul is a symbol of something, and just about everybody in the movement understands this on some level (there’s a bit of a cult of personality, but that’s a distraction easily seen through). If agorists think Paul is the wrong symbol, it’s still worth engaging this vast, nascent movement.

    For example, a left libertarian friend and I have been going to meetups, participating in sign wavings, marches, and guerrilla sign-hanging strikes. 🙂 Sure, as anarchists we both feel a little wierd about chanting a name at people, or hanging signs up with some old guy’s face on it. But it’s not like we don’t know what’s going on, and we’re not afraid that we’ll somehow be hoodwinked back into statism or something. Like you’re saying, we struck that balance between pragmatism and principle in that irreducible way that only a lone individual can. Moreover, we’ve printed out dozens of copies of Carson’s “The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand” in pamphlet form and have been passing them out to sympathetic Paulistas.

    My point, I suppose, is that I think it’s slightly irrelevant to get caught up in a detailed analysis on this particular political issue (IMHO). Obviously, one should do what one thinks is best. I’m only trying to say that getting involved again with an active, engaged movement is a hugely satisfying use of one’s political energy. There’s a visceral, intensely social experience to such a down-and-dirty movement that libertarians like me really benefit from, as I’m wont to stay in my ivory tower. I truly believe that agorists could achieve many of their preliminary goals by using this unique moment in political consciousness – the same way that Ron Paul is using it (it’s really not of his making, anyway).


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