Left-Libertarianism and Ron Paul
I had hoped to avoid a formal foray into the inevitable dissection of Ron Paul, his newsletters, and his ties to the far right that seems to have hit right on schedule.* As one who at the time was pretty well plugged in to the libertarian blogosphere, the first incarnation of that process, in January 2008, was more than a little exhausting and brought a lot of ugly things about libertarianism to the surface that I’d rather not relive.
However, Steven Horwitz, whose posts on the subject in 2008 were critical to my own turn towards left-libertarianism, has entered the fray with a fairly detailed – and relatively widely linked – history of Ron Paul’s newsletters and their not-insignificant role in libertarian history. If you haven’t already, you should read it.
Horwitz explains how the newsletters, along with the related Rothbard-Rockwell Report, were representative of a critical era in libertarian history during which Murray Rothbard sought to grow the libertarian movement in the early post-Communism era by more directly fusing it in a coalition with working and middle class conservatives, using “cultural” issues as the bait to get the conservatives to come along.** Horwitz argues that this fusionism was deeply corrupting to libertarianism, destroying its inherent liberalism, and concludes:
It’s time to reclaim our progressive history from the hands of the right: from the Old Right of the 40s, to the Reagan era LINOs, to the paleolibertarianism of the 1990s… [T]he heritage of libertarianism is properly a progressive one.
I could not agree more with this sentiment.
Ron Paul’s newsletters, as well as his successes in the last several years, should tell us quite a bit about libertarianism, past, present, and future. Certainly, that he is doing as well as he is at present by emphasizing civil liberties and anti-militarism, and indeed doing especially well at recruiting liberals and independents to his cause, not to mention coming out increasingly in support of gay rights (though not as much, perhaps, as one would hope) and speaking passionately about the effects of the Drug War on people of color, should demonstrate that there is a surprisingly large constituency for a left-libertarianism. Though his newsletters, and his close ties to racists and anti-Semites rightly disqualify him from the Presidency and make him a questionable protest vote at best, such success clears space for future candidates without that baggage to pick up the mantle in future elections. That is not nothing, and is why I ultimately will still vote for him in the primaries next year, just as I did last time around.
However, those successes cannot be divorced from the successes of the newsletters, the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and Rothbard’s fusionism more generally. To the contrary, they are built upon those successes. And, let me be clear: the one area where Horwitz and other commentators who have put Ron Paul’s newsletters and ties to racism in context are wrong is in suggesting that those newsletters and ties were in some way a failure. The fact is that they were more than a little successful. Those ties provided Paul with a national fundraising base that allowed him to raise more than twice the amount of money for his Congressional campaigns than the average House member between 1996 and 2004, an amount that would go especially far for someone seeking election in an obscure district in East Texas. In other words, those newsletters and ties to fringe groups and Alex Jones types are largely responsible for Ron Paul’s presence in Congress at all.
Those ties no doubt also formed a fundraising foundation for Paul’s 2008 campaign. Indeed, he seems to have been conscious of the continuing importance of those ties to his fundraising efforts at least through late 2007, when he appeared on the Alex Jones Show, which I documented here.
To be sure, that 2008 campaign is when Ron Paul started to pull in a fair amount of support from the Left. It also seems to be around the time when he started to begin speaking in a manner more clearly aimed at appealing to liberals. I know not which came first, but what is clear is that the foundation of his campaign in 2008 was still very much the far-right conspiracy theorists upon whom he had long relied. No wonder, then, that his denunciations have been so tepid, especially in 2008 – to denounce in the manner he needed to would have been to deprive himself of his most reliable source of fundraising.
The bottom line, though, is that the fusionism represented so disturbingly by the newsletters worked, just as his seeming appeals to the Left the last 3-4 years have also worked. Paul does not seem to have changed his positions on many issues during that time outside of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But he does seem to have changed his rhetoric and the issues he chooses to discuss. He also seems to be advocating the same policies for largely contradictory reasons as he might have in 1992-2000.
In other words, he is quite good at talking out of both sides of his mouth, just as any successful politician must be.
But in this case, the fact that someone can be so good at this while advocating for more or less the same libertarian policies should be a cause for libertarian self-reflection. On the one hand, those successes increasingly demonstrate just how possible it is for libertarianism as it currently exists to appeal to the masses and capable of perhaps winning elections on a wide scale. On the other, much more disturbing hand, Ron Paul’s successes demonstrate how thin the line is between the libertarianism that many of us like to think we desire and the “fascist fist in a libertarian glove” represented by the newsletters and described by Horwitz.
Both this thin line and the increasing possibility of success, then, are equally part of libertarianism as it exists. What libertarians must confront is that it is the very thinness of this line that would seem to be the source of libertarianism’s greatest hope of achieving electoral successes in the foreseeable future. We must confront whether we are ultimately comfortable with success if that success means the possibility of an illiberal libertarianism obtaining the reins of power.
If not, then we cannot let the possibility of a success due in large part to the incorporation of Rothbard’s disgusting fusionism deter us from making liberalism an explicit and, indeed, overriding tenet of libertarianism, the lack of which must be treated as a disqualifying factor for anyone who wishes to wave the libertarian banner. It is not enough, then, to merely personally disavow racism and bigotry; instead, opposition to such reactionary forces must be viewed as a central and necessary tenet of libertarianism.
*Though there is nothing new in these revelations, that does not mean they should be shoved aside. Ron Paul has several times as many supporters this time around as he did in 2008; for many of those supporters, this “old news” is anything but old and is something that they absolutely should have to grapple with in evaluating the man.
**Lest we forget, Rothbard campaigned for Pat Buchanan in 1992.