Ron Paul and the Libertarians

The New York Times editorializes that if Ron Paul can’t separate himself from his unsavory writings and supporters, “he will leave a lasting stain on his candidacy, on the libertarian movement and, very possibly, on the Iowa caucuses.” Certainly it’s a problem Paul is struggling to deal with. As for the Iowa caucuses, if they could survive strong votes for Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan and an actual win for Mike Huckabee, I dare say they can survive Ron Paul. But should these things “stain … the libertarian movement”? Not in a rational world.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of peace, freedom, toleration, and individual rights – just the opposite of the collectivist racist and homophobic ideas that appeared in newsletters written under Ron Paul’s signature. As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, “Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.” Those ideas have played an important role throughout American history, from the American Revolution to abolitionism to the Tea Party.

And now Ron Paul is attracting support for his advocacy of the ideas of small government and free enterprise. As the Times notes in a dispatch from Iowa, Paul “is drawing supporters for his libertarian and antiwar views. …For the students, much of Mr. Paul’s appeal derives from civil libertarian views like ending the federal ban on marijuana and other drugs, as well as his desire to end foreign wars and his small-government credo.” That’s the message that has moved Ron Paul to the top of the polls in Iowa.

Still, he did allow associates of his to write racist and homophobic screeds in “The Ron Paul Political Report” and other newsletters. And that has created a stench around his candidacy. Some people want that stench to envelop and stain the libertarian movement. Jamie Kirchick, the anti-Paul jihadi who brought the newsletters to light in 2008, asks, “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?” But of course many libertarians have expressed revulsion at the newsletters. Ilya Somin noted at the Volokh Conspiracy (one of the few conspiracies not denounced in the Ron Paul newsletters) that he himself had condemned the newsletters in 2008, as had his co-blogger David Bernstein. And Virginia Postrel, the former editor of Reason, and various current writers at Reason. And a leading Austrian economist, Steven Horwitz. And Ed Crane, the founder and president of Cato.

Kirchick identified Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic as a libertarian who supported Ron Paul despite the bigotry in the newsletters that bore his name. But in fact Friedersdorf wrote a long and tortured article acknowledging the “egregiously offensive … racially bigoted … execrable” content of the newsletters. He went on to say that there was still a good case for supporting the only candidate who has consistently opposed the Iraq War, indefinite detention, drone strikes, anti-Muslim bigotry, and the war on drugs. Other libertarians who know about the newsletters are no doubt making similar calculations. And as David Weigel of Slate notes today, many less-engaged voters – such as American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson – still haven’t heard about the whole issue; they like Ron Paul for the issues he talks about, smaller government, budget cuts, sound money, and noninterventionism.

I wrote about “Ron Paul’s Ugly Newsletters” in a 2008 Cato-at-Liberty posting:

Those words are not libertarian words. Maybe they reflect “paleoconservative” ideas, though they’re not the language of Burke or even Kirk. But libertarianism is a philosophy of individualism, tolerance, and liberty. As Ayn Rand wrote, “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.” Making sweeping, bigoted claims about all blacks, all homosexuals, or any other group is indeed a crudely primitive collectivism.

Libertarians should make it clear that the people who wrote those things are not our comrades, not part of our movement, not part of the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick. Shame on them.

The fact is, there’s a small band of self-styled “libertarians” who over the past two decades have associated the great ideas of Austrian economics and libertarianism with bigotry, reflexive anti-Americanism, and vitriol directed at everyone from the Trilateral Commission to Cato and Reason. They have very little association with the larger libertarian movement or with such libertarian-inspired movements as the Tea Party, the drug reform movement, or the school choice movement. Virtually their only point of contact with the broader constituency for smaller government is through Rep. Ron Paul, who, for whatever reasons, has unfortunately continued his association with the people who have tarred him and the causes that are drawing many voters to him.

Libertarians have been fighting ignorance, superstition, privilege, and power for centuries, and we will continue to do so in the future. Libertarians reject bigotry and advocate equal rights for every individual. Ron Paul’s very bad decision to outsource his writing to reprehensible characters doesn’t change that.