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Paul vault opens can of worms

One career strategy I considered during my happy time at Reason magazine was to become just enough of a bright boy of the libertarian movement to allow me to stage a very public falling out, write a tell-all book with a title like Ex-Friends or Movement Man or Up From Libertarianism or Whose Freedom?, then build a career as a David Horowitz/Michael Lind-style intellectual turncoat, getting paid to warn the masses about the dangers posed by my erstwhile allies. The strategy was unworkable for many reasons: It was a little too dishonest even for me; libertarianism doesn't generate enough public interest to support a longterm market in defection; and as it happens, defectors from and within libertarianism are a dime a dozen.

But the tactic I was planning to use would have been very effective: Simply collect story after story of the moonlight-and-magnolias Confederate nostalgists, stop-the-war-on-men misogynists, traditionalist homophobes, scientific racists and similar fringe characters who seemed to gravitate toward libertarianism, in numbers that I and others found remarkable.

Actually, I probably wouldn't have been very good at this tactic either: I don't do well with policing unacceptable commentary, "kicking" people "to the curb," writing colleagues out of polite society, defining away extremists and all those other things movement types (in all movements) love to do.

Which is a longwinded way of saying I'm not well suited to commenting on the treasure trove of jarring commentary Jamie Kirchik is publicizing from Ron Paul's old newsletters. Virginia Postrel has a fairly succinct reaction that I agree with (though given the timing and Paul's own tepid response to the matter, I'd be inclined to dial back the ho-hum, been-there attitude), and I'm fascinated by Wendy McElroy's call for the true author of the commentaries (apparently a real person) to reveal him- or herself. And I could hardly improve on the coverage by my beloved former colleagues at Reason.

But I do think there's a discussion to be held among libertarians about why this political philosophy seems to draw so many (classically) illiberal figures; and the hubbub over Paul's newsletters, which are revelatory whether Paul wrote them or not, seems like an opportunity.

I say a discussion, not a show trial or an excommunication. I've learned a great deal from some of these illiberal figures, and I have no desire to make with the accusations. And libertarianism without kooks and cranks wouldn't be libertarianism.

But it's weird that a philosophy of non-aggression, ownership of self and property, individual choice, free trade and so on is so attractive to people whose greatest passsion is arguing that Abraham Lincoln was the foulest butcher in American history, that black people are stupider than white people, that Mexicans are naturally inclined to favor a welfare state, that our culture is being undermined by the feminization of boys, and so on. Folks of this stripe are present in not-inconsequential numbers in both small-l and big-L libertarianism. I can understand why drag queens, pot smokers, gun lovers and entrepreneurs are libertarians. I comprehend why localist, traditionalist, Chestertonian Christian types gravitate toward the movement.

But why are Confederate apologists attracted to a philosophy that draws so much of its thinking from either abolitionists (Lysander Spooner, Robert Green Ingersoll, Henry David Thoreau and others) or market-based freedom types (Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, etc.)? Why is Lincoln — whose one-liner "As I would not be a slave so I would not be a master" could easily be the motto of the Libertarian party — not given the same warts-and-all historical courtesy that is extended to Thomas Jefferson? Why does Woodrow Wilson's support for Jim Crow laws not get more attention among the many other particulars that cause libertarians to view him (rightly in my view) as the worst president of the twentieth century? Why the fascination with how different ethnic groups score on standardized tests if you believe in an individualistic, non-averaged universe?

I don't say these ideas have no place in libertarianism, an essential ingredient of which is not fearing either questions or answers. I do think the focus on so many of the Old Right's hobbyhorses crowds out much of what's more interesting (and certainly more marketable) in the philosophy. Postrel and Nick Gillespie were both skillful at steering Reason through more interesting territory, and I expect Matt Welch will continue that course. But as Ron Paul is not easily disowned, I think it's worth taking a look at the Old Right fellow travelers, if only to note where they are right and where they are (much more frequently) wrong. And since I've gone on too long and am in danger of speaking ex cathedra from my brittle MSM perch, that's all I've got to say. Except of course, Go Ron Paul!


Comments () | Archives (37)

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Brian Sorgatz

I would never describe myself as a Confederate apologist. But if the Hiroshima question, for example, is still an honest ethical conundrum so many decades after the fact, then a non-racist libertarian can be allowed to lose some respect for Abraham Lincoln, the man who instituted the federal government's first draft (i.e. slavery in the name of "national defense"). I'm not claiming to have all the answers to the dilemmas Lincoln faced. I'm just saying I have a right to be somewhat disappointed in him for that.


Sometimes, I can't believe we have some nutters in our Ron Paul campaign like those above me. Complete nutters.

Cato Renasci

Libertarianism, as a philosophy, is essentially a reductio on classical liberalism. I consider myself primarily a classical liberal, in the Whig tradition of history, but with a judicious dollop of Burke and a firm conviction of the primacy of national defense.

I first came in contact with the Libertarian Party in California in the early 1970s, and what struck me about the party was how many of the Party Libertarians were third raters who believed they were first raters who would have been successful BUT FOR the evil government.

Philosophical libertarianism is socially tolerant as well as free market oriented, but the Movement has always attracted people with views well outside the mainstream of civilized discourse who use the tolerance of philosophical libertarianism as a shield to "let them hold whatever view they want" -- and to an extent, they're right to do so: a libertarian does believe that people are entitled to whatever views (however benighted they may seem) they choose and that things should be sorted out in the free marketplace of ideas (in Mill's phrase). It's natural that the nutcases on the right whose views are outside the pale would find that tolerance attractive.

Richard Cook

I was a small l libertarian. After enough contact with the party I am convinced they will never amount to anything politically. The philosophy is fine, just the nutters whom it seems to attract and the fact that most people hear dog eat dog when you describe libertarianism. Essentially this country is socialist. We like to take the benefits of free market capitalism but when that demands we change we want government to take the heat and spare us the change.

Duncan Frissell

Perhaps the World's deviates are attracted to libertarianism because we won't punish them.

November 1971 Societyfor Iindividual Liberty Conference Columbia University School of Law, NYC. Everyone who was anyone in libertarianism was there. In a restaurant on Broadway after a session I'm sitting across the table from one of the giants of this young movement (you've all heard his name). He is telling me all about how the Holocaust didn't happen.

It didn't bother me then or now. When you're part of a movement that wants to abolish the State, disputes on WWII historyare pretty minor.


I don't see how pointing out the folly of what the Union citizens called "Mr. Lincoln's War" somehow makes one a "Confederate apologist." And it is outrageous to insinuate that it makes one an advocate of (or at least indifferent to) the horrors of chattel slavery. For each anti-slavery Lincoln quote you could cherry-pick, I could probably come up with ten from him in defense of the practice.

Lincoln destroyed our Old Republic, and set the stage for the out of control monster we now have occupying DC, not to mention 100+ years of racial turmoil that could have been avoided or at least lessened if slavery had been able to end peacefully like it did in every other country.

Mr. Lincoln's War was not fought to free any slave, but to "preserve the Union". So much for a philosophy of non-aggression.

Dr. Saturn

Well, the libertarian philosophy is all-inclusive and accepts everyone, really. As a society, we have become fairly intolerant of intolerance, and so racist people have to be very very careful about speaking their minds. Under the libertarian mind-set people should be free to think however they want and say whatever they want no matter how offensive it is to others. For the blatantly racist, that appears to be a draw, as they have become a minority of sorts.

It makes me suffer from a little bit of cognitive dissonance; libertarians in general would be the first to condemn people who might act upon those beliefs. But I think it's really a tell-tale sign of the end of intolerant philosophies. They are so rejected from the common discourse that they have to take shelter in the camp that is open to everyone - even and especially those who they despise.

So long as they don't act on anything, I don't mind their company. At least their support gets put to good use promoting true equality.


I have been a libertarian since college in the 60s. In graduate school in the early 70s I remember complaining to a colleague about some of the nutters in the movement. He was a dedicated Marxist and reassured me pointing out that there were letters between Marx and Engles complaining about the quality of individuals in the "working mens movement" and how marginal personalities were attracted to radical movements in order to try to define themselves as heroic or whatnot. It is probably a commonplace of every radical or fringe movement.

There is also an element of what I like to call the triumph of ideology over common sense. In libertarians it often takes the form of seeing every event that appears to extend government power as a per se evil and perversion. The civil war made the federal government more powerful, ergo the war to preserve the union was evil, ergo the confederacy was laudable etc.

I was personally exposed to this during my academic years when I has some affiliation with the old Center for Libertarian Studies in New York. As a student of history I was approached by a well known member of that organization who was concerned that one of his colleagues was manifesting an interest in holocaust denial -- since he saw the holocaust as one of the principal moral argument for US intervention in WW II -- an intervention he otherwise opposed on what he saw as good libertarian grounds. My advice of course was don't even think of going there.

The problem with history is it does not alway conform to our dearest wishes and we must choose our allies from what is available. Even though I consider myself a libertarian of the philosophical anarchistic variety, I constantly argue to my more radical friends that anyone who believes that the cause of liberty in the last two hundred years would have been advanced by the defeat or destruction of the American republic is sadly deluded.

I am not particularly prescient about these things but I thought Ron Paul was a moonbat all along -- even before the latest news came out. Conspiracy theories are a litmus test for moonbattery. The more of them a person cherishes -- especially if they are obsessive -- the less sound the critical faculties underlying that person's character.

Libertarianism deserves a better tribune.


I don't think it's "nutty" or an apology for the Confederacy to remark on the tragic irony of the Civil War that ended slavery but at the expense of radically empowering the federal gov't.

Differences in the statistical distributions on intelligence tests by race are not wholly irrelevant because we *do* live in a society which looks at aggregate group performance in forming policy and court decisions -- predicated on the apparently inaccurate assumption that any differences are de facto proof of some form of discrimination.

Be careful that in isolating the true whackos that you don't play into the hands of those who would love to declare all discussions in these admittedly sensitive areas as un-PC.


I spent $25 million and all I got was this lousy primary.

Gene Trosper

As someone who has been involved in the libertarian (both big-L and small-l) movement for 20 years, I can readily agree with Mr. Cavanaugh about the strange assortment of --to put it nicely-- "oddballs" that seem attracted to libertarianism. I remember being a county chairman of the Libertarian Party and having to deal with self-styled "patriots" who believe that gold fringe around the American flag is indicative of a nation under military law and people who believe libertarianism is God's plan for all good Christians. Oh...and the "anarchists" who refuse to vote in elections, but none the less try to dictate the future of the Libertarian Party.

Yes. There are a fair number of curiously strange people this movement attracts, but they are still outnumbered by kind, helpful and sane people.


Small parties have always attracted oddballs more, since it allows them a voice that they would not otherwise have. If you have a small party, you are more inclined to overlook some of the flaws of your recruits for the sake of numbers.

Ron Paul has built a wider libertarian movement, using the internet which facilitates the connection of like minded people. With its success has come the rise of more nutters who are jumping on the bandwagon.

My question to you is - how do we keep the movement growing, despite some of the obvious flaws, so that it can have an influence on national politics, rather than be an intellectual exercise ?

Scott Wood

As libertarians we are fairly accustomed to believing that, in many ways, the conventional wisdom about the world is mistaken. If you are used to thinking that the conventional wisdom about drug use is mistaken, and the conventional wisdom about the effects of wage discrimination is mistaken, then why wouldn't you be perfectly willing to believe that the conventional wisdom about feminism is mistaken, or that the conventional wisdom about Abraham Lincoln (who I consider to be the most overrated US president, mostly because of how highly he is rated...he would truly deserve to be on that pedestal had he ended slavery without the Civil War) is mistaken?

Mike Rael

Hi all:)
As I read Tim's article, I was thinking about Lincoln's maxim to be independent, neither a slave nor a master.
It occurred to me that Paul needs a maxim like that, short and pithy, to convey much of his political philosophy in a sentence.
Here's my contribution:
"End the war AND the IRS!"
Anyone here care to contribute a different maxim that, perhaps, has more punch than mine?
best always,


Hi! I was meditating on Tim's reporting of Lincoln's maxim to be neither a slave nor a master. I believe Paul needs a maxim like that, to be added to all Ron Paul signs and web sites. Somthing that says, in one sentence, much of what Ron Paul is about and what he intends. Here is my contribution. Tell me what you think.

"End the war AND the IRS! Go RON PAUL!!"

best wishes to all,

Greg D

Why the fascination with how different ethnic groups score on standardized tests if you believe in an individualistic, non-averaged universe?

Because the statists and racists use those differences as an excuse to assault merit-based hiring, college admissions, etc.

I'm an individualist. I think people should get what they deserve, not merely what they want. So I'm in favor of finding ways in which we can honestly judge people, needed if we want to actually see people getting what they deserve.

Defending measures of intelligence, even when they give (politically) "incorrect" answers, is part of that project.

(Note: supporters of "Affirmative Action" believe you should be judged based on the color of your skin, not the content of your character. This marks them as racists, under any reasonable use of the term.)


I would point out that Southerners have to contend with a culture AND an educational system that belittles them and lies about the causes of the Civil War. It is only natural to be a bit defensive under such circumstances.

The truth is, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis both did despicable things, and led their equally despicable publics in a despicable war. Sherman owned slaves, whereas Robert E. Lee opposed slavery. There were good and bad people on both sides of the war, but in general Southerners wanted to enslave black men, and Northerners wanted to enslave Southerners. The whole thing is a rather shoddy affair. The only decent group were the abolitionists, and the one thing everyone else could agree on was that they hated the abolitionists.

So there are Confederate apologists who want to point out that their ancestors weren't entirely evil - or at least, no more evil than the other guy. So what?

Joe Allen

Well gosh. Most libertarians have a few weird beliefs and a few libertarians have a lot of weird beliefs. What ideology would that NOT describe?

Dr. Paul is shown to have had a lapse in mangerial oversight, and if you consider that more important than restoring the bill of rights, averting an economic meltdown or ending a bloody crusader war, then by all means don't vote for him. I'd write his name in if he wore a dress and hopped around like a bunny.

Ron Paul, Deep Libertarian Philosopher

Now remember, everyone:

Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Reserve = Fascist Tyranny that Must Be Fought at All Costs

Slavery = benign economic activity of hard-working White entrepenneurs that should be tolerated because Federal Regulation is Always Bad.


instead of dismissing the Old Right how about embracing the old, New Left? neither exists anymore so its all just an intellectual game anyway. if there was a decentralist left today i'd like to be a part of it, rather than the elitist 'cosmopolitan libertarians', or, obviously, the kind of hateful, rightist bigots that Paul was making money off w/his newsletters.


Yes, many Ron Paul supporters would consider themselves classical liberals like myself and "Cato" above. Pretty much Jeffersonian/Jacksonian. Paul represents some of that Jeffersonian federalist theme. His alleged racism is something I find abhorring. Has the man changed? It seems like it, given the kinds of things he *now* says about the subject.


To be fair Lysander Spooner wasn't a big fan of Lincoln or the need for War either, but i get your drift.

Mitchell Young

The trouble with 'Cosmopolitan' libertarianism is that libertarian cosmopoli don't exist.


Slavery = benign economic activity of hard-working White entrepenneurs that should be tolerated because Federal Regulation is Always Bad.

Maybe strawman arguments work well on television, but in print, the stupid just jumps right out at you.


I used to defend Ron Paul.

I can't any more.

Read this: http://www.tnr.com/downloads/solicitation.pdf

Now tell me you want to vote for president for the man who has his name and signature all over this document? Pay particular attention to page 6, third paragraph from the bottom.

Anybody who wrote, or allowed others to write in his name, this document should not be president. Hell, he shouldn't be a congressman.

Andrew Ian Dodge

I am not sure that Ron Paul is racist but he does seem to overlook racist overtones coming from some of those around him.

As a long-time libertarian I have encountered quite a few nutters in the movement. The RP campaign seems to be a focus for them.

Graham Divnik

""Why the fascination with how different ethnic groups score on standardized tests if you believe in an individualistic, non-averaged universe?""

Are you really this thick? Group differences in economic outcomes have been the major force in undermining sympathies for libertarianism and buttressing sympathies for socialism. There is an enormous difference in moral suasion between these two claims:

- It's not my fault I'm dumb

- It's your fault I'm poor.

The facts are on the side of the former, and yet socialists continue to dominate the public message with the latter to the extreme national and world advantage of their economic philosophy.

""But it's weird that a philosophy of non-aggression, ownership of self and property, individual choice, free trade and so on is so attractive to people whose greatest passsion [SIC] is arguing that Abraham Lincoln was the foulest butcher in American history""

Again, the answer is so obvious, that you are either being intentionally ignorant, or are shockingly unanalytical. The Civil War and later the Civil Rights Movement both (Rightly!) undermined public sympathy and confidence in the efficacy of more libertarian forms of government, while expanding both the size and the role of government. All the white nationalists, Christian extremists, neo-confederates, survivalists, secessionists, etc, logically flow into the libertarian movement because it promises them a freedom of association and freedom to live in ways that the strong federal government does not let them. Some of them want the curious "freedom" to persecute others (e.g. the "freedom" to kick blacks out of an area, the "freedom" to deny women abortion), which is ironic and reprehensible, but not incomprehensible. Others just want to live like they want to live, which libertarians should understand. (e.g. fundies who want their children to learn creationism instead of science) Others are just reactionaries paranoid about or distrustful of large, faceless complex bureaucracies.

In a two-party system it is obvious why a lot of different types would find the libertarian party expedient. And specifically it is not a mystery at all why the specific types of people who vote libertarian do so. It is also not a mystery why the politically correct Reason libertarians like Tim Cavanaugh persistently act too hip to even try and analyze their own movement. To them libertarianism is little more than the liberal caricature of it: Republicans on Drugs.

Mitchell Young

A bit off topic, and please don't take this as playing the 'institutional racism' card, nyah nyah you're one too etc, but I while back I spent an hour tracking down images of Reason's staff on the web -- so I could stalk them one by one -- joke, that's a joke. It was really to check out my theory that (1) libertarianism works best in a relatively homogeneous group and that (2) it really only appeals, with very very few exceptions (Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell come to mind) to people whose ancestors were mostly from Europe, even northwestern Europe. Sure enough, as I went down the list I saw a bunch of white folks. Julian Sanchez was a particular letdown. As I worked towards Ms. Mangu-Ward I thought , well, that for sure I'd strike some 'diversity' -- as presently defined. Perhaps a literal African-American But no! -- Pretty cute though. This really has nothing to do with the Ron Paul situation, except to point out that perhaps predilection towards libertarianism, like other traits, is not evenly distributed over all recognizable ethnic/racial groups. As an aside, our gracious host, Tim Cavanaugh, is bonny lad.


Maybe if publications that seem to represent mainstream LIbertarianism such as Reason and its blog Hit and Run, were to become serious and responsible gatekeepers instead of snarky kids obsessed with 3 issues (drug legalization, police home invasions, whatever) and were serious about holding every self described Libertarian candidate's feet to the fire rather than blindly embracing them, Libertarianism would have a chance to become a legitimate political philosophy that the public could embrace.

There is one thing the Libertarian needs to desperately do right now...grow up.

Ken Shultz

I suspect the attraction from the loony right has its roots in opposition to the New Deal, believe it or not.

We're all living in FDR's dream now. If you don't like the very rules this dream world plays by, there's really only one place to go.

Ken Shultz

Some of us moderate libertarians were a bit taken aback by the old school, hard core types who showed up to give us hell for backin' away from Ron Paul over this. ...some of us didn't realize those people were still out there, and from what I've read of the newsletters in question, it looks like that was th audience for those letters.

Some of us didn't know there was ever an audience out there like that.

Libertarian Larry came up in the conversation, may he rest in peace. I don't think anybody was libertarian enough for Libertarian Larry.

Tim Cavanaugh

Are you really this thick? Group differences in economic outcomes have been the major force in undermining sympathies for libertarianism and buttressing sympathies for socialism.

And pseudoscience is the solution to that problem how?

Keith Preston

I've supported Ron Paul and I'm not even a real libertarian, but an old-style classical Anarchist (Proudhon, et.al.). The bottom line is that Ron Paul is an advocate of shutting down the US Empire that has caused the slaughter of millions around the world, the present Iraq war, the terror war, the drug war and other such egregrious actions of the present regime. Ron Paul not only has these positions, but a track record from his time in Congress to back it up.

I've been amazed that so many on the Left have opposed Ron Paul for the sake of welfare statism, gun control and the UN. I find it horrendous that so many libertarians find name-calling in newsletters years ago to be more serious than ending the war on drugs or resisting the Neocons. I think this illustrates that most Americans who are professed political dissidents are mostly middle class intellectuals who really have no perception of the plight of the real victims of the US empire and the state. That some find neo-confederates more threatening than neo-conservatives is appalling. If a bunch of cranky and ideologically irrelevant reactionaries want to help dismantle the state and the empire, then good for them! Hell, they may even have a point or two about a couple of issues.

Mitchell Young


Here is the state of the art debate in an official journal of the American Psychological Association. You decide.

I'll let Mr. Cavanaugh speculate on the dark motives for thinking this an important subject.

Patrick Henry

"But I do think there's a discussion to be held among libertarians about why this political philosophy seems to draw so many (classically) illiberal figures;"

Kudos for calling for discourse!

I think it's very simple - they don't understand what libertarianism is. They only get half the picture, which is that other people can't mess with them. I don't think they get that they can't mess with other people.

rudi con amor

Libertarians, after receiving the benefits of a socialist/federalist society drive on public roads, went to public schools, and were educated in mostly public universities, and all along the way were protected by the overarching safety net get theirs and then they want to disband the government. Libertarians are those who either got theirs or want to have a scape goat(government/blacks/civil rights/etc) because they never got theirs. The rest of us are somewhere in between. This is why the Libertarians are the party of White Supremacists and more upwardly mobile White Supremacists. The distinction between the two is the subtlety of their racism. Ron Paul let the cat out of the bag and killed your party.




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