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Paul vault opens can of worms

January 9, 2008 |  3:40 pm

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!

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