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Ron Paul is an interesting presidential candidate, a frustrating mix of the very good with the very bad, arriving in the form of a man who actually seems to believe something and is willing to tell prospective voters things that do not simply reinforce their most mindless prejudices. Among significant Republican presidential candidates he is a minority of one.
On some issues Paul is far superior to Barack Obama, on others, Obama is far superior to Paul. And both are far superior to any other significant Republican presidential candidate, and most who are insignificant.
Pau regards himself as a libertarian, not a conservative. These days conservatives believe mostly in whatever liberals oppose, and nothing more. But libertarians actually believe in something on its own merits. My problem with them is they do not understand what they believe.
What are libertarians?
So what are libertarians? I was regarded as a leading younger one in my 20s and perhaps early 30s before becoming increasingly disenchanted. I have read all of their most canonical people, sometimes in great depth. At the same time I am very far from being one nor have I been for decades.
Libertarians, the best of them, are fairly unique among people in politics in having a very firm moral foundation for their views. It is a version – I would now say a very seriously truncated and deeply misunderstood version – of a principle most of us would immediately accept: peaceful people should never be aggressed against.
In a society increasingly nihilistic, where candidates either believe in nothing and so take whatever position is advantageous for the moment (Romney is the classic case, but hardly alone), or reflexively lie whenever convenient (the Republican stable as a whole), or is a relatively decent individual believing in nothing strongly enough to ever risk anything for it (Barack Obama) this is a breath of fresh air.
For readers of this blog, who presumably have strong personal ethical codes, this characteristic of Paul’s is most likely appealing. We like a man who has the strength of character to actually stand up for something.
To this fresh air we can add the fact that many of us agree strongly with libertarians on issues where the above politicians are bad or worse than bad. In general libertarians are excellent defenders of liberty when it can be defended in atomistically individualist terms. That is why they are so good on issues involving war, civil liberties, and drugs.
But their image of what it is to be an individual is woefully myopic. Their idea of an individual is of a being entirely enclosed and so not seriously affected by circumstances, upbringing, or relationships. The rich and the most desperately poor have equal freedom in all relevant senses so long as a “free market” exists. Individuals are a kind of atom where all that is important about them as moral beings (and often in any other way) is intrinsic to them in isolation from everyone else.
Consequently, any issue that requires a more sensitive understanding of what individuals are will usually find libertarians on the wrong side , because they cannot understand how individuals can be anything but free or threatened with physical violence. That’s pretty much all there is underlying libertarian political and social thought.
For libertarians differences between people in an abstractly free society reflect the characteristics of the individual. Nothing more. Patterns of differences shared by many reflect not on the society but on characteristics those individuals share in common, hence the interest in many libertarian individualists in things like the “Bell Curve” and supposed racial inferiorities. They can then acknowledge the existence of serious differences without having to question their one sided model of what a person is. It’s too bad, but it is entirely the individual’s fault.
I think this is why libertarianism appeals to so many young people – it offers a simple theory that up to a point can be tweaked to cover every eventuality and because it is so abstract, does not require much life experience to master. As a person accumulates experience he or she will either move on to a richer sense of what it is to be a human being or will be increasingly tempted by theories of racial and genetic inferiority and superiority, as Paul may be, judging from his newsletters. Or one can simply choose not to think much about the implications of their beliefs.
Left, right, and libertarians
I think this is also why libertarians more easily ally with the ‘right’ than with the ‘left.’ It has nothing to do with the individual freedom they believe in, where even from their narrow conception of it, the current left is far far better than the right. A libertarian saying otherwise is ignorant or delusional. The reason for so many tilting right is different.
The right accepts and glories in seeing people in relations of superiority and inferiority and free people always generate inequality. Therefore there seems to be a harmony between the right’s love of hierarchy and individual freedom defined narrowly enough. Bad differences are simply the result of innate differences between people or will in time be ameliorated by the “magic of the market.” We don’t need government or we don’t need it much.
The left emphasizes, sometimes to excess, the social side of our individuality. This is just that dimension libertarians refuse to admit has any moral significance. The left is more sensitive to relationships as constitutive of individuals, and so the quality of those relationships is important for determining the freedom of individuals. Against all evidence, for libertarians these interests always lead to despotism, but only because they define oppression as anything other than the “free market.”
Given that libertarians have decided, rather bizarrely, that the US is close enough to their “free market” vision that most differences between Americans are deserved, they easily coexist with the right because they don’t have to think much about the implications of the inequalities they see around themselves. They start with a vision of equal freedom and end endorsing the reality of something quite different, (so long, at least, as you can get stoned). And while right wingers are fanatically against getting stoned (or other people getting stoned), a great many still support them at the polls when one of their own is not running.
Libertarians and nature
In my view from any coherent Pagan perspective, the libertarian failure to appreciate the social dimension of being an individual leads to another serious shortcoming: their virtual hatred of any environmental issue that cannot be settled by creating property rights to be bought and sold. Libertarians have done very interesting work on environmental issues where that approach can be applied, but in my view they get positively irrational when they cannot. I will tell a story to illustrate my point.
I received an award from a largely libertarian oriented organization some time back for my work in emergent order theory, work I still do. Afterwards I was a guest at a meeting of the Mt. Pelerin Society, which was founded by Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek, and other classical liberal scholars after the Second World War, when the Soviet Union seemed to be riding high and even small ‘d’ democrats thought we might be able to plan our economy.
By the time I attended the organization seemed mostly a group of wealthy benefactors with a thin veneer of classical liberal knowledge and Republican politics. I ended up at lunch at a table dominated by libertarians involved in environmental issues. They spent much of the time attacking the long deceased Rachel Carson as guilty of “genocide” for opposing the over use of DDT. It was surreal at many levels.
Afterwards I wondered why they hated Carson so much. I decided it was because in Silent Spring she brought home to many Americans that they were not hermetically sealed off from nature, that we were immersed in it and our boundaries were permeable. DDT got into our bodies. The more permeable a boundary the less of value the atomistic individualist model becomes. As a consequence they hate Carson the way a Fundamentalist hates Darwin- if she is right, they are wrong, therefore she cannot be right.
And so, on balance, libertarians are deeply hostile to any sensibility that emphasizes our connections with the world, or that it cannot simply be regarded as a storehouse of resources best transformed by human creativity.
Consequently libertarians will on balance be deeply hostile to a Pagan sensibility towards nature – or if they are not they will live in two worlds, one involving atomistic human individuals, the other involving the world they love, and not think too much about the tensions between these perspectives.
So when I look at Ron Paul, I see a bizarre mix of what I really like and what I really detest, and when I look at Barack Obama I see a relatively decent man who stands for nothing very strongly, or has yet to demonstrate that he does. Obama has done some things I really like and some I really really detest. So who to vote for in this hypothetical election?
Should Paul get the nomination, which is hard to imagine, I might well vote for him because as president he can do more on the issues where I agree with him, (war and defense, and the ‘war’ on drugs) and be severely hobbled by Congress and the courts on the issues where I disagree ( social legislation and the environment). Based on his record so far, Obama on the other hand is guaranteed to disappoint on the big issues other perhaps than Supreme Court appointments, but not as badly as the other Republicans. That is why he definitely has my vote should Paul not get the nod.