As some of you might know, I’ve been stirring up quite a bit of trouble on Facebook the last few days discussing the Ron Paul newsletters story. Matt suggested I write up some of what I’ve been saying for the audience here at BHL, which I’m happy to do. First let me note that the posts by Gary and Jacob below are right on the money in their own ways. Some of what I will say below will echo Jacob in particular, but I want to explore the history of this whole thing a bit more and offer some more reasons why it should matter to bleeding heart libertarians.
To start, those of us who have been around the movement since the 1980s knew all about this stuff and knew that those newsletters would never go away. As Jacob says, the attempt to court the right through appeals to the most unsavory sorts of arguments was a conscious part of the “paleolibertarian” strategy that Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard cooked up in the late 1980s. What’s happening right now is that the chickens of that effort are coming home to roost with large external costs on all of us as libertarians. In other words, we are experiencing “blowback,” and Ron Paul supporters of all people should understand that when you poke at sleeping dogs, you should not be surprised when they turn around and attack you, even if it takes a couple of decades. Now Paul’s supporters understand viscerally what he’s rightly argued about US foreign policy.
So why does this matter for bleeding heart libertarians? Indulge me some history for a bit while I offer an explanation. Classical liberalism started as a movement of the left, with folks like J.S. Mill being our standard bearers against the forces of reaction and conservatism in England, especially over issues of race. We were the “progressives” of that era, viewing the market as a force for progress for all, especially the least well-off, and as a great equalizer. It was Mill who argued that it was a good thing that markets would lead to racial equality in opposition to people like Carlyle and Ruskin who rejected markets because they wanted to maintain racial hierarchy. The liberal revolution was a revolution against privilege and the old order. It was the radical progressivism of its day.
Unfortunately, classical liberalism never figured out how to respond to the development of socialism, and especially the state socialism of the Soviets and others in the early 20th century, in a way that maintained our progressive credentials. By default, we moved from the “left” to the “right,” thrown in with the conservative opponents of the growing socialist wave. From the Old Right of the 1940s through the Reagan era, libertarianism’s opposition to socialism, especially interferences in the market, led us to ally with the forces of reaction. But even with the demise of really-existing socialism, we have been unable to completely break free of that connection to the right, though things are better than they used to be.
Even as this happened, though, the liberalism of libertarianism did not die. Within that libertarianism on the right was a strong strain of leftism, particularly from the late 1960s into the early or mid 1980s, both in the broader movement and in the Libertarian Party in particular. When I came into the movement in 1980, I can vividly recall meeting members of the Michigan LP and being surprised at how, for lack of a better word, hippie they were, right down to smoking dope during the breaks at the state convention.
By the mid-80s though, conservatism was hot, thanks to Reagan, and the internal strife of the movement pitted Murray Rothbard against the Koch Brothers, with the accusation by Rothbard that the liberal libertarians were undermining the movement’s ability to appeal to a broader audience thanks to their supposed libertinism. Murray wanted the hippies out. The irony here was that it was the Koch controlled parts that were (largely) the source of the left-deviation that pissed Rothbard off. Today, of course, the sin of the Kochs is that they’re too conservative. (Ever get the feeling that if the Kochs said the sky was blue….anyway, I digress.)
This led to the paleolibertarian strategy by the end of the decade after Rothbard broke with the Kochs and helped Lew Rockwell found the Mises Institute (originally located on Capitol Hill – right smack inside the hated beltway, it’s worth noting). The paleo strategy, as laid out here by Rockwell, was clearly designed to create a libertarian-conservative fusion exactly along the lines Jacob lays out in his post. It was about appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism: one built on cultural issues. With everyone broadly agreeing that the market had won, how could you hold together a coalition that opposed the left? Oppose them on the culture. If you read Rockwell’s manifesto through those eyes, you can see the “logic” of the strategy. And it doesn’t take a PhD in Rhetoric to see how that strategy would lead to the racism and other ugliness of newsletters at the center of this week’s debates.
The paleo strategy was a horrific mistake, both strategically and theoretically, though it apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists. The explicit strategy was abandoned by around the turn of the century, but not after a lot of bad stuff had been written in all kinds of places. There was way more than the Ron Paul newsletters. There was the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, which was another major place publishing these sorts of views. They could also be found in a whole bunch of Mises Institute publications of that era. It was the latter that led me to ask to be taken off the Institute’s mailing list in the early 1990s, calling them “a fascist fist in a libertarian glove.” I have never regretted that decision or that language. What the media has in their hands is only the tip of the iceberg of the really unsavory garbage that the paleo turn produced back then.
Through it all though, Ron Paul was a constant. He kept plugging away, first at the center of the paleo strategy as evidenced by the newsletters. To be clear, I am quite certain he did not write them. There is little doubt that they were written by Rockwell and Rothbard. People I know who were on the inside at the time confirm it and the style matches pretty well to those two and does not match to Ron Paul. Paul knows who wrote them too, but he’s protecting his long-time friend and advisor, unfortunately. And even more sadly, Rockwell doesn’t have the guts to confess and end this whole megillah. So although I don’t think Ron Paul is a racist, like Archie Bunker, he was willing to, metaphorically, toast a marshmallow on the cross others were burning.
Even after the paleo strategy was abandoned, Ron was still there walking the line between “mainstream” libertarianism and the winking appeal to the hard right courted by the paleo strategy. Paul’s continued contact with the fringe groups of Truthers, racists, and the paranoid right are well documented. Even in 2008, he refused to return a campaign contribution of $500 from the white supremacist group Stormfront. You can still go to their site and see their love for Ron Paul in this campaign and you can find a picture of Ron with the owner of Stormfront’s website. Even if Ron had never intentionally courted them, isn’t it a huge problem that they think he is a good candidate? Doesn’t that say something really bad about the way Ron Paul is communicating his message? Doesn’t it suggest that years of the paleo strategy of courting folks like that actually resonated with the worst of the right? Paul also maintained his connection with the Mises Institute, which has itself had numerous connections with all kinds of unsavory folks: more racists, anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, the whole nine yards. Much of this stuff was ably documented in 2007 and 2008 by the Right Watch blog. Hit that link for more.
Those of us who watched all of this happen over two decades knew it would come back to haunt us and so it has, unfortunately just as Ron Paul and libertarianism are on the cusp of something really amazing. And that only goes to show what a mistake the paleo strategy was: imagine if the newsletters were not an issue and Paul were to win Iowa. Yeah, he might get ignored, but he would not be the easy media target he is now, nor would all of libertarianism pay a potential price. The legions of young people supporting Paul did not come in via the paleo strategy; they came because libertarianism in general is on the rise in all kinds of venues (and yes, the Mises Institute’s post-paleo influence is important here, but it’s hardly the only institution that matters). These young people, for the most part, are surprised by all of this dirty laundry. That, in my view, is the real tragedy: I think libertarianism could have got to this point just as fast, maybe faster, without the toxic baggage of the paleo strategy.
So why deal with this now, when libertarianism is so hot? Because those newsletters are not what libertarianism is and the sooner and louder we make that clear, the better. There are too many young people who don’t understand all of this and who we need to help see the alternative liberal vision of libertarianism – and to understand that “liberal libertarianism” is radical, principled, and humane and not “beltway selling out.” To do that, we need to confront the past and explicitly reject it. That doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting Ron Paul in electoral politics, but it does mean that we cannot pretend the past doesn’t exist and it means that Paul and the others involved need to do the right thing and take explicit responsibility for what they said two decades ago. That has not happened yet. Then we need a complete and utter rejection of the paleo world-view and we need to create a movement that will simply not be attractive to racists, homophobes, anti-Semites etc., by emphasizing, as we have done at this blog, libertarianism’s liberal roots.
What we need right now is Rothbard’s vision of a free society as sketched in For a New Liberty, but we need it defended better. More carefully. More richly. More empirically. More humanely. More progressively. More tolerantly. With better scholarship. And we have to do it in a way that’s immune to the charge that libertarians don’t care about making the world a better place, especially for the least well off and those historically victimized by the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, or anything else that’s irrelevant to their moral status as human actors.
The writings of the paleolibertarians will continue to stain that project unless and until the rest of the libertarian movement stops trying to apologize for them (“you don’t understand the context” or “it was a long time ago” or “Ron’s from a different generation”) or kicking the can down the road because Ron Paul might win (“why bring this up now when we’re winning?” or “Libertarians just like the circular firing squad”) or just plain saying they don’t matter because it’s all media bias (“it’s just the liberal media trying to destroy the libertarian candidate”).
It’s time to face our ugly past head on and to explicitly reject it. And it is the past of every libertarian. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t there, or weren’t alive, or think it’s stupid: if you call yourself a libertarian and especially if you support Ron Paul, it’s part of your past like it or not. That’s how life works sometimes. We can’t make Ron Paul name the authors or make the authors step forward, either of which would help immensely. We can, however, take pains to make clear that some of Ron Paul’s past and current associations are rejected by libertarians who understand the “liberal” in libertarian and whose vision of a free society is one that is so clearly in conflict with racism, homophobia, antisemitism and all the rest that people like Stormfront would never even consider sending us a donation and we would recoil at being photographed with them.
Until we can say that with confidence, there’s every reason in the world to keep talking about these newsletters and what they mean for the 21st century libertarian project, especially in its bleeding heart version. 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. As many of us have argued from the start on this blog, the heritage of libertarianism is properly a progressive one. Our roots are in the anti-racism and proto-feminism of J.S. Mill and others in the 19th century. We believe in peaceful exchange, voluntary cooperation, progress, enlightenment, tolerance and mutual respect, and openness to change. That is our heritage and that’s the libertarianism that I grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s, and that’s the progressive libertarianism I want to proudly enter into the debate over the future of human social organization. If the newsletters fiasco serves to further prod us into reclaiming that heritage, we will have turned an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. I’m going to continue to do all I can to help make sure it happens.