In my first post here, I wrote that among my reasons for embracing a liberal kind of libertarianism and wanting to publicly emphasize libertarianism’s liberal-ness is
the great importance, in America in particular, of sharply distinguishing the cause of freedom from the cause of slavery which is happy to claim its name. The interpretation of American history that says “we were free until 1937″– an interpretation in which the restriction on Filburn’s wheat production is slavery but actual chattel slavery and the tyranny of Jim Crow are asterisks– doesn’t depend on a subtle philosophical claim about the nature of rights, and liberaltarians’ rejection of it doesn’t depend on subtle philosophical claims about social justice. But I think that divide has been very important to the emergence of a liberaltarian idea as a stance within American politics.
That passage may be less obscure to some readers now than it was then. I want to help rescue libertarianism from the kinds of Confederacy- and Jim Crow-sympathizing, race-baiting and sometimes just plain racist filth that it its advocates have sometimes soiled themselves by associating with or indulging in. Murray Rothbard, the activist-author-scholar who was probably the single most influential member of the modern libertarian movement (as distinct from figures such as Friedman, Hayek, and Rand, who were more influential but not part of the organized political movement), supported Strom Thurmond for President in 1948. He and his longtime associate Lew Rockwell pushed hard in the 1980s and early 90s for a “paleolibertarian” alliance with white cultural conservatives; they were involved with Pat Buchanan‘s campaign in 1992. Rockwell in particular went in for race-baiting, suggesting at one point that the problem with the Rodney King beating was that it was videotaped, impairing the ability of the police to get away with it. And Rockwell, as many know by now, was Ron Paul’s Congressional chief of staff in the 1970s and, later, partners with Ron Paul on his profitable line of newsletters. As Julian Sanchez and Dave Weigel reported four years ago, Rockwell was widely known to be the ghost-writer for the newsletters, though they went out under Ron Paul’s name.
I should note here that Rockwell and Rothbard were at the time in open conflict with other libertarian authors and organizations– Reason, the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, Virginia Postrel, David and Charles Koch, and so on. Rockwell’s writings from the era were filled with denunciations of the Koch-funded groups (the “Kochtopus”) and the liberal side of organized libertarianism. That is, their Buchananite, racist, culturally conservative “paleolibertarianism” was always in part directed against other libertarians. (See Rockwell’s article calling for a paleolibertarian purification.)
But it was also in part a money-making enterprise for Rockwell and Ron Paul directed at a particular segment of the public, a way to sell an ersatz anti-statism to white subscribers who wanted monthly updates on the Trilateral Commission, the Israel lobby, the homosexual AIDS lobby, the Federal Reserve, criminal blacks, and the rest of The Crisis At Hand.
There’s no way to deny that the newsletters are “legitimate” topics to question Paul about. He weaseled about them in the 1990s, then “disavowed” them without actually denouncing their content or breaking with Rockwell, and turned immediately to saying that they were old news, that he’d long since answered all questions about them. He never really did (and Rockwell continued to not take responsibility for them). But the real problem isn’t about answering questions about their authorship. It’s about coming to terms with why the people writing under Paul’s name thought (accurately, it seems) that his fans and subscribers wanted this kind of thing, why Paul was associated with that kind of political movement in the first place. Naming the author would be a first step, but no more than that.
And yet, of course… here we are. If you think, as I do, that there’s great moral urgency in ending the drug war, in undoing the militarization of American police and the growth of the carceral state, you have some reason to root for Ron Paul to do well in the primaries. His hands are dirty with racist filth; but Weber taught us that there is no governing with clean hands. And all the other candidates who either have presided over or intend to preside over the drug war have or will have blood on their hands. So I’ve got an unpleasant kind of ambivalence. I’m glad not to be an Iowa Republican, I guess.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been doing terrific and important writing on the newsletters: here, here, here. I also recommend Conor Friersdorf (who captures my own mood pretty well), Dave Weigel (and here and here and here), David Boaz, Nick Gillespie, and this and this older post by Steve Horwitz.