My Daily Caller piece on Ron Paul has drawn some interesting responses, including this one from Brian Doherty over at Reason. Many of these responses raise legitimate issues, and obviously there’s a lot that I couldn’t go into in an 800 word op-ed. So I thought I’d take some time now to respond to some of them.
The question I wanted to ask in my article was this: if you’re a libertarian who wants to see libertarian ideas spread and be implemented in our society, should you spend your resources supporting the Ron Paul campaign or should you spend them investing in something else like the kind of long-term educational efforts undertaken by the Institute for Humane Studies? And my answer was that (more) libertarians should take the latter approach.
So, to be clear, the question is not about whether the Ron Paul campaign is good for the cause of liberty or not (I think it is). It’s not about whether it would be a good thing if Paul were elected (I think it would be). It’s about how people with scarce time and money should use their resources. And I think that, in general, there are better ways to spend them than supporting the Ron Paul campaign.
That said, I don’t want to communicate the message that there’s only one right way to spread libertarianism. I happen to be pretty, well, libertarian about that question, and think that it’s a good thing that this movement of ours has a diverse set of individuals pursuing a shared goal in a diverse set of ways. Different people have different comparative advantages, and while I sure as heck wouldn’t want to spend my life in a courtroom pursuing litigation, I’m very, very happy that there are people who do.
But one can celebrate diversity, as it were, while still thinking that some paths are better than others. And I think supporting the Ron Paul campaign is less likely to bring real, long-term benefits to liberty than a lot of other options. The two most obvious ways in which it could bring such benefits are 1) getting him elected to office so that he can make changes in public policy, and 2) giving him the resources to educate people about libertarian ideas. I think libertarians are overestimating both of these possibilities. But since most of the responses to my post have focused on the second, I’ll concentrate there.
My main point in the article was that political campaigns are, in general, a bad way to educate people. For most people, politics is about helping “their guy” beat the other guy, period. It’s not about spreading new ideas, and it’s certainly not about learning new ideas. Which is why so many Republicans are voting for Romney on the grounds that he’s the only one, in their minds, who can “beat Obama.” For them, beating the other guy is so overridingly important that it justifies just about anything – including nominating a candidate who, in many ways, is substantively indistinguishable for Obama.
Most people don’t go to political debates, or watch political advertisements, or read political opinion pieces looking to have their minds changed. And most people’s minds aren’t. But, of course, the relationship between politics and education is more complicated than is captured by this sort of direct educational effect. And so I admit that it’s possible that I’m underestimating the net educational effect of the Paul campaign.
For instance, as Doherty notes, even if people don’t learn alot from Paul’s campaign speeches per se, those speeches might inspire them to read certain books, and those books might light them to other books and so on. If lots of people took Paul’s advise to read Bastiat, for instance, that would, I admit, be a very good thing for the spread of libertarian ideas.
And the relationship is even more complicated than that. There’s no doubt that Ron Paul has created a great cultural interest in the idea of libertarianism – more people are talking about the idea now than they were, say, two years ago, more is being written about it, and so on. Academic publishers have taken notice of this, and so have been more receptive to books exploring libertarian ideas – in some cases even actively seeking out academics to write such books. So in that way, the Paul phenomenon might lead indirectly not just to the increased consumption of academic research but actually to the increased production of it as well.
With that concession made, I still think a few of Brian’s points are mistaken. For instance, Brian asks, rhetorically, “Does not the very fact that Zwolinski leads with, that everyone has heard of Paul and no one has heard of IHS (roughly) indicate that political campaigns are in fact a great way to expose people to these ideas?”
It indicates (unsurprisingly) that political campaigns are a good way of generating name recognition. But name recognition is a poor measure of influence. Just because you haven’t heard of something doesn’t mean it hasn’t influenced you. More people have heard of Tom Cruise than Ben Bernanke, but that doesn’t mean that Bernanke hasn’t had a bigger impact on their life. Much of the influence that IHS has had has been indirect – the direct influence it has via its summer seminars is only a small part of the bigger picture. A big part of what IHS does it teach and mentor students who go on to become professors who then teach thousands of other students over the course of their lives. Those students probably have no idea what IHS has, but IHS has, indirectly, helped shape the course of the education they’ve received.
Another claim people have made in response to my argument is that it’s a mistake to think of all this in zero-sum terms. We don’t have to choose between supporting Ron Paul and supporting IHS, they argue. We can do both.
Well, yes and no. If what Ron Paul is doing is bringing in resources that would otherwise not have been spent on furthering the cause of liberty, then yes, it’s not entirely a zero-sum game. And that’s certainly part of what’s going on, maybe a big part. But to some degree, Paul’s campaign is consuming resources that would have been spent promoting liberty in other ways. And in all cases, Paul’s campaign is consuming resources that could have been spent promoting liberty in other ways. Every action implies forgone opportunities, and so in that sense it is a zero-sum game.
Like I said before, I’m glad that there are a diverse set of people within the libertarian movement pursuing liberty in a diverse set of ways. So I think it would probably be a bad thing if everybody started pursuing liberty in the way that little old me thinks is best. But I do think that political campaigns cause people to get caught up in the short term and lose sight of the bigger picture. And so I think it’s useful to push back against that, and tilt people in the direction of more long term change. In that sense, my argument is not an absolutist one, but about change at the margin.
Questions about effective political and social change are complicated. Brian seems to think the long-term influence of the Paul campaign is obvious. I’m not so sure. Maybe he’s right. But it would be interesting to have some objective standard by which we could tell. My hunch is that in ten years, the influence of people like Rand and Friedman will loom much larger in the libertarian movement than the influence of Paul, and that in fifty years the Paul campaign will be about as irrelevant to the libertarian movement as the Goldwater campaign is today. Perhaps we can take a cue from Bryan Caplan and make a bet? I’m not quite sure how to frame the bet in order to focus on a result that’s easily measurable and a good indicator of what Brian Doherty and I are really disagreeing about. But I’m open to suggestions.