A little over 18 months ago, I made something of a splash, not to mention pissing lots of people off and generating lots of traffic here at BHL, by writing about the history of the Ron Paul newsletters and why they were such an embarrassment for 21st century libertarianism. I argued that they reflected a certain strain of libertarianism that needed to be thrown overboard if libertarianism is to be taken seriously this time around. I also argued that the racism therein was at odds with the historical tolerance and progressivism of classical liberalism.
Not surprisingly, Ron Paul and his followers didn’t listen. As a result, we’re back talking about Ron Paul and his odious friends, as the news last week was his planned appearance at a conference in Canada sponsored by Our Lady of Fatima, an organization of pre-Vatican II Catholics. What is troubling about this conference is the roster of other speakers, which includes people connected to anti-Semitic organizations, a man who has argued for geocentricism (yes, you read that right), an anti-vaccine organizer, the editor of the John Birch Society magazine, and an Italian politician known for his racist and anti-Semitic views, not to mention several other various and assorted New World Order, 9/11, and Federal Reserve conspiracy types. Feel free to Google a few of them. Paul is supposed to address foreign policy issues, which is certainly innocuous enough (and a set of issues I tend to agree with him on), so this is mostly about the company he keeps.
Like the donation and endorsement from the well-known racist group Stormfront, which Paul gladly took, this makes you wonder whether he cares at all about the perceptions he creates by the friends he keeps. And my first reaction on Facebook was to hammer on this point:
This is yet another example of Ron Paul being utterly tone-deaf or arrogant about who he chooses to associate with. It is exactly the kind of “libertarianism” that I want to toss into the dustbin of history and it’s why all the good that Ron Paul has done is frequently offset by errors in judgment like this one.
Ron Paul is not a racist or anti-Semite or complete whack job, but he really needs to stop taking money and breaking bread with folks who are. It is fair game to judge a man by the company he keeps and those of us who care about the future of libertarianism should continue to do so.
Although I still agree with what I wrote there, I no longer think that’s the most productive way to think about the problems raised by Ron Paul’s choice of friends. I think libertarians, especially ones who are more positive about Ron Paul than I am, should be asking a different question, and one I raised in my post 18 months ago. Several Facebook commenters tried to argue that it’s good that Ron Paul goes and “preaches to the enemy.” Maybe that would be a good thing to do, but it misreads the situation. Paul is not preaching to the enemy; the enemy thinks he’s a friend. That’s the problem.
The question is not “why does Ron Paul keep hanging out with these guys?” but rather “why do guys like this keep thinking Ron Paul’s views are congenial to their own?”
For all the good Ron Paul has done in bringing people to the ideas of libertarianism (and it has been significant), it remains troubling that there seems to be something in the way he talks about libertarian ideas that makes people like Stormfront or the organizers of that conference think he is “one of them.” Equally troubling is the attempt by some Ron Paul supporters to shrug at this issue and just say “that’s Ron being Ron” or the equivalent. Or, as often happens to me, argue that people raising these criticisms are just trying to gain pats on the back in the faculty lounge. Why is it so hard for Ron Paul supporters to believe that there are libertarians who are genuinely troubled in a principled way by his hanging out with racists and anti-Semites and their support of him in return? Perhaps their inability to see our genuine concern as a principled libertarian position begins to answer the question I posed above. Perhaps they simply do not understand that those concerns were part and parcel of classical liberalism from its beginnings. And perhaps that is the beginning of the problem.
Classical liberalism was born in the fires of the Enlightenment. It was part of the general progressive movement of the 19th century, with famous classical liberals on the side of racial and gender equality. People like John Stuart Mill were the “politically correct” of their day. Those same thinkers, as well as their successors into the 20th century, were pro-science, pro-rationality, pro-equality, socially tolerant cosmopolitans, who saw the cause of liberty as part and parcel of the human struggle out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of freedom and progress.
It is simply impossible to imagine a Mill or a Bastiat or a Mises or Hayek or Friedman thinking it was a good idea to hang out with or take money from the folks like Stormfront or many of the speakers at the September conference. Enlightened, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan figures like these would surely find it troubling that people who believed in geocentricism, or who thought conspiracies of Jewish bankers and Masons were constructing a world government, saw themselves as “kindred spirits” of their liberalism. It’s almost impossible to imagine what the conversation would be like.
More important: Even if we can imagine these folks thinking someone like Mises was an acceptable dinner speaker, can we imagine Mises accepting the invite? After all, Mises fled 1930s Germany because he was being chased by their predecessors! It would be abhorrent to Mises to find that an American politician who thinks of himself as a disciple of Mises’s ideas would take money from Stormfront, or dine with anti-Semites and believers in vast Jewish banking conspiracies. The Nazis and Fascists hated liberalism because they rightly saw the market as the enemy of both the socialism and the nationalism at the center of their beliefs. That the politician most associated with classical liberal ideas is now thought of as a friend of liberalism’s historic enemies suggests something has gone very wrong with classical liberalism.
I’m not a believer in “dog whistles,” but there’s clearly something about the way in which Ron Paul and those who share his views are communicating their ideas that make them sound attractive to people who I would prefer thought we were the “enemy.” One part of the explanation is that socialism has led many modern libertarians to think of themselves on the “right” because they oppose it and, therefore they think they should oppose the rest of the “left.” Once seeing themselves this way, it’s perhaps easier for some libertarians to adopt the rhetoric and pose of those who oppose all that the left stands for (including the good stuff, like such controversial positions such as heliocentricism and a belief in racial equality), even if those libertarians never say anything explicitly racist.
Once libertarians start to see themselves as “enemies of the left,” it’s also easy to excuse alliances with the unseemly end of the right wing, apparently on the belief that the enemies of their enemies are their friends. Such are the fruits of the seeds of what I’ve called “libertarian contrarianism:” the unfortunate tendency in some quarters of the libertarian world to think that if the “mainstream” believes it, it must be wrong. Co-blogger Roderick Long made a similar point in his “One Cheer for Political Correctness.” A libertarianism that saw itself more “of the left,” or at least as more clearly neither left or right, might be less likely to excuse Ron Paul’s decisions and to be less attractive to those audiences in the first place. And that’s where BHL comes in.
One key part of the BHL project for me is about rhetoric. The idea of “bleeding heart libertarianism” is a reminder that we should be foregrounding our concern for the least well-off among us as often as possible in how we present and defend libertarianism. Because “least well-off” should be inclusive of more than just “the poorest,” but include also those who are victims of public or private aggression or discrimination because of their race, gender, religious beliefs, etc., it would seem very difficult to imagine the BHL version of libertarianism attracting the interest of the racists, anti-Semites and other wingnuts that seem to find Ron Paul a kindred spirit.
In fact, I think that’s one way to define what I see as a suitable libertarianism for the 21st century: a libertarianism that the unsavory types who have gravitated toward Ron Paul would not for a second see as a set of ideas that shared much of anything with their own. To the degree that the nutty end of the right wing continues to see Ron Paul as “one of them,” modern libertarianism will have failed to live up to the best of its progressive, tolerant, and cosmopolitan Enlightenment heritage.