do i want to vote libertarian this year?

So Ron Paul’s been getting beat up pretty hard this past week, as he picks up speed in Iowa and the mainstream media suddenly remembers to vet him. There are two major criticisms leveled at Paul right now. First, and most damningly to a lot of liberals, the vile, racist newsletters published under his name in the ’80s tend to show that he’s, at a minimum, a man so cataclysmically inept at management that he didn’t know what was being published under his name; or, more likely, that Paul engaged in race-baiting cynically, as a way to sell more newsletters to the racist (but nominally “libertarian”) right-wing fringe.

I don’t believe Paul is harboring, deep in his heart, devious designs to turn back the clock on race in America. For one thing, as Conor Friedersdorf points out in this excellent post,

[The newsletters’] style and racially bigoted philosophy is so starkly different from anything he has publicly espoused during his long career in public life — and he is so forthright and uncensored in his pronouncements, even when they depart from mainstream or politically correct opinion — that I’d wager substantially against his authorship…. It’s a level of bigotry that would be exceptionally difficult for a longtime public figure to hide.

I think this is about right. Paul is, to all appearances, completely uncensored. Every crazy theory that passes through his head falls out of his mouth. This makes it easy for mainstream liberals to dismiss him as a fringe kook not worthy of serious debate, but it also makes it unlikely that he’s a closet racist. (At least any more than any other 76-year-old coot who grew up in a different world and is mildly cranky about Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg.) If you’re looking for serious racism in the Republican party, you should be concentrating on the shallow pricks who encouraged Herman Cain to run on the theory that he’d be some kind of “anti-Obama” who would inoculate them against charges of racism — “I seriously considered voting for a black man!” — but who would never, ever get the nomination on account of being a complete buffoon.

The real knock against Ron Paul is that he actually is a doctrinaire libertarian, rather than a racist or a homophobe or a sexist running under libertarian colors. Paul genuinely believes that government — especially the federal government — has vastly exceeded its authority and needs to take a few steps back. Preferably to sometime in the early 1900s. In an ideal Ron Paul world, we would eliminate or cripple the Federal Reserve, return to a gold-backed currency, delete five Cabinet departments entirely, effectively end Social Security, shrink aid to the poor, and repeal the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and most environmental regulations. And he wants to get rid of the personal income tax, about which more in a moment.

That Paul’s libertarianism leads him to take positions which will have the effect of rolling back civil rights gains seems undeniable, though not without complications. Ron Paul claims not to want to interfere with states’ ability to recognize gay marriage, and he’s famously in favor of letting states decide whether to decriminalize drugs. But by the same token, he wants to let states regulate abortion for themselves, which in states like Oklahoma and South Dakota would be the final nail in the coffin for legal abortion. And he doesn’t believe the federal government should come around telling bigoted business owners they can’t keep black people out of their Woolworth’s.

Recently, my wife and I have been working on a theory we like to call, “Other people are not idiots.” Here’s a silly example: we have gone to Ikea’s showroom many times, and we have always walked briskly past the Poäng chair — I felt it was ugly, and Elana thought it took up a ridiculous amount of floor space. But it’s a perennial bestseller, which has always caused us to view the Ikea buying public with a certain amount of smug contempt. Anyway, yesterday, a day when we did not have much to do, we dawdled in the chair section, and we tried out some different chairs for fun, and eventually I sat in a Poäng. And OMFG YOU GUYS IS IT COMFORTABLE.

Other people are not idiots. They have reasons for doing what they do and standing by the things they stand by.

Ron Paulistas who share his desire to repeal the Civil Rights Act — assuming the market will simply punish any business owner who excludes minorities — are falling into the “other people are idiots” trap. They’re failing to look at history and the simple power dynamics of small cities and towns, especially in the South, where the market did not punish discrimination. They fail, with some degree of willful obstuseness, to understand why it has been so necessary, and such a useful thing, for the government to step in and do what the market could not and would not in rectifying discrimination. Paul and his supporters have failed to sit in the Poäng chair before dismissing it.

But at the same time, it must be said that there’s a sector of the liberal blogosphere that’s falling into the same trap about Ron Paul. Jeffrey Feldman, for example, calls Paul’s ideas “nonsense” and “puerile hokum.” Feldman grudgingly notes that Paul’s speeches are “laced with seemingly humane calls to end wars,” but he feels that these are canceled out by Paul’s “promises to abandon the sick, poor, and elderly.” Feldman claims to be unable to comprehend “why Ron Paul is still on that stage.”

Really? No clue at all? Can’t begin to imagine why, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ron Paul might be an appealing candidate “for the young and disgruntled, for those who dimly perceive that something is wrong in this country, for those who are earnestly appalled by the madness of our criminal justice policy, for those who have watched a steady erosion of our civil liberties, and have seen their concerns met with an appalling silence on the national stage”?

Ron Paul is wrong about the Civil Rights Act. But when he says, for example,

The real problem we face today is the discrimination in our court system, the war on drugs. Just think of how biased that is against the minorities…. They go into prison much way out of proportion to their numbers. They get the death penalty out of proportion with their numbers. And if you look at what minorities suffer in ordinary wars, whether there’s a draft or no draft, they suffer much out of proposition. So those are the kind of discrimination that have to be dealt with….

is there any sensible — or even breathing — liberal who disagrees with him? People who should know better — like MoJo‘s Kevin Drum — are trotting out the old “even a stopped watch is right twice a day” cliche, as though Paul’s utterly self-consistent and principled stands on foreign wars and drug prohibition somehow resembled the occasional lucid-seeming moment in a paranoid’s ramblings. Meanwhile, where the fuck is Obama on ending the racist drug war? Oh, that’s right — he’s too busy getting us into new conflicts (which were not the unqualified success for peace and democracy we were led to believe) and flying his model airplanes (which hobby has also been problematic).

But to return to Feldman’s assertion that Paul intends to “abandon the sick, poor, and elderly” — isn’t it painfully clear that we have abandoned the poor and the sick already, and that the elderly are next? Again, I ask — where is Obama on all this? The Affordable Care Act was a fine start, twenty years too late, and its best shot at creating meaningful change is essentially to make health insurance an unprofitable business. And I haven’t heard a peep out of the White House about fixing Medicare or the awful prescription drug bill or creating meaningful programs to employ people and lift the 1 in 2 Americans who live in poverty out of the cycle of insolvency they’re trapped in.

(And now I suppose I will hear from some of my fellow liberals about President Obama’s staff’s highly-nuanced white paper which is available sixteen pages into Guys, if you’re hiding your light under a bushel for long enough, about enough things, after a while I begin to suspect you don’t actually want anyone to use it as a lamp.)

The truth is, our vision of America — the liberal/progressive/socialist vision — has utterly failed the poor, the sick, and the elderly. And you know why? Because we didn’t try. Democrats never really try to implement things like a national health service or real maternity leave or better public works projects, in part because for so long they’ve felt vulnerable and unlikeable on topics like gay rights and drug policy and prayer in schools. Democrats get a bad rap for running and hiding when they hear the word “socialism,” but the truth is that they run and hide about everything.

Well, imagine a Ron Paul candidacy. Imagine if the Democrats were running, not against a Christian conservative gay-panic alarmist like Michelle “my husband is definitely not gay” Bachmann, but against a libertarian who says, “I don’t care if people use heroin or have gay sex. That’s an expression of their personal freedom.” What would that even look like? What would it mean to have a presidential debate that focused on the best method for America to create prosperity, freed from a lot of the typical cant and bullshit that gets in the way? Could Obama make a straight-up progressive/socialist argument for the ideas of the left? If he couldn’t — if that brilliant Chicago Law professor couldn’t explain why Paul’s 19th-century economic policies would hurt the poor the most — then maybe our ideas deserve to lose.

And at the very least, maybe Paul’s candor about the drug war and the other wars and TSA security theater and all the rest of it would give Obama the courage to take actual liberal positions on those issues, too. And if he still refused to do so… well, I guess we’d be left in no doubt about what he really thinks, wouldn’t we?

Here’s my refutation of Feldman’s unstated assumption that somehow our country is doing right by the poor and the dispossessed, and it’s Ron Paul’s wacky economic ideas that would screw all that up. It comes from the comments section of this article about Paul’s views on sexual harassment. I’m going to reprint almost the entire comment by someone calling himself ConstructionDude, because I think if anyone can explain the appeal to the young and disenfranchised of Ron Paul’s “leave me the fuck alone” philosophy, it’s this dude. Here he is — be patient with his odd syntax and punctuation, because this is really worth it:

I’ve had the most abusive employers verbally and physically that you can imagine. I’ve never collected an unemployment check in my life because I’ve always been called an independent contractor so they didn’t have to pay any of the extras like the 7.5% social security tax, unemployment, workmans comp, or insurance. I work like a dog in bitter 5 degree to scorching 105 degree temperatures 30 foot up walking on pulins where my feet might never step on anything wider than 3.5 inches all day an it’s not the impact when you fall that is going to do you it is the stakes sticking up that you will impale yourself on and all the stuff than will fall on you and beat you into the ground. The joke is that if you fall you are fired before you hit the ground for violating the safety rules. I’ve never had insurance in my life and anything less than a 4″ gash I fix with super glue and duct tape. Osha don’t come round here . . .

When the housing market crashed I found my self with a 3 day notice in January 2008 and guess who doesn’t get unemployment? The independent contractor who was really an employee by any department of labor standards but they don’t care and the unemployment office doesn’t care. I can’t work for a corporation because I have that misdemeanor weed conviction from 12 years ago (Ron Paul wants to end that lifelong discrimination for the all too common indiscretion of youth). My application when I am competing for the rare opening against the other thousands of unemployed construction workers in the same boat will not make it past the receptionist because I have to put that I am a weed criminal in that little box.

So I go months without work and finally get 6 weeks of work with a totally insane guy tiling and when that ends I go another 3-4 months and that is how was for 2 years. I have $15,000 worth of various tools from when I did have work so I got myself licensed and get some work by word of mouth and on craigslist having to do it on the cheap because there is not a lot out there and a lot of people who spent decades learning the trades and can’t just change some other occupation over night which are scarce anyway. If you get a little behind on your child support the States answer is to take your drivers license even if you have a great relationship with your sons mom and she is doing well financially and calls them and asks them not to . . . they don’t care, they are the all powerful state and their one size solution will fit all. They put every obstacle in the way that they can for you just to feed yourself and live indoors and have heat and and be a dad to your noncustodial 13 year old son.

The only thing that gets me by is I live in a house I purchased in the ghetto for $12,000 on contract over 5 years and I can get wifi from the Martin Luther King Center a half a block away. My neighborhood is littered with abandoned homes because no one wants to live near the public housing projects. No body ever suggests that the people that bought a house that they could afford should get bailed out of the ghetto while they like to suggest that people that bought nice houses on the hill that they can’t afford should get bailed out. Most of the people that rant about Ron Paul being a racist wouldn’t dream of walking down my street where I am the only white guy but they think of themselves as really progressive on race. I like my neighbors and except for a few real criminals that the system can’t make room for because they spend all their money locking up petty drug offenders we do all right.

You know what all the white construction workers and all my black neighbors have in common? They hate the government with a passion. They can go on and on about how the wonderful government puts the screws to them constantly. They don’t trust the government and they don’t call the cops. Somebody will make an anonymous call if they guy with the knife in him don’t look like he can get up and that’s about it. No body is going to testify because courts are just another place that victimizes them and if you are a victim the police will try to turn it on you somehow. The police treat everyone as if a white person in my neighborhood must be buying drugs and if you are black you must be selling drugs. The police run in wolf packs and we all are their prey. I wouldn’t say that the people are racist here, I would say that the drug war is racist and as the police are troops of the drug war the ghetto gets to feel it.

We don’t want anything from the government! We want them to go away! You can go on and on about getting the government to help us but we don’t want it. Every thing they sell as a way to help us just makes us victims at their hands! You want Obama’s health care plan? Just a fine they are going to stick me with for not having insurance. I don’t want to fill out a form that says that I am poor! I want to be left alone. I don’t care if my life is struggle I do not trust that they are ever capable of ever administrating justice or of doing anything but come up with another way to screw us! If we give them money they will give it to wall street billionaires to party on and build their monopolies and crush the little guy! They will give it to Walmart so they can build a big store where nobody makes a living wage 3 miles away so that all the mom and pops in the ghetto close and now we all have to get 3 miles to Walmart and all the money leaves our community!

Ron Paul wants to end the taxing of the little guy so some social engineers can give it to their cronie billionaire buddies. All power corrupts and if they have the ability to redistribute wealth they will distribute it to the wealthy. I would much rather have to quit a job because of the conditions than to give the federal government any power at all. At least with local jurisdiction in the matter you stand a chance of somebody having a heart and caring because they actually see the people on the ground. The small community organiztions are the only ones that even pretend to listen. I can go to city hall and speak but congress does’t want to hear me. Leave us alone with your federalism! Why don’t you minimize the federal government and then try to socialize your community if that is what you want so that you can have the system where the people are and it actually can help them with what they really need and not some one size fits all keeps you down check but what you really might need is a one time $2000 for a car so you can work and pay your own way.

I live in Illinois 6 blocks from the bridge across the Mississippi River from Iowa and I am am going to be at a caucus precinct Tuesday (the rules allow it) with a camera to make sure that every one of Ron Paul’s votes get counted and the party insiders don’t try to misrepresent what really happened and steal this from him. Ron Paul is the republican no corporate money outsider that is going to give the republican party the enema that they need.

Now, I should say, I think this guy is wrong. I think he’s wrong when he says that Ron Paul wants to end the taxing of the little guy and giving the money to big corporations. Paul’s tax plan, which proposes to eliminate the personal income tax and replace it with excise taxes, would almost certainly result in a shifting of tax burdens from high-income to low-income people, since those with lower incomes spend a greater percentage of their income on the goods that would be taxed. Excise taxes are also a peculiar choice for a supposed libertarian, since they tend to focus narrowly on particular products, in essence penalizing the use of some products and incentivizing the use of others — exactly the kind of tax-code activism libertarians frequently decry in the current tax code.

But I do think ConstructionDude’s sense that government is utterly corrupt and doesn’t work for him, but for Wal-Mart and Halliburton, and his perception of the police as a thuggish “wolf pack,” would mesh perfectly with the views of most of the Occupy movement, for example. ConstructionDude and Ron Paul are utterly pessimistic that the reins of government can ever be taken back from the great corporate powers, and so they want to minimize government altogether. I disagree with their solution, but can anyone on the left really argue with their diagnosis? Wouldn’t you rather debate someone like Paul, who at least sees the problem, than someone like Gingrich or Perry, both of whom manifestly personify the problem??

Some of my relatives (and Eric over at SOTSOGM, whose political instincts I usually trust) have expressed shock and dismay that some liberals find much to admire in Paul’s philosophy. Well, I understand that. But when the guy in whom I placed a whole lot of HOPE in ’08 is either M.I.A. on the important issues or actually hostile to the policies I’d like to see enacted, and the wacky Republican with the gold currency fixation is the one saying sensible things about civil liberties and war… what the fuck am I supposed to do?

(PS — if I do decide to vote libertarian this year, it’ll probably be for Gary Johnson. He doesn’t have the history with icky, racist newsletters that Paul does, and he was a successful two-term governor. But right now it’s Ron Paul who’s talking about the things Obama’s all wrong on, and so it’s Paul and his supporters I’m defending here.)

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9 Responses to do i want to vote libertarian this year?

  1. Eric says:

    But sometimes people are idiots. I don’t mean that to be as judgmental as it may sound: I’m frequently an idiot, too.

    See, a major core of the problem with liberal admiration of Ron Paul is, frankly, you have to do some cherry-picking to get there. He’s adverse to wars, but you have to ignore the fact that this includes the Darfur genocide. He’s adverse to Federal drug legislation, but he’s a bit of a crypto-libertarian on that score insofar as he has no problem with state criminalization (and it’s on the state level that much of the incarceration is occurring). Ditto on women’s rights and minority rights.

    I grok that liberals may find much that is, at least superficially speaking, pleasing in Paul’s posturing from a civil liberties perspective. The irresistible metaphor, of course, is that small bugs find bright, shiny things pleasing–at least to the point they discover the brightest and shiniest thing in their field of view was a bug zapper. Sure, people have reasons for what they do, but sometimes those reasons are really, really bad ones. Glenn Greenwald, to cite a conspicuous example, certainly has a reasoned argument for supporting Ron Paul, you could even describe it as a principled argument–if the only reason and principle you subscribe to essentially boils down to a sort of cartoonish and essentially unprincipled civil libertarianism in which no state may ever exercise any force against anyone without automatically becoming an oppressive totalitarian nightmare in which individual rights are meaningless. Nobody who has thought seriously about the law and the moral use of force ought to be capable of expressing the kinds of opinions Greenwald usually ends up publishing; at any rate, yes, that means Greenwald happens to line up with Paul on several points, there’s just no way he’d like the inevitable results of the rest of Paul’s ideology (to the extent he really has one, and isn’t just Cranky Old Man Grumpus who thinks everything was somehow better in the Gilded Age).

    I pity ConstructionDude, though I know he wouldn’t want it. Over at SOTSOGM today I commented on people who don’t understand that they’re the government. But I had to be careful to write phrases like “working republic” and “working democracy”; I fear that government has failed ConstructionDude because it has become dysfunctional, because the social constructs that are supposed to give him a voice and fully enfranchise him as part of “The People” have broken down. I fear this probability in large part because I worry there isn’t a civilized solution to that. But it also has to be said: absent a revolution to establish an anarchy, he can’t have what he says he wants. Okay, he might have it in degrees: the government might play less of a role in some aspects of his life, or a different role. But the reality is that the state is part of the water in which we all swim; it’s not just the police he doesn’t want to call, it’s also the stop sign at the corner that keeps his kids from getting run over. Of course, he sort of acknowledges that by falling back on local governance versus the federal government, but every river is a tributary of a greater river that runs to the sea (or something like that): his local government is part of a social governing structure that includes federal and state components (he doesn’t really think local sales taxes and property taxes are the only things keeping his roads paved, does he?).

    Even on foreign policy, the issue so many on the left have focused on: I can say that while I thought the Iraq war was wrong on essentially pragmatic grounds, I wasn’t unsympathetic to the late Christopher Hitchens’ view that Saddam Hussein was a despot who ought to be overthrown (I was not convinced we were the ones who ought to do it, and Hitchens consistently disappointed me by rationalizing the means to that end, e.g. justifying the Bush administration’s lies to the American people about WMDs and extolling jackasses like Paul Wolfowitz); ironically, meanwhile, I disagree with Ron Paul even though my position on Iraq coincides with his (and initially made Paul seem attractive to me, even, in 2008)–in 1939, Paul would have been an isolationist and in 1941 I have no doubt he would have condemned Lend-Lease. Even a pacifist such as myself confesses that not all wars are made equal.

    I’m not especially happy with the President, and much of that happiness comes from his failure to lead, a failure to articulate a progressive (even a moderately progressive) vision. But Ron Paul’s beliefs, to their core, is the antithesis of how a liberal believes things ought to be. The fact that he ostensibly gets to the same places a liberal might on some specific issues of the day (“ostensible” because the truth is de-federalizing the War On Drugs, for example, would not necessarily end it, merely fracture it) doesn’t moot how he got there. A liberal believes the force of the state should be exercised progressively on behalf of the vulnerable; Paul would at best abdicate that responsibility (in which case, why have federal government at all?) or side with the predators by default or design.

  2. thehandsomecamel says:

    Mmm. I think we may just disagree on “how a liberal believes things ought to be.” I’m not convinced that “the force of the state should be exercised progressively on behalf of the vulnerable,” and I’m ABSOLUTELY opposed to the idea that liberals should lower the threshold for going to war so that we can intervene when it would be nice and liberal to do so (Darfur, Iraq). Any time we lower the threshold for war to anything less than “protecting the country from an actual existential threat,” I think we hand the power of killing in our name over to opportunists and charlatans. EVERY warmonger claims that THIS war is the morally right thing to do. There’s always a Saddam Hussein.

    And as for the drug war, I think Paul has it exactly right — yes, many if not most of the prosecutions are local, but a lot of the pressure is driven from the top down, and the only action that we can take as a nation (since it’s preposterous to think we’re going to have a constitutional amendment forbidding states from criminalizing drugs) is to eliminate the federal drug laws and abandon the federal drug war. And then each state will have to decide for itself, in the absence of federal pressure and federal funding, how much the drug war is worth to it.

    And, to double down a bit — I think Ron Paul is arriving at these positions by the right arguments as well — that is, by privileging individual liberty. Sometimes I think his passion for individual liberty and property rights leads him to weird places, like opposing the Civil Rights Act. Fine. Score one, people who don’t like Ron Paul. But I don’t see President Obama or most Congressional Democrats ever privileging individual liberty. Not only did Obama not veto the defense authorization bill — he added insult to injury by issuing a mealy-mouthed, weaselly signing statement that promised nothing of value and essentially arrogated all decision-making about vital constitutional issues to the executive.

    I guess my liberalism comes out of a place of wanting to value individual freedom first. To the extent that I support socialist/liberal policies like universal health care and pensions, it’s because I hope those things will unlock the potential of individuals. But generally, I want the government to be invisible. I want it to be strong and effective at helping Americans who need help, but quite weak when it comes to exercising violence or coercion, either here or abroad. And since it seems pretty clear we liberals are not winning the battle on the first front — let’s be honest; helping people just isn’t that popular, and Bernie Sanders always excepted, we don’t have a politician with the stomach to make the case for it — I’m pretty impressed by somebody who’s willing to take a stand for the second.

    • Eric says:

      Except that Paul’s ideology makes individual liberty a meaningless concept. If the sole role for government is protecting property (I’m giving Paul the benefit of the doubt when it comes to possessing a coherent libertarian ideology: he’s been called to task by libertarians who accuse him–with some reason–of being a States’ Rights advocate in libertarian drag), then your sole individual right is to possess property: your rights are only meaningful insofar as they’re enforceable and Paul basically denies you have any other enforceable rights.

      The major point about force is that (as David Atkins recently pointed out) laws are an invocation of the use of force. Government is coercion. Your right to walk down a sidewalk is the right to have a police officer arrest the guy who beat you up for using “his” sidewalk. Okay, it sounds silly. But a “right” is, by definition, an enforceable relationship between two parties. Your freedom of speech is not merely a restraint upon government, but something you can go to court and use the power of government against itself to protect; without this second aspect, the first is only a formality: if the police arrest you for handing out leaflets (and no other reason), what are you going to do about it if you can’t have the court exert force on your behalf.

      One can certainly take the position that government should be weak, but I would contend that this isn’t really a very liberal position (though it may be reasonable, that’s another question); I think the more liberal position and related question is that government should be as strong as is necessary to enforce one’s rights against other citizens and against the government itself, with the question being when and how that power should be mobilized.

      • thehandsomecamel says:

        I think maybe we’re using different terminology for the same thing. I won’t speak for libertarians, but when I say I want government to be weak in its ability to exercise violence and coercion, I mean that I want there to be obstacles — legal, social, financial — in its way, obstacles that make it difficult for the government to act without the consent of the governed. Because I think it’s great in the abstract to say that the question should be how is state power mobilized, but too often the power is mobilized without anybody asking the question. (Or a few people ask the question, but they quickly get papered over with flags and slogans.) The point of making government “weak” in this sense is to ensure vigorous public debate before actions are taken or policies are adopted. All too often I think that debate is short-circuited on precisely the wrong questions — especially questions of when to go to war — while it drags on endlessly when somebody wants to reform health insurance in even really rinky-dink ways. And that seems to me to be somewhat backwards.

      • Eric says:

        We may indeed: I absolutely agree that there should be legal, social, financial, and cultural obstacles that force government to act within the bounds of the power that has been delegated to them, and that allow for rapid redress should government step outside of those bounds. A “liberal” (in the sense I’ve used it here and at SOTSOGM) totalitarian state is still a totalitarian state (and therefore reprehensible; a point the many leftist defenders of the Soviet Union failed to grok in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s). Ideally, the use of force for progressive ends is something that comes through debate, analysis, and discussion, and with various deadman’s switches, loopholes, escape hatches and emergency brakes implemented so that good intentions gone awry can be aborted. (An example that comes to mind is an ancient one in Anglo/American law: the writ of habeas corpus, which attempts to balance the need of the state to neutralize potentially dangerous individuals with the individual’s need to be protected from egregious, abusive and/or mistaken deprivations of personal liberty. Such things ought be sacrosanct in a liberal democratic state.)

        I’ve enjoyed the discussion here and at Giant Midgets: thank you.

  3. thehandsomecamel says:

    (But I hope it’s clear that I’m still opposed to most of Paul’s positions. I’m just glad he’s moving the debate, and I totally understand why people find him appealing.)

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