Monday, November 26, 2007

Libertarian Spin and the Ron Paul Revolution

I love Reason magazine and I love the writing of Reason editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, but this column in the weekend's Washington Post has me thinking they've drank a bit too much of the Ron Paul kool aid. (Read more here on Reason.)

I've had a number of non-libertarians ask me about Ron Paul and my answer is always the same- even though it's exciting that a libertarian is fundraising so well and doing his best to muddle to GOP waters, I just can't get personally excited about a candidate who has no real foreign policy and who's nativist views put him on the wrong side of the immigration debate. In an odd way, the grassroots support of Dr. Paul has invigorated the DC libertarians who have long been a factor in the nations policy debate, yet have never played a major role in a real political horse race. Or, in other words, libertarian policy wonks finally get to feel important. I just don't think Paul's limited successes do much to excite the mainstream libertarians, like myself, who have never been excited about an election and probably never will be.

But forgetting for a moment about my own personal feelings on Ron Paul, what are we to make of Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch's claims that the Ron Paul revolution has coincided with a mainstreaming of libertarian ideas? According to this Washington Times story, the popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is somehow a mainstream example of libertarian success. But while their programs may appeal to certain anti-authoritarian and anti-political sensibilities, you'd be hard pressed to call them libertarian. Just ask Jon Stewart what he thinks about national health care, tax cuts, and regulation of corporate America.

There certainly are strong libertarian sentiments throughout the country and throughout our culture- however, I think it's important to recognize that these sentiments are felt most strongly on a general level. (I.e. - I believe the role of government should be limited.) But when you get down to specific policy considerations, well, people are in favor of smoking bans because they don't like second hand smoke, people are in favor of trans fat bans because trans fats are a dangerous killer, and people are in favor of a national health care plan because health care is too important to be left strictly to the market. I would say that much of the libertarian sentiment that's supposedly out there is only libertarian in theory, and far less libertarian in practice.

As the Washington Times piece points out, centralization may no longer be in fashion, but that doesn't mean that people have decided to abandon the role of government- far from it. Today we get city-by-city health solutions and health care plans that make use of the existing market structure - But even if these ideas are being framed differently, they are still decidedly un-libertarian.

Personally, I don't get as wrapped up in the security versus safety debate as do some libertarians because I'm just not all that worried - these are the sorts of issues this country has faced since it's founding, going all the way back to Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and John Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. We have periods of government over reach and periods of greater freedom, and the pendulum has swung back and forth over the years. I do get wrapped up about issues like health care, health regulation, and nanny state laws because they've multiplied exponentially since the 1960's, becoming even more prevalent in the past decade. And combine that with a regulatory state that has been growing since FDR which consolidates corporate power and cuts down on market competition, and I think we have the real issues that libertarians need to be worried about.

Ron Paul may invoke excitement from some libertarians, but I suspect much of his popularity and support stems from the anti-authoritarian, anti-political, libertarian generalists - not to mention anti-war folks, the protect our borders crowd, and other assorted conspiracy theorists and anti-internationalists. Listening to Dr. Paul in the debates and during his speeches, I just don't feel the libertarian message about the positive aspects of individuality coming across- I don't hear a Regan-esque message of morning in America. Something about the Paul campaign seems darker and that's what scares me. I'm the sort of libertarian- and I believe there are any number out there like me- who thinks that despite my many concerns, this country and our lives are getting better and better. I fear the soft hand of a nanny state, not the clenched grasp of a police one. It just seems to me as though Dr. Paul and his supporters fear a shadowy federal government and that fear has manifested itself in the same way some Republicans have manipulated the fear of terrorism.

My qualms are not just that Ron Paul isn't the right candidate for me - I don't thing he's the right candidate to be carrying the libertarian banner. Even forgetting about the foreign policy question, I just don't think Ron Paul- or his supporters- are the way we want libertarians to be identified. We should want libertarians to be identified with the positive- the positive power of markets and the positive power and abilities of the individual. Ron Paul's message and this pseudo-libertarian spin is merely reactionary and I can't find much hope in it. I think sometimes libertarians get ahead of themselves when it comes to politics and tend to support candidates that do little to help the cause. I hope I'm wrong about Ron Paul and the public perception of libertarianism, but I fear I may be right.


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