Now that the Ron Paul revolution is effectively over, the time has come for a levelheaded assessment of the pluses and minuses of the single largest movement that modern libertarianism has ever engaged in.
Any rational approach to life must seek objective answers to puzzling questions – we must steadfastly refuse to make up answers, but rather humbly look for them in the evidence.
Now that the Ron Paul revolution has failed in its stated objective – to increase political liberty by getting Ron Paul elected president – our great temptation will be to either make up answers as to why, or rewrite history by substituting another objective.
However, we owe it to the principles of liberty – if not truth – to reject easy or pat answers, but rather examine the root causes of such an enormous failure, so that we can do better next time.
To begin, we must examine the central premises held by Ron Paul supporters.
In general, the basic beliefs were these:
1. Ron Paul is the most credible candidate that libertarianism has to offer.
2. The general electorate will respond to Ron Paul’s message of liberty.
3. Ron Paul can be elected.
4. If Ron Paul is elected, political liberty will increase substantially.
All of the above beliefs support the core approach, which is that political activism can achieve liberty – and also, for many Ron Paul supporters, only political activism can ever achieve liberty.
In this essay, we will have a look at the first two points, since the last two are immaterial.
1. Ron Paul is the most credible candidate that libertarianism has to offer.
In many ways, I believe that this is entirely true. Ron Paul is a doctor, a multi-term congressman with military experience, and a member of the Republican Party. It is inconceivable that a candidate even remotely as credible can arise over the next generation or so. Even if some magic genius exists somewhere in the party at the moment, it will take him decades to accumulate the same level of experience and credibility as Ron Paul.
This is a central reason why the emotions surrounding the Ron Paul candidacy were so volatile. In our hearts, we all knew that if it wasn’t going to be Ron Paul, it just wasn’t going to happen. This is why so many libertarians and minarchists threw themselves heart and soul into his campaign, donating millions of dollars and countless hours to spreading the word about the Ron Paul revolution. Furthermore, since as credible a candidate is unlikely to arise within the next generation, if Ron Paul did not succeed, most of his supporters would not live to see any of the real freedoms that they believed could be achieved through political success. Finally, it seems highly unlikely that the existing political and financial system can possibly last for another generation – thus it truly was “Ron Paul or bust!”
In addition to his political and medical credibility, Ron Paul is a Christian – a prerequisite for participation in American politics – as well as being hostile towards illegal immigrants, which is also required. He is not a pacifist, but rather is pro-military – again, a required position.
The tens of millions of dollars raised by Ron Paul is also highly unlikely to be replicated any time soon. The fervor which accompanied his campaign will be almost impossible to replicate in the future – particularly since a far less credible candidate will doubtless be at the helm.
2. The general electorate will respond to Ron Paul’s message of liberty.
This turned out to be entirely false. Ron Paul never polled more than a few percentage points at any time – and these poll numbers were entirely mirrored by the actual votes that he received in the primaries. The famed “Internet polls” that indicated far greater support turned out to be falsified after all.
This is essential information for us to process. The communication of libertarian values has always been one of the greatest challenges of the movement. It is essential to remember not only that Ron Paul had unprecedented access to the mainstream media, but also that the medium of the Internet was available in full force for the first time in history. Given the degree that Ron Paul supporters used this medium to spread the message, the fact that the message failed to get through is highly significant.
This indicates that the barriers to the general acceptance of libertarian values are far greater than is generally supposed. If we look back at the methods of communication available to von Mises or Rothbard – limited print books, small classrooms and specialized magazines – and compare those to the instantaneous and universal Internet email/broadcast options available today, I think that it is safe to say that additional methods of communication will not solve the problem.
Of course, the additional mediums available to Ron Paul supporters are also available to every other candidate’s supporters, and thus cannot be considered any kind of key differentiator.
The great danger of post-Ron Paul libertarianism is that we will simply make up answers as to why the message failed to resonate rather than examine the facts. We can blame the mainstream media, the apathy of the general electorate or traitorous intellectuals all we like, but that will not move us one step closer to actually achieving our goals of political liberty.
In my view, it is not accurate to view Ron Paul’s candidacy as a revolution, but rather as a mystical devolution. The desire to return to the Constitution is really the desire to return to American political institutions as they stood in the early 19th century. (Sans slavery, of course – and with rights for women and children, but without unrestricted immigration – okay, it’s a bit of a mishmash, but that’s the general idea.)
In other words, the goal was to return to the past, and restrict the US government to the size and role mandated in the original Constitution. This is not so much a step forward as it is a step backward – an attempt to “rewind the movie” in the hopes of somehow getting a different ending.
In most horror films, some hapless optimist always tells the others: “You go for help, I’ll follow the bloody footprints!” Attempting to return to the original Constitution – especially one that never actually existed – is like starting the movie over so that this time the optimist will not get an ax in the head.
The Backup Story: The Educational Outreach Program?
The failure of the Ron Paul revolution to achieve anything close to electoral success will undoubtedly give rise to a “backup story” which will attempt to reframe the candidacy as some sort of “educational outreach program.” (“Look at the number of people who have been exposed to libertarian ideas through Ron Paul! A presidential campaign provides unparalleled access to the general media, and the interest in the candidates exposes many new people to the message of freedom!”)
Unfortunately, this position has remained utterly untested, and so remains firmly in the land of vain assertion rather than empirical knowledge. It is certainly true that some people have been exposed to certain kinds of libertarian ideals through the Ron Paul campaign – but it is equally true that many people have been turned off libertarianism through exactly the same campaign. Secular thinkers scorn Ron Paul’s fundamentalist Christianity and rejection of evolution. Advocates of multiculturalism and visible minorities thoroughly dislike his attacks on illegal immigrants. Many women fear his approach to abortion; poverty advocates fear his approach to the welfare state – the list goes on and on.
The central question then remains – what is it about Ron Paul message that has drawn some people towards his brand of libertarianism? Is it his rational and consistent arguments from first principles? Of course not – he has made no such arguments whatsoever. Thus people must be drawn to his positions for emotional reasons – they are not swayed by the rational truth of his propositions, but rather because those propositions mesh with particular biases they hold already, such as a dislike of the federal government, a fear of illegal immigration, a frustration with taxation or the invasion of Iraq and so on.
This is not the spread of philosophical knowledge, but rather the exploitation and exacerbation of already-existing biases.
It is fundamentally impossible to call this progress.
To the untutored, an obvious inconsistency in one area of a thinker’s philosophy implies inconsistencies in other, less familiar areas. As a strong atheist, if I knew nothing about Dr. Paul’s positions on economics, I would look at his views on evolution and note that they were utterly untutored and incorrect.
If a thinker is incorrect in topics that I know something about, I am not likely to grant him credibility in topics that I know little to nothing about.
Thus while it is certainly true that some people have been emotionally drawn to Dr. Paul’s brand of libertarianism, it is equally true that many others have been driven away, never to return to libertarianism of any kind. There is no way to know for sure which way the pendulum has swung overall, but we can be certain that the more critical thinkers have kept their distance, while the more superstitious, emotional and credulous have not.
Thus reframing Dr. Paul’s candidacy as an “educational outreach program” does not transform his failure into a success. First of all, people primarily donated to his campaign because they wanted him to be elected president, not because they wanted him to educate other people about libertarianism. Secondly, the number of compromises required to sustain a political campaign dilute principled libertarianism into a kind of xenophobic nostalgia-for-a-country-that-never-was. If you can only access a widespread audience by saying things that are not true, you are doing far more harm than good.
Information Versus Propaganda
Particularly in economics, libertarianism has always had the best arguments. Over 300 years ago, Adam Smith clinched the case for free trade in “The Wealth of Nations” – today, we have less free trade than his contemporaries.
If a superior argument has failed to win for several hundred years, simply repeating that argument and hoping for a different outcome is an act of rank foolishness and self-willed blindness.
The greatest tragedy of libertarianism is that we continue to pursue the course of intellectual arguments, despite the clear and empirical fact that intellectual arguments do not carry the day.
Libertarian economics and political theories may be right, but the simple truth is that they are not effective. Coffee table conversations about free trade, property rights and the gold standard have done nothing to reverse the accelerating growth of state power – yet still, that is the approach taken by almost all libertarians. Debating, arguing, reasoning, citing facts – these are all empty intellectual exercises, which do nothing to advance the cause of liberty.
Libertarianism as we know it was born over 300 years ago – slightly after the scientific and medical revolutions. When we compare the progress of libertarianism to science and medicine, it is clear just how dismal our advance has been. Other rational disciplines have made staggering leaps forward, transforming the world in unimagined ways – while we continue to repeat the same stale and ineffective arguments that do not work and think that we are somehow changing the world.
Thus libertarianism has for hundreds of years sought to advance its agenda through education and political action. Indeed, such is the paucity of imagination within our movement that if we were somehow barred from pursuing either education or political action, we would literally have no idea what to do.
(In my podcast series at Freedomain Radio, I talk about the “third way” of advancing the cause of personal and political liberty. To be clear, I view this “third way” as the only way.)
Ron Paul and Closure
I have had my disagreements with Ron Paul supporters – and the Ron Paul candidacy in general – going back over a year, but I think that the time has now come to praise these starry-eyed political activists.
Throwing all of your energies behind a cause is incredibly liberating – because, if that cause does not work, you can at least get closure.
If you are in a bad marriage, where you fight constantly, then it is usually a good idea to do everything that you can to try and save that marriage. You should read books on how to communicate better, go to marriage counseling, strain every muscle and fiber to improve the relationship.
If, after months or years of working as hard as possible to improve your marriage, your marriage is still fractious and unhappy, you can at least walk away from it without regret, knowing that there is nothing more you could have done to change that outcome.
There is a kind of peace that comes from giving it your all, which libertarianism as a movement has gained from the highly committed focus of all of the Ron Paul supporters.
If the Ron Paul candidacy had received only a few hundred thousand dollars in donations, then the “answer” to the question of why his candidacy failed would be: “Because we didn’t have enough money.” If only a few volunteers had shown up to lick envelopes, make phone calls and pound lawn signs, then the candidacy would have failed because, “We didn’t have enough manpower.” If Ron Paul had been shut out of all of the major debates, his failures would have been blamed on a lack of media exposure.
However, none of those conditions arose – Ron Paul had access to tens of millions of dollars, tens of thousands of volunteers, many hours of mainstream media coverage – and unprecedented access to potential voters through blogs, podcasts, e-mails, videos and so.
Thus the intense and unwavering efforts of his supporters have removed all of the obvious reasons as to why his candidacy failed. No one can now seriously argue that if Ron Paul had only had another few million dollars, or another few hundred volunteers, he would have made it to the White House.
Thus, since the single greatest chance that libertarianism ever had – and will ever have – to achieve freedom through political activism and education – has utterly failed, we can now turn our attention towards how we can actually succeed.
What Went Wrong
The central problem with the Ron Paul candidacy can be summed up by a two sentence exchange that the congressman had with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”.
Ron Paul said that the government did everything badly, and that everything should be privatized. Jon Stewart asked if that included the military. “Oh no!” exclaimed Dr. Paul.
There you have it, in a nutshell.
Propaganda is by its nature highly inconsistent – if it were consistent, it would be science, philosophy or just truth.
Citizens have been conditioned by statist propaganda for many, many years by the time they become politically active. They are able to hold opposing Orwellian “doublethink” principles without even noticing the inconsistencies. “The government that steals half my property at gunpoint is designed to protect my property” and so on.
Propaganda feels consistent to people, because it is consistent with the propaganda that everyone else believes. The only way to oppose propaganda is through complete consistency. The moment that inconsistent principles arise in any philosophy that opposes the general mythology of society, that opposing philosophy will inevitably fail. (We have seen the same phenomenon with Objectivism, the philosophy that utterly opposed the initiation of the use of force, but then supported the existence of a government.)
Thus when a libertarian candidate shows rank inconsistency within the first few seconds of a debate, the average audience member rolls his eyes and discounts the libertarian position. He says to himself: “Well, clearly libertarianism has nothing to do with intellectual consistency, and so it is in no way fundamentally different from the mainstream positions. Now, I can see that enormous difficulties will arise in my life if I accept the libertarian position, since I will become baffling and annoying to almost everyone I know. Thus, since the mainstream positions and the libertarian position both involve inconsistency, I might as well choose the inconsistency that is more comfortable.”
If you want to sell a product on the intellectual marketplace, it either needs to be highly beneficial or highly consistent. (Unfortunately, it cannot be both in our world as it stands.)
Highly beneficial beliefs are those that ease social interactions with those around you, or help advance your intellectual career. Highly consistent beliefs do quite the opposite – they irritate others, and tend to stall intellectual careers.
When the choice is between a highly advantageous inconsistent position (Republican/Democrat), and a highly disadvantageous inconsistent position (Libertarian), how many people will choose the latter?
Well, as we have seen from the numbers, all too few.
Consistency and Integrity
Libertarianism – even the economic aspects – is fundamentally based upon moral principles such as property rights and the universal validity of the nonaggression principle.
The only way that we can bring freedom to this world is to live by valid moral principles. Since taxation is the initiation of the use of force, then those who advocate taxation are either ignorant of its evil, or evil themselves.
Thus our first goal must be to educate people on the immorality of the system that we live in. However, libertarianism has for 300 years gotten stuck in a “broken record” repetition of its first five minutes. After communicating to people the basic reality that taxation is evil, libertarians then just repeat that argument – and a thousand others – without ever acting on that belief.
If you truly believe that taxation is evil, then those who advocate taxation – the initiation of force against you – are evil. If taxation is evil, but those who advocate it are not, then belief and action become completely disconnected, and ethics cease to exist.
A child is not a Nazi if he cheers Hitler while knowing nothing of Hitler’s policies and actions. A man becomes a Nazi when he cheers Hitler while knowing what Hitler thinks and does. In the same way, a person is not evil if he advocates taxation without understanding the moral evil of taxation – however, the moment that he understands this evil, he becomes responsible for his advocacy.
What do libertarians do when they tell someone that taxation is evil, and that person continues to advocate taxation?
Why, in general, they either repeat the argument, or switch to the evils of welfare, the war on drugs, the Patriot Act, the war on terror, fiat currency, public education and so on.
The most basic inconsistency in libertarianism is that morality is considered both essential and immaterial. It is essential, because it underpins the entire philosophy – it is immaterial, however, in that libertarians continue to associate with people that they define as evil.
If you define a man as evil, and you continue to associate with him – whether he is your brother, father, friend or whatever – then all your words and speeches and ethical theories amount to less than nothing.
This is why I say that education and political activism will never advance the cause of libertarianism one single inch.
Freedom will advance only when we act with integrity in our personal relationships – when we reject those we define as evil.
As libertarians, we expect people to accept wrenching changes in their lives as a result of our philosophy. We expect public sector employees to switch over to the private sector. We expect drug enforcement agents to lose their entire careers. We expect corporate participants in the military-industrial complex to accept catastrophic downsizing. We expect people trapped in the quicksand of the welfare state to claw their way out. We expect a decommissioned soldier to make the transition to a civilian life, even if he wants to spend the rest of his career in the military. We expect those who exploit the existing system – the financiers, politicians and state-protected unions – to give up their inflated profits.
We expect so much from everyone else – and so little from ourselves.
“You should give up your lucrative and comfortable public sector position,” we say, “though I will not give up spending time with my cousin who supports the war in Iraq.”
“You should give up your war profiteering,” we say to mercantilist corporations, “though I will continue to party with my friends who fully support the state pointing its guns at my head.”
Is it any wonder that the Ron Paul revolution could never have succeeded?
Is it any wonder that for the past few hundred years, libertarianism has made virtually no progress whatsoever?
The answer is very, very simple.
If we want to free the world, we have to stop lecturing others about our ethics, and start living them ourselves.
If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine of course – but if you don’t want to live your ethics, can you do the rest of us a favour please?
Please – just stop talking about “ethics,” and thus discrediting those of us who are actually trying to make a difference.