Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Gone fishin'

Expect posting to be much lighter than the hardly-heavy-anyways pace around here through April. Two brand new classes, one an introduction to political ethics and one a foundations of Europe grad seminar, combined with trips roughly every three weeks and a new paper due roughly every month, will keep me plenty busy.

In the meantime, in case anyone cares, I'm basically in the neighborhood of Virginia Postrel on Ron Paul. [Update: And also Steven Horwitz: "those of us who have been paying attention to the libertarian movement for the last 15 years knew that the paleo element was growing and was associated with all kinds of unsavory views from the ugly segment of the hard right;" and Will Wilkinson.] I was an RP volunteer in 1988 as an overeager young Libertarian (met him, brought him to speak at my NH high school), and even then I got the creeps from some of the surrounding cultural baggage. Even apart from basic policy disagreements with his positions on abortion and immigration, I had a general unease about the anti-Fed, anti-banking, anti-cosmopolitan stuff. I ended up on RP mailing lists for a long time after that (never got the newsletter, which was expensive, but I got a lot of solicitations to subscribe to it), and became more and more uneasy though it no longer mattered. Then over the course of the 90s the split between Reason/ Cato/ urban liberal libertarians and Mises Institute/ Rockwellite/ Confederatista libertarians became public and hardened, and it was very clear to me both which side I was on and how unsavory I found much of what went on in the latter group. (See Tom Palmer's occasional blogging abou "the fever swamp.") And Ron Paul was always clearly part of that group, with its various flirtations with racism and anti-Semitism and its sometimes quite open homophobia. I have friends who are decent people who work with the Mises Institute and think it's philosophically pure whereas the Cato crowd has gone squishy in the search for respectability. But I've never quite understood how they can find it a comfortable milieu. (Incidentally, driving a wedge between libertarianism rightly-understood-as-far-as-I'm-concerned and the Confederatistas is part of the project of my article Federalism and the Old and New Liberalisms.)

So I've watched the Ron Paul phenomenon with ambivalence. When he'd tack to the cultural right on abortion and immigration it was easy for me to say "he's always been part of the unsavory right-wing crowd anyway." When he'd emphasize his crackpot monetary theories (ably dissected by a more-patient-than-I Megan McCardle), he was easy to ignore. When he'd instead act as the spokesman for the indictment of the Bush administration as a power-hungry big-spending Constitution-shredding machine, and for a promise to move toward much smaller government at home combined with opposition to the war, it was much harder. I want and wanted that viewpoint to be an important one in American politics, and RP was building excitement for it even if it was largely by other people's ability to project onto him. I never supported him and wouldn't have wanted him to become President, but it still seemed like good news that the segment of the electorate who was enthusiastic about him could be organized, assembled, and heard.

As others have said: I have no reason to think that RP is personally a racist and I believe him when he said he didn't write that awful stuff. (Link is, of course, to the TNR article by James Kirchik, whose character and intelligence had been subject to relentlessly, er, less-than-complimentary treatment at the hands of progressive bloggers until yesterday; now apparently all is forgiven or forgotten.) On the other hand, his name was appealing to a constituency that was also appealed to by that stuff. He drew from a part of the libertarian movement where the ghost-writers he knew to hire were people like Lew Rockwell. And he let it go out under his name, for a long time. That's plenty bad enough.

See also a very sharp post by Ross Douthat:

You know, I half-believe Ron Paul when he says that he is not a bigot or a racist or an anti-Semite. I half-believe him in when he says the inflammatory material that James Kirchick has uncovered in years and years of newsletters and pamphlets with his name on them was written by others without his supervision or direct permission. But what I'm nearly sure of is that he doesn't really care that much if some of the people around him are racists - not because he shares their opinions, but because he thinks those opinions aren't all that important in the grand scheme of things.

This doesn't make Ron Paul a terrible person; it just makes him human. He believes in a constellation of ideas - some of them nutty, but some of them not - that have been shunted to the fringe of American political life. And people who find themselves in that position tend to be far, far more forgiving of their allies' various tics and idiosyncracies and yes, bigotries than would otherwise be the case. It's unfortunate, but it's also human nature: If someone agrees with you and supports you when the whole world seems to be against you, of course you'll be more likely to look past their tendency to suggest that Mossad was behind the 1993 WTC bombing, or their fondness for pre-apartheid South Africa. When you're way out there on the fringe, without any obvious way to reach the mainstream, it's very easy to tell yourself that your dubious friends aren't really all that bad - and that besides, if you ever start finding your way back to the mainstream, it won't be all that hard to jettison them along the way. It's easy, as well, to start making excuses for them: If the mainstream accuses you of anti-Semitism, unfairly, because you're a principled non-interventionist who wants the U.S. to pull out of the Middle East, it's easy to find yourself making excuses for other people who get tarred (more justly) with the label. And then time goes by, the mainstream never gets any closer, you're spending all your time in a cramped and crankish and resentful world, and you hear yourself thinking hey, if these neo-Confederate guys are right about states' rights and the Constitution, then maybe they're right about race too ...

It's the most natural thing in the world. Just ask Sam Francis.

Thus it's to Ron Paul's credit, in a certain way, that he never went as far down this road as Francis and Joe Sobran and others like them did. But it's a shame that some of Paul's ideas have only Paul - with all his baggage, all his own weird and baseless notions, and all his unfortunate friends - as their champion.

and that problem in turn aggravates what Glen Whitman calls the small sample problem.
Given the relative rarity of libertarians, both in the public eye and in general, most people’s judgment of libertarianism will be based on a very small sample – often a sample size of one. If the first libertarian someone meets is a smart, reasonable, decent person, they will come away with a positive impression and possibly a willingness to explore further. If the first libertarian someone meets is a wild-eyed lunatic, on the other hand, they could easily write off libertarianism as the ideology of wild-eyed lunatics.

The Paul candidacy presents a special case of the small-sample problem. For many people, Ron Paul is the first and only libertarian-identified candidate they’ve ever seen receive any serious media attention. As a result, they may assume other libertarians share all of his views. Many libertarians [...] are wary of supporting Paul – even though they probably agree more with Paul than anyone else in the field – because they fear the public will assume that all libertarians are anti-immigrant gold-bug conspiracy theorists (and possible closet racists).

Liberals and conservatives don’t have this problem. Everyone understands that these groups contain a gamut of opinion, with some degree of disagreement on every issue. If one candidate goes off the reservation on one issue or another, there’s no real fear that his position will define the movement forever.