Paradoxically, Ron Paul's Success Proving the Irrelevance of Libertarianism
Political space is non-Euclidean. Take directions from people to keep heading Left, and you eventually find yourself in territory that looks uncannily Right.
Sampling the pond life of left-wing student politics in my college days, I learned that the furthest Left you could get was the anarchists. Here is the definition of "anarchism" from Webster's Third:
a political theory opposed to all forms of government and governmental restraint and advocating voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups in order to satisfy their needs
Got that? Here, from the same source, is the definition of "libertarian." Angle brackets are for an illustrative quotation:
one who upholds the principle of liberty; specif : one who upholds the principles of individual liberty of thought and action 〈private judgment and constitutional authority … authoritarians have left but little scope for the former, ∼s would always cut down the latter to the smallest proportions — C.H. McIlwain〉
The entry for "libertarianism" actually includes a quote from Norman Thomas:
the theories or practices of a libertarian 〈a new and extreme ∼ arising which … goes almost to the length of anarchy in rejecting any state — Norman Thomas〉
There is of course a difference of sensibility between the anarchist and the libertarian, resting mainly in the anarchist being hostile to money, private property, and markets, while the libertarian does not object to those things, but only wants them freed from state interference. Your anarchist believes that private property is the enemy of liberty; your libertarian, that it is liberty's guarantor.
Going down a level, anarchism belongs on the Left because it posits human perfectibility — the notion that if only the human personality were not deformed by the need to submit to authority, and to practice acquisitiveness for survival, it would be nothing but sweetness and light, nothing but selfless forbearance and a willingness to cooperate with others.
By the same token, libertarianism belongs on the Right because libertarianism takes human beings as they are, at least to the degree of acknowledging their acquisitive competitiveness. While not ruling out enlightenment through improved understanding, libertarianism does not seek to perfect us.
In its own way, though, libertarianism is as disdainful of our lower natures as is anarchism. Nine years ago I reviewed a book by Virginia Postrel, who was editor of Reason magazine, our chief libertarian periodical. The book was better than the average poli-sci tract, but I became aware, reading it, of a big human-nature-shaped hole in Ms. Postrel's schema. I concluded my review thus:
The Future and Its Enemies, though very worthy in itself, left me feeling glum. We are not short of books advocating liberty, wealth creation and open-mindedness. What we are short of is any large public sentiment in favor of those things. I agree with Ms. Postrel that we currently have too many laws, and way too many lawyers; but how many of our fellow citizens are of the same mind? In the recent elections in my state, one of the candidates for the U.S. Senate boasted — boasted! in paid ads on prime-time TV! — that he was a man with "a passion to legislate". He won handily.
In fact the forward-thrusting "dynamists" of the present-day libertarian imagination are as far from actual humanity as the happily cooperative kibbutzniks of anarchist fantasy. They exist, of course, just as good kibbutzniks do; but there aren't a lot of them, and Postrelian libertarianism is no prescription for any social unit bigger than a software start-up. Modern libertarianism (there is a bit more to say about the older kind) is in fact a geek fad, a head game for high-IQ bourgeois types.
This shows up all over. Cast your eye down the list of 35 Heroes of Freedom that Reason published in December 2003. The beautiful, cultivated, and accomplished Ilana Mercer says what needs to be said about it here. Or check in with the open-borders über-libertarians at The Wall Street Journal. Borders? Nation-states? Race? Ethnicity? Tribe? Faith? Pfui! Just open up those borders and let economics work its magic! We'll all get on just fine! — like, you know, Hutus and Tutsis, Sunnis and Shias, Serbs and Croats, Prods and Taigs.
Right. These guys make Prince Kropotkin look like a hard-boiled cynic.
And yet, of course, both anarchists and libertarians have got hold of an essential truth: too much government is bad for ya. It is only that they have put that truth in the service of false ideas about human nature. Both groups are disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — all-time winner, in my opinion, of the title "Person We Should Most Wish Had Been Strangled In His Cradle." If not for the corrupting effects of industrial capitalism, said the anarchists, we would be kindly, non-acquisitive cooperators. If not for the corrupting effects of bureaucratic welfarism, says the libertarian, we would be rational economic competitors. We are of course both things, all of us, some of the time; but there's a deal of mischief in that "some." The notion of innate kindly cooperativeness has taken a beating from the anthropologists; the notion of rational competitiveness, from the psychologists.
Hence the libertarian disdain for Ron Paul's campaign. The geeky idealists of Reason and the Cato Institute have failed to warm to Paul; or, having warmed to him, have quickly cooled again, finding that he fails to meet their standards of ideological purity. Not only does he want to defend the nation's borders, he has been running TV ads against birthright citizenship! — as if a genuine libertarian gives a fig for such antique concepts as "citizenship." Paul is willing to let the welfare state wind down, fulfilling its commitments to senior citizens. Worse yet, Paul seems to have associated with people, fifteen or twenty years ago, who thought that we were all better off when homosexuals had to be discreet, and that black Americans are prone to civil disorder, and that Martin Luther King was a philandering plagiarist, and that the Confederacy had a right to secede from the Union, and that the Korean storekeepers of Los Angeles behaved in true American spirit when they defended their property with guns against rioters. People really seem to have believed such things! And Paul gave them space in his newsletters! Euiw!
Never mind that, as the lovely Ms. Mercer points out, Paul is
a man who's led an exemplary life — has served his country and community, stayed married to his childhood sweetheart for 50 odd years, and is as devout a Christian as he is a constitutionalist. It's not easy to impugn this impish, good-natured man, so mudslinging becomes a must.
And so libertarianism marches forward with its band playing ("Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart," perhaps) and its banners held high, all blazoned with images of heroes — Larry Flynt! Madonna! Dennis Rodman! — and affirmations of undying political correctness … straight into the Swamp of Irrelevance, just like the anarchists of old.