« Ron Paul: digging himself a hole | Main | Just because you like China Miéville's books.... »

Ron Paul's libertarian problem

A few supporters of congressman Ron Paul have discovered and responded to my posts about the libertarian presidential candidate. Since I linked to a popular DailyKos post suggesting that Paul was a racist, the least I can do is to point out two sources suggesting that he isn't -- see this and this.

If you're curious about Paul, read them all for yourself and make up your own mind.

Personally, I doubt that racism can fairly be attributed to Ron Paul.  I don't doubt that some of his supporters are racists -- Clinton and Obama and Giuliani almost certainly have their racist supporters, too -- but Paul seems like too much of a libertarian to be a racist himself.

However, racism is not my biggest problem with Ron Paul.  His libertarianism is.

Look, I don't disagree with libertarians that a large state can be dangerous.  It tries to monopolize the use of force, and its power is so great that it makes good sense to be afraid of it.  Yes, the state can never be compassionate, altruistic, or responsible in anything like the sense that an individual can be.  It's also true that an overly-large state can be an obstacle to responsible stewardship, because it substitutes an individual's direct control over some portion of his assets with a far less-direct political influence over how the state uses those assets that have been confiscated in taxes.

All of that, I get.  Libertarianism and agrarianism together have no use for an overweening, monstrous state.  (If they did, they'd be called "socialism" or "communism.")

But here is where I believe libertarianism and agrarianism part company: libertarianism picks out individual liberty from among the many human goods and holds it up as the preeminent end-in-itself.  Liberty trumps everything else.  Agrarianism holds that individual liberty must be balanced harmoniously with the health of the family, the community, and the place (or "the environment" if you prefer that term).  There is no trump; each conflict between human goods must be evaluated in the context of the particular circumstances applying at that time and place.

For libertarians, the only legitimate reason to constrain an individual's freedom of action is when that action hurts another person.  "Hurting another person" usually amounts to the same thing as reducing another person's freedom.  For the libertarian, this is the ultimate goal.  If there are pleasant side effects, then all the merrier for everyone, but the maximization of liberty is still the goal even if there are no pleasant side effects, or even if the side effects are unpleasant.

You can see this kind of thinking in Paul's response to his critics' charge that he's a racist:

The true antidote to racism is liberty. Liberty means having a limited, constitutional government devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than group claims. Liberty means free-market capitalism, which rewards individual achievement and competence, not skin color, gender, or ethnicity. In a free market, businesses that discriminate lose customers, goodwill, and valuable employees – while rational businesses flourish by choosing the most qualified employees and selling to all willing buyers.
I'm not a racist, argues Paul, because I'd never advocate using the power of the state to constrain an individual's freedom because of their race.  The true libertarian cannot be a racist because racial discrimination conflicts with the ultimate goal of maximizing freedom.

Paul also claims that there are pleasant side effects when individuals are given the maximum amount of freedom possible, namely that racism withers away in an environment where the free market "rewards individual achievement and competence, not skin color, gender, or ethnicity."  David Bernstein's comments on this view demonstrate how myopic it is.  Paul, like many other libertarians, cannot account for private racism because of his idealized and fictional view of how the market works unencumbered by the state.  Whether anything about libertarianism compels this fictional view of the market is an interesting question.  But that's not the point here.

The point is that even if you were to convince Paul that this pleasant side effect of free market economics won't pan out, this wouldn't be sufficient in itself to change Paul's opposition to any state-organized efforts to fight racism.  Because Paul is a libertarian, you'd have to convince him that that racism has limited people's liberty to a greater extent than it would be limited by government intervention.  Goal #1, liberty, must be maximized at all costs, even if those costs include the indignity of overt racism, or racism's destructive effects on the community, or its harm to the non-human environment (if any).

Ditto for any other government policy -- environmental, financial, military.  And ditto for any level of government. The libertarian doesn't care whether the constraints on an individual's liberty comes from the U.N. or the feds or the state or the town council.  All of these are "collectivist" and as such are a potential enemy of freedom.

In fact, from an agrarian perspective, libertarianism's fatal weakness is that it's an industrial, one-size-fits-all ideology.  It's "industrial" because it claims to be applicable universally, in every time and place.  When libertarians make universal claims for the primacy of individual freedom over other human goods, they're ignoring local variations of opinion and taste much the same way the neocons ignored these things when they argued for invading Iraq.

Agrarians should also reject libertarianism because it reduces the complex features of a good human life to just one of those factors: liberty.  This is analogous to the difference between agrarian agriculture and industrial agriculture, where the latter reduces a complex activity dependent on a keen awareness of local variation to just three things: phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium.  The failings of this reductivist approach to agriculture are clearly described by Michael Pollan in his Omnivore's Dilemma, and are recognized by successful farmers who reject the industrial model, like Joel Salatin.

Sure, the government might be "too big" right now. But the libertarian's answer to this problem is akin to the guy with the arthritic knee who says to himself, "if one Tylenol is good for my knee, the whole bottle of pills ought to be really great."  That's the kind of guy that dies of liver failure.  We may be choking on bureaucracy, but the libertarian's enthusiasm for the opposite extreme ought to scare us a little.


"Sure the government may be too big right now...." why don't you just stop right there? Everything you said after that was really poor thinking. You are scared and that may account for your vacancy. Maybe you'll never study the Federalist papers and you'll be scared for the rest of your life.

Hi.I came back to point you toward a new site that I just came across.
and found your new post. Unfortunately, right now I don't have time to read it as carefully as it deserves, much less commment in full. But I will take time to say that I do believe there is nothing in libertarianism that precludes communitarianism. Yes, for many of us who support Dr. Paul, there are many other concerns that we have, many different goals and ends (different ones for different people) that are not directly addressed by libertarianism. Environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture are two of mine. I intend to keep addressing and supporting those concerns, and freely associating with others who share my concerns and are also working toward them. What more freedom and less government will allow me to do in relation to that is to freely give more of my resources to those ends, and I hope to be able to address them without being dictated to by a government which does not know or care about, much less love my land or my neighborhood. I believe Wendell Berry has described himself as an anarchist, and certainly Edward Abbey was one unapologetically. (Interesting that you find the less extreme individualism of libertarianism suspect, while elevating Berry and Abbey.) I would prefer to be an anarchist, too, in an ideal world. But I know that, in a world full of other potential anarchists, if I don't choose a form of government, either one would evolve and be imposed on me, or the lack of rule of law would allow some warlord or gang to overpower me. And that brings us to the Constitution again. Minimal government, and rule of law, balanced. Libertarian. That's as far as I'll willilngly go when it comes to being ruled by a state. Will society be perfect in my eyes, even if this model is followed to the letter? No. Not by a long shot. There will be problems it does not address, concerns that are out of its scope, conflicts with other people's interests that must be resolved, and work that will need to be done by means it does not (and should not) possess. (See "Blessed Unrest" by Paul Hawken for ways people can approach work like this by self-reliant means.) Community will be essential.I will be a member of many overlapping communities, and I will be constrained by many relationships and responsibilities. But I will consider myself free, in a way I don't find possible now. Afterthought--you might also find this commentary by an acquaintance of mine, and the comments on it, interesting. (Obviously, in my own comment I made an assumption that you have shown me was unwarranted, but anyway..)http://thepimmgroup.org/?p=73#comments

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)