Thursday, January 10, 2008

My Past, Present, and Future as a Libertarian

Although I've identified closely with most libertarian policy views going back to about 1995, I was never what you would call a "movement" libertarian until very recently. For the most part, I had arrived at my libertarian policy views independent of any direct influence from libertarian sources, largely because I was only vaguely aware that there was such thing as a libertarian "movement."

I quickly became concerned about the tone of the Rockwell Brigades towards any dissent whatsoever and in the manner in which they seemed to root for the anti-gay, anti-semitic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But, I had a hard time identifying their core philosophy as being of a piece with my view of libertarianism, which I found quite compatible with the freewheeling debate and commentary at Reason and the sober pragmatism of Cato, among others. It was these institutions that had always been the public face of libertarianism to me, and more than anything it was they who led me into becoming a "movement" libertarian. Because they were the only face of libertarianism of which I had been previously aware, I thought the Rockwell Brigades were very much on the fringe of the libertarian movement. Eventually, I realized that they were a sizable portion of the movement, and that they were largely responsible for attracting the "fellow travelers" that seemed to have no real understanding of libertarianism's fundamental lesson of tolerance.

I also realized that Congressman Paul was uncomfortably close to the Rockwell Brigade portion of the movement; after the last Alex Jones appearance, I even realized that he valued that portion of the movement more than he valued the libertarians who were making calm, reasoned arguments on his behalf. What I did not realize, however, was the extent to which the Rockwell Brigade portion of the movement (aka, the "paleos") was not only attractive to conspiracy theorists and race warriors but actually were conspiracy theorists and race warriors.

I did not realize their history, nor did I realize the size of their portion of the movement. I only knew that their way of doing things was on the whole harmful to libertarianism as I understood it, and - less importantly - harmful to Ron Paul's ability to appeal to a wider audience.

Certainly there were warning signs, but eager for a candidate who seemingly spoke our language on many issues, we largely either ignored them, excused them, and in some cases just denied them. As for me, I stopped excusing Paul with the Alex Jones interview and I was always quite critical of the Rockwell Brigades. I continued to express lukewarm support for Paul, going so far as to reluctantly endorse him for the nomination last month. Although I still feared that Paul's candidacy could be bad for libertarianism because of his close ties to the Rockwell Brigades and Alex Jones, I decided that his campaign had gotten so much publicity that Paul had already become the public face of libertarianism, for better or worse. I believed that, if there were still worse things to come out about Paul, it was already too late to prevent those things from harming the libertarian movement; on the other hand, if nothing worse existed, and the Paul campaign grew, I thought it would be a crucial force in significantly expanding the movement. The campaign in my view became a feast-or-famine issue for libertarianism and as an anti-war protest vote; since I couldn't do anything to prevent a famine, I figured I may as well do my small part to increase the chances for a feast, while continuing to do my best to distinguish between my view of libertarianism and Ron Paul's.

The revelations the other day made the famine a reality. Libertarians will need to re-seed the fields for a future day and hope they grow quickly. Hopefully our most valuable institutions - who made a point to keep the Paul campaign at arms length (with the notable exception of Reason) - will emerge relatively unscathed. More hopefully, the large group of young Paul supporters will retain their interest in libertarianism even as they abandon the Paul campaign. But for the time being, the Paul campaign and the fallout from these revelations will likely make it more difficult than ever to influence the policy decisions of non-libertarians.

Certainly with respect to the Republican Party, our former foster home, that ability is greatly diminished. And we never had much ability to influence the Democratic Party on much of anything, at least with regards to our traditional emphasis on economic policy.

However, the Democratic Party, particularly Senator Obama, is perhaps open to libertarian thought on other policy matters: civil liberties; education reform; foreign and military policy; immigration policy; and executive power, amongst other things (including the War on Drugs). After the Bush years, these issues are more important than they've ever been, and I would argue that they are now even more important than our traditional focus on free market economics. We should also keep in mind that Democratic President Bill Clinton was arguably better for free markets and smaller government than even Reagan.

For the moment, at least, the Democratic Party seems a better home, one which will be less likely to equate us cosmopolitan libertarians with the paleo-libertarians. We should remember that Ron Paul is a Republican, as are, by and large, the Rockwell Brigades. By dissociating with the Republican Party, we are dissociating our happy, optimistic, and humane pro-individual philosophy from the conspiracy obsessed, pessimistic, and (seemingly) bigoted anti-federal philosophy of the paleo-libertarians.

We would do well to remember that arguably the most influential libertarian-ish organization is already associated quite closely with Progressivism (and by implication the Democratic Party): the ACLU (though they have some important policy differences with libertarianism on things like school choice and government regulation of corporations). We should also remember that even on free trade, a majority of Republicans are now against us; we may find Democrats as or more open to free trade arguments, especially as immigrants become an increasingly important part of their base and as the Republicans become more and more in favor of closed borders. After all, immigration is an essential element of a strong free market economy. Immigration restrictions do more than perhaps anything else to restrict the free market in labor, in my opinion the most important market of all.

Milton Friedman famously said that he was a Republican because that was the party where he believed he could have the most influence. With the fallout from the Ron Paul campaign and the recent changes in the Republican Party, I think libertarians may find more common cause and influence within the Democratic Party.