Thursday, January 10, 2008

Looking at the Dark Side

One good thing that may come from the fallout from the Ron Paul mess is that many of the long-time movement libertarians are coming clean about what has been a dark underbelly of the libertarian history. I say this is good because it allows people like me who are new to the movement (if not the broader philosophy) to understand more about the movement's history, its dark side, and the longstanding schism between the cosmopolitan elements of the movement and the Old Right so-called paleo-libertarians. More importantly, it is good because these long-time cosmopolitan libertarians are telling us that although the paleos have made important contributions, they do not and cannot define libertarianism, and indeed never have. We are learning that many of these people did not sit passively by and tacitly approve of the nativist and racist sentiments coming from this group.

Perhaps they could have done more to stop it at the time- but that is far beyond the scope of my knowledge. As Ron Paul rose last year with the close help of the paleos, they probably should have done more to at least sound the warning bell more explicitly to those of us who are relatively new to the movement. For the most part, though, those recent errors of omission are forgivable- many had already distanced themselves from the paleos, others tried to raise the alarm more subtly, and still others perhaps thought that things had changed or that Paul's status as a peace candidate outweighed his affiliation with the darker side of the movement. Whatever the case may be, the old-time cosmopolitans are standing up for what libertarianism could and should be about, saying quite strongly "not in our name." They are largely advocating a deep self-examination by the cosmopolitan libertarian movement about its relationship, however uncomfortable, with its Old Right brethren. They want to know why our philosophy attracts so many neo-Confederates and die-hard conspiracy theorists.

Below are some of the most insightful pieces and excerpts I have found discussing libertarianism's past, present and future, and the role of the Old Right in that past, present, and future. Some are from old-time cosmopolitan libertarians, some from newer libertarians, and one or two from other sources. Each article or post is worth reading in full. (UPDATE: For the record, my views on the topic are here).

Prof. Steven Horwitz (who has previously expressed these types of concerns about the Paul campaign):

Those of us who have been paying attention knew of Ron Paul’s first or second-hand association with all of these groups and we knew their odious ideas. We knew that people like Lew Rockwell were long-time associates of Ron Paul’s and thus the recent speculation that his pen is prominent in those nasty newsletters comes as no surprise as well.
I hope this causes libertarians who are rightly horrified by the bad stuff in those newsletters to wake the hell up and realize the ways in which this nastiness has infected parts of the movement over the last 15 years or so. Read what Right Watch and Palmer have documented and decide for yourself if those people and organizations represent the ideas that attracted you to libertarianism and the Paul campaign.

Radley Balko:

The 1990s is not "ancient history." We were by then well past the point in American history where the kind of racism and bigotry present in those articles had any place in civil discourse. I simply can't imagine seeing any piece of paper go out under my name that included sympathetic words for David Duke. That a newsletter with Paul's name did just that demands an explanation from Paul. The "I've answered that in the past" reply isn't sufficient. You're running for president, now. You have a national platform. You've been an ambassador for libertarian ideas on Colbert, the Daily Show, Meet the Press, and Jay Leno. That you've provided a brief explanation for some of these passages a decade ago during a little-noticed congressional campaign doesn't cut it. No one was paying attention then. Just about everyone is now.

Megan McCardle:
It kind of doesn't matter what he actually believes. A number of libertarians have argued that Dr. Paul is obviously not a racist because he has so many other crazy ideas that if he did hold repulsive racial views, he would have aired those too. I find this pretty unconvincing. Since my blog brought me out of the closet, pretty much everyone I know is aware that I think we should privatize Social Security, eliminate most forms of government spending, get rid of the corporate income tax, legalize heroin, etc. etc. Almost all of them think I am crazy. But they still associate with me. I myself am friends with at least one person who claims to be an actual communist, and doesn't suffer socially for it. However, if either of us started saying "You know, the real problem with America is race-mixing" that would clearly put us in an entirely different category of crazy loon: the kind you shun.

But regardless of whether he believes the things he wrote, we punish people (socially) for enabling racism. Dr. Paul should be abandoned because that is how American society, and the libertarian movement, says: "Helping racists publish
their nastygrams is totally legal, but it's not ok."

Ross Douthat:

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 ...

Timothy Sandefur:

I would like to see the libertarian community as a body repudiate the Lew Rockwellers entirely. They are not libertarians, they are paleo-conservatives
who do not share our primary concern with individual liberty and constitutionalism. Ultimately they lack a grounded perspective on what liberty means and why it is important. Their moral and cultural relativism, their traditionalism and their alliances (both intellectual and strategic) with southern-style paleo-cons have misled them in many ways. They are stasists; we are dynamists. We are a
variety of liberal
, they are old-fashioned conservatives who believe in “popular sovereignty,” oppose judicial independence, think states should be free to violate individual liberty without federal intervention, and that foreign dictators should be able to tyrannize without hearing complaints from the United States. These guys are the creationists of the libertarian movement, and we would all be much better off slamming the doors on them entirely.
Unfortunately, the down side to that is that they are a very large part of the contemporary libertarian community—so large that this is probably not possible as a practical matter. Given that reality we ought to at least make it a point to be as honest as possible about these two camps and as clear as possible about who belongs in which. We should prevail upon our leading intellectuals to make their positions clear on these matters and, if they take the wrong side, we should make our judgments as clear as possible.

Tim Cavanaugh:

But it's weird that a philosophy of non-aggression, ownership of self and property, individual choice, free trade and so on is so attractive to people whose greatest passsion is arguing that Abraham Lincoln was the foulest butcher in American history, that black people are stupider than white people, that Mexicans are naturally inclined to favor a welfare state, that our culture is being undermined by the feminization of boys, and so on.
I don't say these ideas have no place in libertarianism, an essential ingredient of which is not fearing either questions or answers. I do think the focus on so many of the Old Right's hobbyhorses crowds out much of what's more interesting (and certainly more marketable) in the philosophy. Postrel and Nick Gillespie were both skillful at steering Reason through more interesting territory, and I expect Matt Welch will continue that course. But as Ron Paul is not easily disowned, I think it's worth taking a look at the Old Right fellow travelers, if only to note where they are right and where they are (much more frequently) wrong.

Wirkman Virkkala:
Frankly, I had forgotten about most of this old “Ron Paul” bigotry. I mean, one reason for my tepid-at-first enthusiasm for the recent Paul outing was, after all, his old connection with Murray Rothbard, whose influence on the libertarian movement I regarded as poison. And Lew Rockwell, whose influence on Murray Rothbard I regarded as poison in double dose.
And it does go deep. Right down into the vile maw of Paleolibertarianism, the strange stance of anti-statist class warfare and out-group hate.
So blame me. Don’t blame Virginia. Don’t blame Reason. Blame all us old
guys who heard the gossip about the Rockwell-Rothbard alliance. Blame the late
Bill Bradford, who heard all this first hand. Or not. Realize that we opposed this nonsense at the time. At least I did, as much as I could in print.

Other worthwhile posts: Jim Henley, To The People (and also here, more in their typical good-humored style). And probably dozens more I haven't found yet.