Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Walter Block and Libertarian Orthodoxy

(via The Liberty Papers)

Doug Mataconis drew my attention to this column from a few weeks back by Walter Block, arguing that support for Ron Paul is a litmus test for libertarians. Block's argument is absurd in many ways and thoroughly unconvincing. He makes several points as to why he finds several objections to the litmus test false:

1. Anarcho-capitalists who are morally opposed to voting. He claims that Ron Paul's platform undermines their reason for not voting since he would actually decrease the size of government; therefore it is morally imperative for them to support a politician who would help them achieve their goals. I am not an anarcho-capitalist, so I will just link to Wendy McElroy's impassioned response to Block on this issue, which shows that he clearly misrepresented the anarcho-capitalist position on voting and thus his "litmus test" cannot apply to them.

2. Libertarians opposed to Paul's position on immigration and abortion (he leaves out libertarians who won't support him for his position on Lawrence v. Texas). He argues that since these are not settled issues amongst libertarians, they are invalid grounds for opposition to Ron Paul. This argument is utterly fallacious. While libertarians do disagree on these two issues (more on abortion than immigration, I think, since the abortion issue comes down to a factual disagreement rather than an ideological one, to wit the moment when life begins), individual libertarians place different priorities on these issues. Even if the issues were "settled" in Paul's favor, this would not make libertarians who differed un-libertarian- the right to question conventional wisdom is an essential element of libertarianism. More discussion below on this topic.

3. The Randy Barnett test, which amounts to pointing out that support of an otherwise clear libertarian who is pro-war would not be regarded as a litmus test issue by most libertarians. Block argues that Barnett's position on the war is a deviation from settled libertarian orthodoxy, whereas Paul's deviations are on unsettled issues. This is quite disingenuous- while I do not agree with Barnett's opposition to the Iraq War, his basis for supporting the war is consistent with libertarian principles (ie, self-defense) even though he is clearly wrong on the facts. Still, in my mind the issue of war is no more or less settled than the issue of immigration (which I do think is more settled than Block acknowledges).

4. The fact that Ron Paul has no chance of winning. Block argues, quite implausibly that Paul can win. The subsequent results in NH and Iowa have demonstrated this.

5. "Ron Paul isn't cool." Here Block creates a massive straw man of opposition, putting words in Brink Lindsey's mouth. In reality, Lindsey was strongly hinting at the problems of Paul's Old Right connections, pointing out that Paul is not representative of many libertarians, especially younger ones.

6. Fred Thompson is the "real" libertarian. Again, he creates a straw man, misrepresenting the position of two Cato Institute fellows who simply argued that Thompson is more of a small government conservative than the other Republicans running for President on economic issues. Both fellows acknowledged Paul, but seem to have simply regarded Paul as unlikely to win and thus not an appropriate subject for comparison.

Anyways, I wanted to go back to Block's arguments on the immigration and abortion questions, which I find to be quite insulting and, dare I say, collectivist. He leaves out the gay rights issue (probably because it is not an area of serious disagreement among libertarians), but gay rights fall under the same rubric for my purposes. The big problem is that he seems to think that libertarians are bad libertarians if they make "unsettled" libertarian issues a higher priority than "settled" libertarian issues (as defined by Block- in my mind, few issues are truly settled as defining one's libertarianism- it's more an issue of foundational principles).

As I wrote at the Liberty Papers:

Ron Paul's position on immigration alone is probably enough for some libertarians to find another candidate preferable. It all depends on the issue which is your top priority, and how much more a priority it is than your other issues.

For me, it's a pretty high priority- I view the freedom of movement as one of, if not the, most important freedom of all, and immigration is a key factor in terms of human rights (fleeing REAL oppression and poverty) and economic freedoms (the right to hire who you wish), and in my opinion is one of the most important elements of a stable economy. I think this is especially true if you're going to be a non-interventionist who thinks we should stay out of other countries' affairs partly on the grounds that residents of those countries have a right to choose their own destiny. You can't make that claim and then limit the ability of some of those people to choose their own destiny by moving to another country.

Paul's nativism on that issue was the first thing that made me start second-guessing my support for him; alone it wasn't enough to get me to withdraw my support for him, but it was a huge first strike. Additionally, the freedom to engage in consensual sexual relations is a fundamental freedom, and his opposition to Lawrence v. Texas is a major strike against him as well in my book.

Certainly, I think it's tough to argue that the gold standard/Federal Reserve are more important issues than either of those two things.
While those two issues alone weren't enough for me to withdraw my support (my top priority initially was the Iraq War and his position on the WO(s)D was a major plus), I don't think anyone could have justly accused me of being irrational if I had withdrawn my support on those grounds.

...And that's the problem with libertarian orthodoxy- Paul has some very un-libertarian positions on some issues that many libertarians correctly view as extremely important. On those issues, he's not only un-libertarian, but actually worse for libertarians than people like John McCain and Barack Obama, even Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton (as much as I fear those last two!). And let's not forget Bill Richardson before he dropped out (Edwards I'm not as sure about). Hell- even Huckabee is better than Paul on immigration, if that's your top priority.
To make Paul a litmus test on libertarianism is to say that libertarians must subsume the issues most important to them (qua libertarians) "for the greater good." That is collectivism at its worst.