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A Libertarian’s Lament: Why Ron Paul Is an Embarrassment to the Creed

I don't put much stock in politicians, so I've only twice donated to political campaigns. In 2006, I tossed a few dollars at the Democrat running for Senate against the loathsome Rick Santorum. It could have been a three-headed goat, for all I cared, but Wikipedia says it was Bob Casey. (You're welcome, Bob.) And late in 2007, I gave $50 to Ron Paul. I was working at the time for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, but it wasn't that I had any plans on voting for him. I liked the congressman’s anti-war rants in the 2007 GOP debates, not least because they made Rudy Giuliani delightfully apoplectic. So I chipped in.

Paul’s candidacy that year, as we all know, didn’t lead him to the White House or anywhere close. But he evidently wasn’t discouraged. Four years later, Paul is not only back on the campaign trail, he's doing better than ever in the polls. And I'll admit I still vibrate happily to his indignant disquisitions on foreign policy. (Why shouldn't Iran have nukes!) I just can't get myself to regret that $50 when I hear him say "blowback" in the vicinity of Mitt Romney.

Yet it irks me that, as far as most Americans are concerned, Ron Paul is the alpha and omega of the libertarian creed. If you were an evil genius determined to promote the idea that libertarianism is a morally dubious ideology of privilege poorly disguised as a doctrine of liberation, you'd be hard pressed to improve on Ron Paul.

Much of Paul's appeal comes from the impression he conveys of principled ideological coherence. Other Republican presidential aspirants are transparently pandering grab-bags of incoherent compromise. Ron Paul presents himself as a man of conviction devoted to liberty, plain and simple, who follows logic's lead and tells it plain. The problem is, often he’s not.

According to Paul's brand of libertarianism the inviolability of private property is the greater part of liberty. And Paul is crystal-clear about the policy implications of his philosophical convictions about property rights. As Paul writes in his 2009 book Liberty: A Manifesto, the income tax implies that "the government owns you, and graciously allows you to keep whatever percentage of the fruits of your labor it chooses." To Paul, the policy upshot is evident: "What we should work toward ... is abolishing the income tax and replacing it not with a national sales tax, but with nothing." Whatever you think of this, you can't accuse Paul of dancing around the issue. However, Paul is not so dogged in consistently applying his principles in other domains.

In the Appendix to his most recent book Liberty Defined, Paul usefully lists "The ten principles of a free society." First among these is the proposition that "Rights belong to individuals, not groups..." The second asserts that "All peaceful voluntary economic and social associations are permitted..." So, if groups have no rights, Americans as a group have no collective right to impede non-American individuals in the exercise of their rights to free movement and association (which, Paul insists, "derive from our nature and can neither be granted nor taken away by government"). These are principles that ought to lead straightaway to the conclusion that anything but a policy of open borders and open labor markets is violation of fundamental individual rights, and Paul does recognize this, sort of. "In the ideal libertarian world, borders would be blurred and open," he admits in the immigration of Liberty Defined.

But suddenly we find Paul dancing daintily around the policy sombrero. "Civilization,” he writes, “has not yet come even close to being capable of such a policy, though it engages in some historical discussion."

So when it comes to protecting the wealth of propertied Americans, Paul is an absolutist who will brook no compromise. Taxation is slavery! But when it comes to defending an equally basic, principled commitment to free immigration and unrestricted labor markets, Paul develops a keen sensitivity to complicated questions of feasibility, hemming and hawing his way to a convoluted compromise that would continue to affirm the systematic violation of the individual rights of foreigners who would like to live and work in America, and those of Americans who would like to live and work with them.

"I strongly believe in the principle of peaceful civil disobedience," Paul begins in a chapter on that subject. "Those who resist the state nonviolently, based on their own principles, deserve our support," he says. But when it comes to mostly poor foreigners who break immigration laws that straightforwardly violate Paul's own principles, the congressman can hardly summon a flicker of sympathy. "The toughest part of showing any compassion or tolerance to the illegal immigrants … is the tremendous encouragement it gives for more immigrants to come illegally and avoid the wait and bureaucracy," Paul writes. In other words, if we allow ourselves to go soft on brown people with bad English, even more of them may wish to exercise their "individual rights that derive from nature and cannot be granted or taken away by government."

As a rule, libertarians have an unhealthy tendency to apply their principles without due regard to America's history of state-enforced slavery, apartheid, and sexism, or to the many ways in which the legacy of these insidious practices persists to this day. Paul represents this tendency at his worst. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Paul has argued, led to "a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society."

It’s hard to interpret Paul’s position on this matter in a kind light. During the last campaign season, James Kirchick revealed in the pages of this publication that in the late 1980s and early 1990s Paul had published newsletters under his name containing rank bigotry against African Americans and gays. Paul claimed he did not write the columns in question or even know about them. Whether you believe that or not, the newsletter scandal highlighted Paul's longstanding ties with figures, such as Lew Rockwell, with a history of catering to racist and nativist sentiments for political gain.

But let’s give Paul the benefit of the doubt, and assume his opposition to anti-discrimination legislation is a principled stand untainted by prejudice. Even then, it’s not so clear his stance is underwritten by his stated principles. Paul's third principle of a free society says that "Justly acquired property is privately owned by individuals and voluntary groups, and this ownership cannot be arbitrarily voided by governments." I follow Ron Paul enthusiasts in endorsing this principle wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, it's hard to say exactly what "justly acquired property" amounts to in a country built in no small part by slave labor on land stolen from indigenous people. How much of Thomas Jefferson's property was justly acquired?

These issues get complicated fast. Most of us think there's a sort of statute of limitation on the sins of our fathers, and for good reason. But it’s absolutely undeniable that the distribution of property and power in America partly reflects hundreds of years of constant and systemic violation of precisely those rights Paul claims to prize. Anti-discrimination legislation indeed puts some limits on rights to property and free association. But in light of America's cruel history of official social, legal, and economic inequality, it's hard to see these limits as "arbitrary," even if we want to pretend, for the sake of social peace, that the distribution of property reflects a history of mostly just acquisition.

Again, it appears that Paul is least tolerant of ambiguity and complexity when it muddies the case for protecting privilege. To deny that structural discrimination, with or without the backing of the state, can limit an individual's liberty more injuriously than a sales tax requires the triumph of dogmatism over commonsense. But Paul’s career is a case study of such bullheadedness. Not only does he deny that anti-discrimination statutes have anything to do with promoting liberty, he insists, again and again, that anti-discrimination policies have only heightened resentments between man and woman, black and white, and do nothing whatsoever to improve social amity. He would have us believe that the enormous gains over the past several decades in racial and gender equality, the dramatic rise of mixed-race marriages, and the happy detente in the gender wars have all occurred despite recent attempts to rectify centuries of legal oppression through law.

In any case, the philosophical basis of Paul's property-rights absolutism is mysterious. Like many libertarians, Paul sees ironclad property rights as a straightforward implication of the moral impermissibility of coercion in human affairs. But, of course, a system of property is itself a system of coercion. If I cannot waltz into your home, raid your fridge, and make myself a hoagie, it is because you might shoot at me or call the cops to drag me off at gunpoint. If you're like me, you think the enforcement of property rights through the use of violence, or the treat thereof, is justified. But it does need to be justified.

Here’s my best attempt: A system of secure property rights is conducive to a society of peaceful cooperation that benefits even the least among us. The important thing for libertarians to remember—and the thing that Ron Paul forgets, or, rather, never knew—is that a system of secure property rights is a means to a peaceful society of mutual benefit, not an end in itself. And there are other legitimate public goods beyond the police protection of property rights. The need to finance the provision of these goods can justifiably limit our property rights, just as a system of property can justifiably limit our right to free movement. The use of official coercion to collect necessary taxes is no more or less problematic than the use of official coercion to enforce claims to legitimate property.

Of course, those who suffer most from the absence of adequate public goods are the poor and powerless. So it’s sadly no surprise that this isn't one of those issues that compels Paul to consider the complexities of political practicability. What good are taxes anyway when, as Paul argues, “[t]he only people who benefit are the bureaucrats, and the special interest recipients of government spending programs”? Recipients like poor kids who go to public schools.

Thanks to Ron Paul, libertarianism of a certain stripe may be more popular than ever, and its influence on the Tea Party and the broader conservative movement is not hard to see. All the same, this brand of libertarianism is never going to "cross the chasm," as the marketing folks like to say. It's destined to remain a minority creed, and that’s not because most Americans are stupid or immoral. It’s because libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that theirs is a uselessly abstract ideology of privilege for socially obtuse adolescent white guys. Ron Paul sure isn't helping.

Will Wilkinson blogs about American politics for The Economist. He lives in Iowa City.