Libertarians: Call Them Irresponsible


The full range of Ron Paul’s reeking extremism was exposed yesterday by The New Republic.

Ron Paul has recently suggestedthere was only a “total of about eight or ten sentences” of “bad stuff” in the newsletters that he regularly used to publish under his name. This assertion was patently false: As TNR has shown, the newsletters contained dozens of statements marked by bigotry and conspiratorial thinking. In light of Paul’s continuing evasions about the newsletters, and with hopes of clarifying the matter definitively, TNR is now making more of them available.

In almost countless selections from Paul’s newsletters from the 80s and 90s we get the odor of every crackpot conspiracy that litters the field of international and American politics, from global banking cabals and Branch Davidians to AIDS and the violent threat of a black underclass. But to any clear-eyed observer with a nose for political garbage none of this surprises. The contours of Paul’s thought have always been clearly drawn. None with any claim to sound political analysis and judgment could fail to catch the whiff of such foul political detritus, and any public voice who has actually touted the contribution of Paul to the national discourse – from Andrew Sullivan, who endorsed him, to Glenn Greenwald who has consistently promoted him, to Robert Wright who hailed his “greatness” – well deserves the loss of our decent respect for his opinions. What’s the worth of thinkers who so mistake the biggest turds along the way for fool’s gold?

All this constitutes the most fundamental kind of public irresponsibility – the reckless fouling of social trust and the civil union with the wildest imaginings of human conspiracy, betrayal, and degradation among one’s fellows. And we shouldn’t believe for a moment that such uncritical accusation serves at all in recognizing the actual instances in the world of those human flaws: Ron Paul would ignore, for instance, in his foreign policy, every human degradation around the world, in every other society, in his praise of the human disconnection he promotes as libertarianism. It is just that disconnection, too, of one human being from another, in mutual care and support against the burdens of life, in alliance for the betterment of our human condition, that is the essential irresponsibility of libertarianism. Of whatever human ill found in the life of another, the libertarian’s angry, defensive cry is always, “I am not responsible.” That is to say, in two, divergent senses of that word, I did not cause your condition; neither am I obligated to expend myself to improve it. In either case, I am not responsible.

No wonder, then, that at one of the earlier GOP debates Ron Paul could respond to a hypothetical about the medical care that might be provided an uninsured person – avoiding the full statement in implication of his ideas – that “this idea that we have to take care of everybody…,” and the supportive audience would actually cheer the notion of letting the person die.

There are, for the libertarian, few more unloaded and provocative words than that of responsibility. The libertarian is so challenged by the word, in effect, as to suffer a kind of cognitive disability in the face of it. Libertarians, and the Tea Party conservatives who converge with them in this area of thought, frequently cannot distinguish responsibility as obligation, responsibility as the holding of another in one’s care, and responsibility as guilt, the last of which is what libertarians will always fear is impugned in any discussion of common responsibility, and all of which is always, as government policy, a tyrannical burden upon them. From one of Paul’s newsletters:

Justice Brandeis said that the most important Constitutional right the Founding Fathers gave us was the “right to be left alone.”

While traditional conservatives reject this right to privacy that Brandeis proposed in an early legal paper and much later Supreme Court dissent, libertarians love to cite it. Timothy McVeigh did so at his trial. Ignore for today that Brandeis as a crusading social advocate and firm believer in government regulation of private enterprise, represented in his intellect and public career nearly everything the libertarian disavows. Overlook that Brandeis wrote “let” alone, not “left” alone, and that one could tease out a treatise on a subtle and profound distinction, accordingly, between uninterfered with and isolated. This returns us to my statement, in my first in this four-part series of posts on libertarianism, of cranky libertarian essentialism: “leave me the fuck alone.”

As I wrote in “The Reactionary Libertarian,” the libertarian rejects the ethical entailments that naturally arise from the expanding technological and communicative ties of modernity. In this, too, citation of Brandeis is a sham, as Brandeis wrote, along with Samuel Warren, in that original Harvard Law Review article,

Political, social, and economic changes entail the recognition of new rights, and the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the demands of society.

Brandeis recognized an evolving world; libertarians are time-stuck, dispositionally resistant to change. In a sparsely populated agrarian society, a rural and wilderness culture, it is easy – one might even say natural – to conceive, as the ground of our social existence, the physical isolation and the separable moral agency of each individual, for him or herself, and unencumbered (mostly, literally, physically) by the  press of the lives of others upon us. In the modern world – human technology, like human beings, being a part of nature – it is distinctly unnatural. It is, against all the challenges that face us, irresponsible.


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