The Libertarian Delusion


One of the signatures of the fallen human state is how precipitously and flat seemingly reasonable people can land on their cogitative rears. Accordingly, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on ourselves. You watch me, friend. I’ll be checking you.

For now, we have Ron Paul. In addition to certain strains of the disaffected young, neo-Nazi white supremacists, homosexual-hating pastors, Andrew Sullivan, and Glenn Greenwald, we Tuesday got Robert Wright at the Atlantic in a post titled – honestly – “The Greatness of Ron Paul.” Wright likes Paul’s ideas on foreign policy, and it is one of the characteristics of falling in like with a libertarian idea that all sound judgment and reasoning depart on the wings of one’s unfettered liberty.

It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

Let’s note immediately that it is this rather measured endorsement that nonetheless merits for Wright the “greatness” in his title. Imagine if Paul actually became president and achieved something. There would be nowhere left to go but godhead. But notice how quickly Wright moves beyond “weirder ideas and checkered past.” I don’t need to fully itemize that past here, from John Birch Society speeches to the representative conspiracy-mongering. Yet Wright easily elides all this for love of Paul’s ideas on foreign disengagement.

Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

This is such a radical departure from the prevailing American mindset that some of Paul’s critics see it as more evidence of his weirdness. A video montage meant to discredit him shows him taking the perspective of Iran. After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, “Why wouldn’t it be natural that they’d want a weapon? Internationally they’d be given more respect.”

Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?

No one who knows anything about foreign policy, or negotiations for that matter, needs to be told that framing circumstances and disputes from the perspective of one’s adversary is basic work for the professional policy, state department, and strategic analyst. It is how a nation best develops its own strategies and tactics, how it seeks opportunities for resolution – though, with exceptions, candidates running for president, especially pro forma GOP hawks, are none of these kinds of people. However, seeing matters through the eyes of the adversary does not mean agreeing with how the adversary thinks and thus legitimizing, for instance, Iranian strategic desires simply because one can, as a “thought experiment” conceive them as the Iranians might. Unless one is the kind of relativist more often these days found on the far left, all strategic ambitions are not equal simply because nations have them and can mutually understand them. Does Ron Paul – does Robert Wright – think the Iranian theocratic tyranny the moral equal of the world’s liberal democracies? If yes, then there is no basis on which to feel justified in opposing any ambition Iran might have, or North Korea, or the Soviet Union when it still had strategic ambitions. If no….

This is another variation of “one nation’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” – more of the same reasoning that led the dregs of the anti-imperial left, in opposition to the Iraq War, actually to champion the Iraqi insurgency. This is, far from the moral achievement Wright conjures, the complete loss of critical and moral faculties.

Wright, like others, is taken with Paul’s wish to end the imperial breadth of U.S. military forces and interests around the world – but like all libertarian ideas it is absolutist and crude: simply withdraw, from everywhere, quickly, with no discrimination among regions, circumstances, interests, consequences. From the imperial aftermath of the Cold War, retreat reactively to an eighteenth century injunction to “avoid foreign entanglements.” This is not a guiding principle by which to lead a nation in the twenty-first century. It is standoffishness masquerading as political philosophy, a crank’s tantrum as national policy. Let’s just all leave each other the fuck alone.

Absolutist ideas, crude analysis, simplistic solutions – what Paul represents in all his considerations. Elsewhere at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has made himself something of an expert student of the Civil War, presents the following video from 2007 of Paul discussing the war on Meet the Press.

The magnitude of the historical errors and misconceptions Paul peddles in a mere minute four is staggering. All but one of the states of the Confederacy had seceded before Lincoln took office, and the Confederacy was declared a mere seven days after. Lincoln, in fact, made a proposal of compensated emancipation to the Border States and Delaware, a slave-holding state that remained in the Union. None were willing to accept it. The comparison to Great Britain is a mockery of historical analysis. Great Britain’s slaves were held in overseas colonies – an abstract moral challenge to be met from afar – not within the nation and yearly corroding the mutual moral regard and civil ties of English men and women. Paul says of the aftermath of the war that it

lingered for a hundred years, I mean the hatred and all that existed.

Does Paul believe that the hatred for black Americans – the disenfranchisement, the discrimination, the beatings and lynchings – that followed the Civil War was caused by the Civil War? And why is Paul even discussing the Civil War? Do we know what ideas Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney entertain about the Civil War? In just over a minute, Paul provides that answer too, that Lincoln didn’t care about freeing the slaves (yes, Paul is one of those, too), but

he did this just to enhance (sic) and get rid of the original intent of the Republic.

In fact, Ron Paul does believe that the first policies instituted to wrest the American republic from its “original intent” and the people began with Lincoln and the Civil War, and that there is a lineage of subsequent proto and quasi-socialist progressive policy intended to “nationalize everything.”

I mentioned the other day, in “Ron Paul and Cranky Libertarianism,” that the second prong in libertarian philosophy, after opposition to centralized government, are its corollary conspiratorial perceptions, the manner in which its adherents close-read history and the world and come to see figures in the carpet. Among those public figures most prominently praising Paul these days (but not, mind you, in typical litigator’s casuistry, endorsing him) is crypto-libertarian Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is not himself explicitly a peddler of conspiracy theories, but he argues in a manner that appeals to the conspiratorially minded: he broadly labels those with whom he variously disagrees and hyperbolically reviles them for what he insinuates is their common purpose against true American interests. Just the other day, in a rabid twitter exchange with many among the growing numbers he has repelled with his ugliness, of which this is a small abstract, Greenwald endorsed an ally’s demonization of Obama supporters as people who would defend the president even if he “raped a nun.” Rather than accede to the flurry of objections to such a “metaphor,” Greenwald doubled down. Beyond correctly rejecting the metaphor label, he declined to defend the claim as merely an extreme illustration offered for effect and chose, instead, to advance the claim as literally true.

The tenor, then, of Ron Paul and libertarian support wavers between gurgling discontent and ideas elementarily conceived. For more of the latter, Greenwald recently recommended, terming it “brilliant,” a shoddy essay by Matt Stoller that praises Paul for his

opposition to war, the Federal government, and the Federal Reserve.

The essence of the essay by the former “senior policy advisor” to ex Rep. Alan Grayson is to retail the libertarian gold-standard of American conspiracy constructs – the concerted effort from Lincoln through Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt (Teddy is bypassed) to

centralize[ ] authority in the Federal government.

and develop

state control over finance and mass mobilization of social resources for warfare.

Of course, if one were to defend the sine qua non minimum libertarian belief in central government responsibility – to provide for the common defense – it would be difficult to conceive it without “state control over finance and mass mobilization of social resources for warfare”: unless, that is, the Pauls, Greewalds, and Stollers imagine, rather, the corporate boards and CEOs dukes and lords agreeing to tithe their rents and harvests in return for another Magna Carta, and their employees in their militia motley then hoisting muskets in the “campus” quads.

In arguing that libertarianism is some kind of unanswerable challenge to liberalism, Stoller tells us that

what connects all three of these Presidents is one thing – big ass wars, and specifically, war financing.

And while modern day Republicans like to pretend that Abraham Lincoln has anything but remotely to do with them, we know his true lineage, and Stoller clarifies the point anyway:

a long tradition of antiwar Democratic Presidents who took America to war.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, young again and without his Viagra, we have here Bob Dole speaking of “Democrat wars.” While focusing on the monetary threads in the carpet that look like the Virgin Mary crying, Stoller, like Dole at his most good-Republican-cloth-coat basic, ahistorically ignores the causes of war. But we already know that Paul thinks Lincoln only fought the Civil War not to preserve the union and reject slavery, but to nationalize monetary policy. And Stoller, attempting to shoehorn the crank of Paul’s mad libertarian monetary notions into a threadbare line of argument, offers this hodge podge on FDR:

And finally, we come to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Fed is a bit more complex, because he did centralize monetary authority using wartime emergency powers, but he did so in peacetime. FDR abrogated gold clause contracts, seized the domestic supply of gold, and devalued the currency. He constrained banks with aggressive regulation and seizures of insolvent banks, saving depositors with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He also used the RFC to set up much of what we know today as the Federal government, including early versions of disaster relief, small business lending, massive bridge and railroad building, the FHA, Fannie Mae, and state and local aid. Eventually, the government used this mechanism to finance college and housing for veterans with the GI Bill. Since veterans were much of the population right after World War II, effectively this was the first ever near-national safety net. FDR also fused the liberal and union establishments with the corporate world, creating the hybrid “military-industrial” complex that is with us to this day (see Alan Brinkley’s “End of Reform” for a good treatment of this process).

Later, this New Deal financing apparatus was used to finance the munitions industry and America’s role in World War II. At one point, the RFC owned eight war material producing subsidiaries, including the synthetic rubber industry. Importantly, FDR had the Fed working for him. The Fed kept interest rates pegged at an interest rate set by Treasury, and used reserve requirements to manage inflation. This led to a dramatic drop in inequality, and unemployment sank to 1% during World War II. In 1951, the Fed, buttressed by what Tom Ferguson calls “conservative Keynesian” corporate leaders, broke free of this arrangement, under the Treasury-Fed Accord, leading to the postwar monetary order. That accord is where the vaunted “Federal Reserve Independence” came from.

Give this man a chalkboard, a sweater, and some spectacles, and we need miss Glen Beck no longer.

The point is supposed to be that centralized government provides both the social contract that liberals love (of which Stoller provides what should be an inspiring brief account) and funds and organizes the wars it hates, and that this is Paul’s unanswered challenge to the coherence of liberal philosophy. It just may be that – if you are Katrina vanden Heuvel and your position on war can be reduced to you are “opposed” to it, in which case you think it “good” Ron Paul is on the political scene. But in offering a construct in which modern liberalism is defined internationally only by opposition to the Vietnam War, and all uses of American military might since, Stoller simplifies liberalism, reducing it only to its most disempowering strain over the past four decades.

Further, Stoller, like all those on the left who entertain what are misconceived as the ideas of Ron Paul, mistakes him profoundly. He and others conceive Paul, in his wishing to end the post World War Two American imperium, to be a voice of enlightened international relations. He is, on the contrary, a reactionary isolationist for whom any primitive considerations of the world scene are a byproduct of the most reductive social conceptions – conceptions that would destroy every element of the enlightened American society in which liberals believe. If one is above all stirred by conspiratorial imaginings or driven by bilious incontinence at all concentrations or exercises of power, one may find in Paul a representative. But for any liberal to think Ron Paul a subject of serious consideration is an inclination of utter foolishness, a political delusion in which the thinker has lost in disgruntlement all understanding of what liberalism is.


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7 thoughts on “The Libertarian Delusion

  1. A belated thanks for this post. Given the negligible real-world effect of their writings (so far, at least), the Greenwalds and Stollers of the world shouldn’t bother me so much; after all, the brute fact is that Ron Paul will not be the next person inaugurated as President, no matter how heroically he may be portrayed by his partisans (or admirers, praising with faint damns). However, it’s a tonic to read a careful, informed exposition of just why and how Paulismo is a dead end, logically as well as practically. The solipsism of a Ron Paul foreign policy is merely the mirror image of the solipsism of a John Bolton foreign policy; neither includes the case-by-case fact-gathering, consideration and discrimination necessary for a rational policy in an extremely complex and variegated world. (I’ll refrain from even addressing the damage that a Paul domestic policy would accomplish, or his extraordinarily uninformed and childishly conspiratorial view of history.)

    1. Of course, there is a middle ground. It involves recognizing that an imperium constructed over seventy years cannot judiciously turned away from without measured consideration of each alliance and interest and how best to realign it. It involves recognizing that Obama gained the presidency at the imprerium’s greatest expanse, in the midst of two wars, and that three years is little time, against the opposition of an element in the nation that wishes to expand and make permanent that imperium, carefully to end those wars and reverse course.

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