“Oh, my goodness, the John Birch Society! … Is that bad? I have a lot of friends in the John Birch Society" (Texas congressman Ron Paul).
In Tuesday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Switzer describes presidential hopeful Ron Paul as a socially tolerant free-market crusader whose views on foreign policy are indistinguishable from the views of those on the radical left. Not everyone who knows Paul’s record would agree.
On Switzer’s account, Paul is a "true fiscal conservative" and "prophet" who wants to call an end to America’s costly military overreach:
Paul’s most endearing quality is that he has sincere beliefs – support for social tolerance, free-market capitalism, and a healthy scepticism of foreign military adventurism – and he is not afraid to yell them out. That sets him apart from the pack in this age of focus groups and media spin.
But in the New Republic, Will Wilkinson expresses a strikingly different view: "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."
Wilkinson admits that liked Paul’s anti-war rants enough to contribute to his 2008 campaign, but goes on to demolish the claim that Paul’s libertarianism is principled and ideologically coherent. For example, while strongly endorsing libertarian ideas on individual rights Paul balks at applying those principles to immigration policy. Instead he hems and haws his way to a "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."
What they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays. In short, they suggest that Ron Paul is not the plain-speaking antiwar activist his supporters believe they are backing–but rather a member in good standing of some of the oldest and ugliest traditions in American politics.
Some libertarians are appalled by Paul’s history. For example, in 2008 Brink Lindsey, Former Vice President for Research, wrote:
I hadn’t known about his old newsletters and their cesspool of racism and homophobia. But I didn’t need to know about them to know that I wanted nothing to do with Ron Paul’s brand of libertarianism.
Here’s why. I’m a libertarian because I’m a liberal. In other words, I support small-government, free-market policies because I believe they provide the institutional framework best suited to advancing the liberal values of individual autonomy, tolerance, and open-mindedness. Liberalism is my bottom line; libertarianism is a means to promoting that end.
Ron Paul, by contrast, is no liberal. Just look at his xenophobia, his sovereignty-obsessed nationalism, his fondness for conspiracy theories, his religious fundamentalism — here is someone with a crudely authoritarian worldview. The snarling bigotry of his newsletters is just the underside of this rotten log.
Lindsey’s animosity towards Paul highlights a fissure in the libertarian movement that goes back to the late 1970s. (I’ve written about that in a 2008 post: ‘The Cato Institute vs The Little Green Men… and Ron Paul‘). It’s a dispute that involves much more than arguments about whether Paul is or isn’t a bigot. Cato Institute founder Ed Crane’s recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal shows how uncomfortable Paul’s popularity makes some libertarians.
Paul denies that he wrote the bigoted newsletter articles that Kirchick and others have unearthed. But as Christopher Caldwell wrote in 2007, he doesn’t go out of his way to distance himself from groups outside the political mainstream. For example, he admits that he has friends in the John Birch Society even though he disagrees with them on some issues. "Paul’s ideological easygoingness is like a black hole that attracts the whole universe of individuals and groups who don’t recognize themselves in the politics they see on TV", writes Caldwell.
In a 2011 piece, Kirchick says that many of Paul’s libertarian supporters don’t seem to care about his past associations. In the end: "First principles of market economics gain credence over all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity."
Despite the criticism, some Australian free market supporters have warmed to Paul. For example, at Catallaxy Sinclair Davidson writes: "There is a lot to like about Ron Paul – but some of his positions are untenable." Others like Chris Berg are less sympathetic.
Switzer attempts to side step the controversy about Paul’s past. Perhaps like some of Paul’s US supporters he’s projecting his own views onto the maverick candidate.