The Progressive Critique of Ron Paul: He Isn't Libertarian Enough

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They say he's inconsistent and kooky, and they're right. But since the left doesn't have a better champion of liberty, shouldn't shouldn't it cheer his rise?

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What's the worst thing that could happen if Ron Paul won the presidency? After I posed the question, writers including Patrick Appel, Alex Pareene, and Pascal Emmanuel Gobrey responded. Each post is worth reading - and if you're the Ron Paul campaign, worth responding to.

How about it, Dr. Paul?

Meanwhile, a couple of my favorite progressive writers, Matt Yglesias and Adam Serwer, have written posts looking at Ron Paul's positions on civil liberties, and they don't like what they see. Theirs is a different critique, and one that should concern all civil libertarians. Let's start with Yglesias:

After looking at his positions and statements, the most remarkable thing is that if it weren't for his loud fanbase of self-proclaimed libertarians you wouldn't really think this is the platform of a libertarian. He's loudly trumpeting his plan to impose criminal penalties on women who terminate their pregnancies and he makes it clear that his interest in freedom doesn't extend to the freedom of anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country. His campaign slogan of "RESTORE AMERICA NOW" is strongly suggestive of conservative impulses and nostalgia for the much-less-free America John Boehner grew up in. The mainstay of his economic thinking is the ridiculous proposition that "there is no greater threat to the security and prosperity of the United States today than the out-of-control, secretive Federal Reserve." Not only is Paul's goldbuggery nutty on the merits, like his affection for forced pregnancy and severe restrictions on human freedom of movement it's difficult to see what it has to do with freedom.

Here's Serwer:

These are among the reasons I can't get too excited whenever Ron Paul defends due process, questions the wisdom of aggressive military intervention or assails the surveillance state. While Paul isn't a vocal member of the GOP's homophobia wing, preferring to leave such questions to the states, his vision of freedom comes across as terribly limited to constituencies whose individual freedom, throughout American history, has come from the intervention of the federal government.

It's impossible to imagine black people or women having the freedom they have today without the Civil Rights Act. For gays and lesbians, who are hoping to secure their own fundamental rights, Paul's federalism would give individual states the right to violate those rights by a show of hands. Paul-style libertarianism too often comes across as an agenda of individual freedom for straight white men.

Wow. They make Ron Paul sound pretty bad. But they're planning to vote for a guy who is even worse on civil liberties! That's what gets me about these posts. I am all for critiquing Ron Paul. The newsletters to which he foolishly lent his name were awful. It is indeed wrongheaded that he wants to return to the gold standard. And if America were on the cusp of protecting the civil rights of black people for the first time, I'd campaign against Paul, despite being quite sympathetic to his stance on other issues. Do you know why? It's because I care about actual liberty enhancing outcomes, whereas both Yglesias and Serwer are evaluating Paul's candidacy in a way that is curiously removed from the issues that confront us or what would plausibly happen if he won.

Serwer writes that Paul's oeuvre "too often comes across as an agenda of individual freedom for straight white men." Yes, that is unfortunate. But what is more important, how it "comes across" or the effect Paul's policies would have on minorities? Obama "comes across" as being much friendlier to minority concerns, yet under his tenure the policy that is most harmful to American blacks and Latinos, the War on Drugs, isn't being challenged or reformed in the least.

As it happens, Paul wants to completely end that very same program. And Yglesias and Serwer both agree that the status quo, the one Obama is perpetuating, has the very ruinous effects Paul says it does.

Despite this, these two progressive policy wonks, writing posts about Paul and civil liberties, neglect to mention the War on Drugs at all. Instead, they spend time on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the fact that Paul's campaign slogan, "Restore America Now," reminds Yglesias of "conservative impulses and nostalgia for the much-less-free America." Am I to accept that the implicit priorities reflected in their posts are plausibly the right ones for any voter in Election 2012?

I cannot.

Similarly, consider Paul's stance on immigration.

To my mind, the most wrongheaded plank of his platform on that subject is his desire to end birthright citizenship. Personally, I think that would create a lot of problems for the United States, and that it would be tremendously unfair to the kids who'd be affected. If I thought the constitutional amendment necessary to change the law had any chance of passing, I wouldn't vote for Paul. But I just don't get it when Yglesias righteously points out that Paul's "interest in freedom doesn't extend to the freedom of anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country."

If Yglesias wants to vote for a candidate whose interest in freedom does extend that far, I invite him to register as a Republican and vote Gary Johnson in the 2012 primaries. Instead, he's going to wait until the general election, and vote for Obama, another guy whose interest in freedom "doesn't extend to the freedom of anyone unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country."

But it isn't just that Paul and Obama would both execute the laws that keep lots of armed guards on our southern border, and meanwhile deport lots of illegal immigrants. What Obama is going to do, on top of that, is wage undeclared drone wars in multiple countries that kill lots of innocent people because collateral damage in undeclared wars is okay if you're "unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country." And he's also going to continue sending the DEA abroad, where its agents will exacerbate a drug war that has killed tens of thousands in Mexico and wipe out the crops of subsistence farms in Latin America. In extreme ways, Obama behaves as if his avowed convictions don't extend to various folks "unfortunate enough to have been born in a foreign country."  

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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