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."  

Paul is a flawed candidate, and I agree with several of the critiques Yglesias and Serwer offer. However, the fact that he champions liberty, but is less than perfect on that metric, doesn't change the fact that he is better on it than most everybody else. In 2008, a progressive who cared a lot about ending foreign wars, reining in executive power, and protecting civil liberties obviously should've voted Obama. He seemed good on those things, and otherwise advanced positions that progressives like.

In 2012, I don't expect many progressives will vote Paul. That's fine by me. They disagree with a lot of the positions he advocates, finding some downright loony. (To me, wanting to return to the gold standard, as Paul does, is no loonier than perpetuating the drug war after all these years of abject failure and catastrophic unintended consequences; nor is it loonier than believing that the president of the United States is empowered to put American citizens on assassination lists in unchallengeable judgments based on secret evidence, as Obama does. But that's just me.)

All I ask, as they critique Paul's sometimes flawed conception of freedom, is that they acknowledge that they're perfectly willing to vote for a guy who embraces most of the executive power excesses of Bush/Cheney, wages war without congressional approval, ramps up drone strikes that kill innocents, spies on innocent Americans, says marriage should be between a man and a woman, and perpetuates the War on Drugs, among other policies. I also wish they'd come around to the proposition that, while all Paul criticisms are fair game, some, like the political correctness of his campaign slogan and his position on the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, seem absurd to regard as relevant enough to focus on, given the immediacy and significance of other issues.

Were I a 40-year-old Republican politician with a promising political future, no problem with the Civil Rights Act, no desire to return to the gold standard, and generally sympathetic to the small government positions of Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, I'd conclude, reading the progressive blogosphere, that I'd never win votes from the center left, no matter how good my positions on civil liberties, or how bad the positions of the Democratic standard bearer, because what Democrats really care about is advancing their domestic agenda. And if I were a 40-year-old Democratic politician, I'd conclude, after watching Obama, that I could hammer the Republicans as radical war-mongers, rally anti-war and civil libertarian voters, and then behave however I wanted in office without paying any price. Those are the incentives currently being signaled.

I want a left that is better. One where Russ Feingold mounts a long shot bid to primary Obama in 2012 just to pressure him on these issues. Because they matter. And the fact that so few on the left treat them as if they matter -- along with even fewer on the right -- is alarming. Ballot box push-back is needed. 

Don't get me wrong. Serwer is one of the lonely voices writing on civil liberties issues. If only the average progressive had his convictions, America would be a more free and just place, and every week he is doing good on its behalf. My narrow exasperation is preceded by much respect. And Yglesias, a sharp and vital voice, is far closer to me on these issues than the average American. So my intention isn't to pick on either. On so many matters related to civil liberties, they're both allies.

But there's something about their reaction to libertarians that I regard as mistaken and weirdly myopic. And if even they are going to respond to all the betrayals of the Obama Administration on these issues by just voting for him again no matter what, is there any hope for left leaning civil libertarians?

There isn't much hope for the group of right-leaning civil libertarians within the Republican Party either. But at least Paul and Johnson are running, and the lesser of the two, Paul, is doing surprisingly well in polls. You'd think, given the convictions of Yglesias and Serwer, that the emergence of a libertarian right would excite them. Fewer needless wars! No illegal spying! An end to drug prohibition, and its ruinous effects, especially on minorities! But they're too busy worrying over the return of the gold standard and the Civil Rights Act to see potential allies.

Unlike liberalizing drug laws, or ending foreign wars, there is, in fact, no plausible scenario where we repeal the Civil Rights Act or return to the gold standard. And a stronger civil libertarian presence in America would do a lot of good. Its emergence might be hastened if prominent progressives didn't ridicule and dismiss its most prominent advocate for falling short of standards that their own champions don't come close to meeting, even if they ultimately want Paul to lose.

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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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