David Frum's Unpersuasive Critique of Libertarianism

By Conor Friedersdorf

The reform conservative tries to place blame for the right's woes on the Republican Party's Ron Paul wing. When were they in charge?

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Since the launch of his eponymous Web site, David Frum has done interesting and important work advocating a reform conservatism that breaks with the epistemically closed, bombastic world of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. He wants to develop better answers to problems like climate change, the stagnation of middle class wages, and the ongoing economic crisis. Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin, and Ramesh Ponnuru are other prominent conservative writers who've taken up some of the same themes, each in their own way. Among this group, it is Frum who is most antagonistic to the libertarian impulse on the right, partly because he is a neoconservative.

That isn't, however, his only complaint. As Frum sees it, what plagues the Republican Party can be attributed to the excesses of its libertarian wing. The Tea Party's unwillingness to compromise, opposition to the bailouts, the debt ceiling fiasco -- those are among his specific complaints. 

And his least favorite GOP candidate is Ron Paul. He has reacted with dismay to the right-leaning writers and intellectuals who've flirted with or endorsed Paul in this year's GOP primary. Here is his complaint

Some see him as a corrective to militaristic nationalism. Or as a principled champion of limited government. Or as a leader who can curb the excessive influence of social conservatives. Those perceptions are not very realistic, but leave that pass for now. More to the point -- even if true, which they are not, these are not the correctives present-day Republicanism most needs.
The thing most wrong with present-day Republicanism is its passivity in the face of the economic crisis, its indifference to the economic troubles of the huge majority of the American population, and its blithe insistence that everything was fine for the typical American worker up until Inauguration Day 2009 or (at the outer bound of the thinkable) the financial crisis of the fall 2008. It is the lack of concern to the travails of middle-class America that "reform Republicans" should most centrally be concerned with. And no candidate in this race...has been more persistently, aggressively, and forcefully heedless of those travails than Ron Paul.

I am sympathetic to Frum's reform project and value his insights, but I find this critique totally unpersuasive. As Frum himself acknowledges, the Bush administration made a lot of mistakes. None of them were caused by an excess of libertarianism, and Paul was against most of them. There is also the fact that the figures Frum is constantly sparring with, like Limbaugh and Mark Levin; the media entity he most frequently critiques, Fox News; and the Washington, D.C., think tanks whose behavior he criticizes, AEI and the Heritage Foundation, are themselves all vocal and consistent opponents of Rep. Paul's aspirations. It cannot be that Paul and all of those others are the problem, and Paul is the one that doesn't fit.

I wonder how Frum would respond to a voter like me, who cares about the middle and working class, values the environment, and is nevertheless attracted to Paul, despite being well aware of his flaws. Here's why I am sympathetic to his candidacy, given the other viable candidates.

  • Alone among the GOP contenders, Paul opposed the Iraq War, an endeavor that cost the middle class a lot in tax money, and that was especially bad for the working class: they're the ones who died, got seriously injured, or spent years far from their families fighting it. Frum favored war in Iraq, but now acknowledges that it was a mistake, writing that if he were in that Congress, knowing what he knows now, he'd vote against it (a lesson the rest of the GOP field either hasn't learned or won't acknowledge). In the same column, Frum says that there is a peaceful way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. "Computer viruses and other non-military instruments used against Iran have successfully delayed that program while avoiding a devastating Middle Eastern war," he writes. I agree that a war on Iran would be "devastating," which is why I prefer Paul's non-interventionist impulse to others in the GOP field who are competing to be more bellicose. Aren't they all more likely to pursue this "devastating" course than a President Paul?
  • Alone among GOP contenders, Paul would attempt to roll back America's War on Drugs, another ruinously costly debacle that has caused all kinds of harm to the middle and working classes.
  • Although I don't want to eliminate the Fed (I don't think a President Paul would succeed in doing so, and even he advocates a long transitional phase), his calls to audit it sure look a lot more prudent after news that it kept secret from Congress infusions into big banks valued in the trillions of dollars (update: a reader points me to this piece suggesting it was hundreds of billions) even as the Congressional bailouts were being debated. Surely some transparency is potentially useful.
  • Civil liberties and unchecked executive power matter. It won't do to dismiss them by saying that "these are not the correctives present-day Republicanism most needs." Frum can contest whether transgressions against civil liberties are a problem, but if they are in fact a problem, as many Paul supporters insist, it makes no sense to argue that attempts to roll back violations of the Constitution that threaten core liberties should be postponed till the economy improves.
  • The middle class may suffer from a lack of targeted help, but it also suffers from the redistribution of wealth from poor to wealthy, whether it comes via crony capitalism or vagaries of the tax code or farm subsidies to huge agribusinesses or various entitlements for the rich. Paul would presumably push to end those policies. Some of his Republican opponents would likely claim to pursue middle-class relief, then pass something that wound up benefiting special interests instead.
  • Aside from Paul, aren't all the Republican candidates likely to attempt cutting taxes on the rich and increasing defense spending? Given the competition, why should we believe that a Paul presidency would be especially bad for the middle class? What would Romney do, for example, that Paul wouldn't?
Image credit: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/12/david-frums-unpersuasive-critique-of-libertarianism/250085/