I’m catching up on some of the reaction around the libertarian blogosphere this morning as a windstorm knocked out my internet connection yesterday (though I did get tons of reading done!). There’s too much good stuff out there to link it all, but I do specifically commend Radley Balko’s piece at Reason’s Hit & Run, especially this bit:
Of course, Paul was never going to win. So the real concern here is what happens to the momentum for the ideas his campaign has revived. The danger is that the ignorance in those newsletters becomes inextricably tethered to the ideas that have drawn people to Paul's campaign, and soils those ideas for years to come. You needn't be a gold bug or buy into conspiracies about Jewish bankers, for example, to see the merit in allowing for private, competing currencies (what PayPal once aspired to become). You needn't believe blacks are animals or savages or genetically inferior to believe that the welfare state's perverse incentives have done immeasurable damage to black families. You needn't be a confederate sympathizer to appreciate the wisdom of federalism. You needn't be an anti-Semite to wonder about the implications of the U.S.'s broad support for Israel.
Some of these ideas have always faced a certain hurdle in the national debate. To argue against welfare, hate crimes laws, and affirmative action, libertarians (and conservatives) always have to clear the racism card first. To argue for ending the drug war or knocking out huge federal agencies, we always have to clear the"'I'm not a kook" card. Today's news, combined with Paul's high profile, I think carries the potential to make all of that a little more difficult.
What has surprised me, I must admit, is the fact that so many fairly prominent libertarian commenters are surprised by all of this. First of all, these newsletters have been brought up before, though perhaps not as many examples, nor as many really offensive ones. But more important, those of us who have been paying attention to the libertarian movement for the last 15 years knew that the paleo element was growing and was associated with all kinds of unsavory views from the ugly segment of the hard right. Did all of these supposed observers of the libertarian scene not pay attention to the appearances that Paul has made at all kinds of fringe events? Did they not pay attention to the links between people associated with Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute (Paul’s intellectual home) and racists, anti-Semites, Holocaust skeptics, homophobes, Confederacy praisers, and conspiracy theorists of all types, all of which have been ably discussed and documented by Right Watch and Tom Palmer, among others? Perhaps the under 35 crowd doesn’t have the longer-run history that those of us in our 40s do.
Those of us who have been paying attention knew of Ron Paul’s first or second-hand association with all of these groups and we knew their odious ideas. We knew that people like Lew Rockwell were long-time associates of Ron Paul’s and thus the recent speculation that his pen is prominent in those nasty newsletters comes as no surprise as well. (And, if true, explains why Ron Paul isn’t naming names, as Rockwell is not just a “former aide” but a current advisor.) In my much commented-upon posts from last month, I tried to raise this warning flag in a more subtle way. My closing comment suggesting that the Paul campaign was not clearly a net benefit to libertarianism was my way of expressing precisely the fear that has now come home to roost and is so nicely captured by Balko: libertarians are going to have to spend more energy than ever explaining why we’re not racists, etc. as we get linked to the nastiness in those newsletters. (Glen Whitman explains how a small sample problem can create this burden for libertarians. I think he’s right, and these newsletters now make more people’s “first contact” with libertarianism the sort that will make us have to climb uphill even more often.)
Is there now any doubt about why Stormfront and KKK folks are supporting the Paul campaign? This is not an"accident" - his name has been used to cultivate their support, as these newsletters demonstrate. This is not guilt by association - it's reaping what was sown 15 years ago and since.
So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done? I hope this causes libertarians who are rightly horrified by the bad stuff in those newsletters to wake the hell up and realize the ways in which this nastiness has infected parts of the movement over the last 15 years or so. Read what Right Watch and Palmer have documented and decide for yourself if those people and organizations represent the ideas that attracted you to libertarianism and the Paul campaign. And if they do not, then stop giving them the funds and attention to continue promoting ideas that you object to. Each and every libertarian needs to make that decision for him or herself. I hope that the attention brought to these newsletters leads libertarians to do some real internal soul-searching about what kind of movement we want. And I really hope we can find a way to get the new folks brought in by the campaign to realize that there are plenty of alternatives out there to the “paranoid style of libertarianism” (a style that is more anti-federal government than pro-freedom, if you ask me). Those of us who have been around awhile and who reject the ugliness need to help the new folks find their way.
I’ll end with a bit of a personal note. I’ve been a libertarian for over 25 years and a practicing Austrian economist since the late 80s. When the Mises Institute was founded, I was full of hope for what it might do. I participated in some early seminars and it provided me the chance to meet and interact with Murray Rothbard, who remains one of the most important intellectual influences on me, whatever his flaws. But by the early 90s, about the time of those newsletters, I began to see the direction it was taking and broke off any association with them. In my letter (this was pre-email) asking them to remove me from all of their lists, I think I referred to them as something like “a fascist fist in a libertarian glove.” Although that particular phrasing might have been an example of over the top youthful exuberance, nothing that has happened in the 15 years or so since has caused me to change my mind about the underlying point and the damage being done their approach. The decision to not associate with them (echoed by David Bernstein the other day) is a decision that I continue to not only not regret but to have a certain pride about.
To this day, I continue to be frustrated by friends and colleagues, many of whom I respect very deeply, who think I’m being silly or paranoid or obstinate when I raise concerns about the paleo crowd. I’m also frustrated by their willingness to lend their names to organizations with some agendas and associations that seem to run so much against what I know to be their vision of libertarianism. I would ask these friends to look at the material in those newsletters. Look at the research Right Watch has done about the way in which the paleos are linked to some really ugly stuff. And after you look at it, decide whether it isn’t time for those of us who have a different vision of libertarianism to stand up for that vision and disassociate ourselves from the people and organizations whose vision appears to take us down a much darker path.
The shame about the Mises Institute specifically is that it has done some very good things, the top two of which are making available an amazing set of online resources and being a consistent voice against the war. I think those good things have allowed many libertarians and Austrians to overlook the darker side of the paleos. Now that dark side has become rather public dirty laundry that may well sink the Paul campaign more quickly and certainly has the very real danger of setting back the libertarian movement in the process. It makes me all very sad that not enough people seem to have paid attention or taken it seriously, even if I feel a certain sense of “I told you so.”
I really hope the events of the last few days wake libertarians the hell up to the nasty ideas that are being promulgated in our name and motivate those who have a different vision to repudiate them loudly and publicly.