Libertarians and Ron Paul’s Racist Newsletters

James Kirchick of the New Republic has an article taking libertarians to task because they allegedly don’t “care about Ron Paul’s bigoted newsletters,” which have reentered the limelight since Paul’s recent rise in the GOP primary polls:

Ultimately, Paul’s following is closely linked with the peculiar attractions of the libertarian creed that he promotes. Libertarianism is an ideology rather than a philosophy of government—its main selling point is not its pragmatic usefulness, but its inviolable consistency. In that way, Paul’s indulgence of bigotry—he says he did not write the newsletters but rather allowed others to do so in his name—isn’t an incidental departure from his libertarianism, but a tidy expression of its priorities: First principles of market economics gain credence over all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity. His fans are guilty of donning the same ideological blinders, giving their support to a political candidate on account of the theories he declaims, rather than the judgment he shows in applying those theories, or the character he has evinced in living them. Voters for Ron Paul are privileging logical consistency at the expense of moral fitness.

But it’s not simply that Paul’s supporters are ignoring the manifest evidence of his moral failings. More fundamentally, their very awareness of such failings is crowded out by the atmosphere of outright fervor that pervades Paul’s candidacy.

Kirchick’s argument is based on a false premise. Numerous prominent libertarian commentators have in fact denounced Paul for the newsletters and his other unsavory associations, going back to when the issue first became prominent in 2008. I did so myself, as did co-blogger David Bernstein. So did David Boaz of the Cato Institute (the most prominent libertarian think thank), Virginia Postrel, and various writers at Reason, the most prominent libertarian magazine. Kirchick cites three supposedly libertarian “professional political commentators” who he claims have chosen to ignore Paul’s transgressions.

One of those three is Andrew Sullivan, who is pretty obviously not a libertarian and does not consider himself to be such. Another is Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic. Friedersdorf is indeed a libertarian Paul supporter [Update: or at least sympathetic to Paul's candidacy; I'm not actually sure whether he advocates voting for Paul or not]. But, far from ignoring the newsletters or giving Paul a pass on them, he has described them as “awful” and recognized that Paul deserves substantial blame for them.

Many other examples of libertarians who have denounced the newsletters could be cited. But these should be enough to make the point.

Kirchick also asks why libertarians didn’t choose to support Gary Johnson over Paul, given the former’s lack of damning associations. Well, I advocated precisely that, in part for precisely that reason, as did many other libertarian commentators. Unfortunately, Johnson’s candidacy failed to gain traction, in large part because he lacked Paul’s superior name recognition and financial resources.

Kirchick argues that support for Ron Paul indicates some sort of special “ideological” blinders by libertarians. I am no Paul supporter myself for reasons I summarized here and here. But I can understand supporting Paul despite the newsletters if you believe that, on balance, his policies are likely to be better for the nation than those of the other candidates.

Indeed, there is a parallel between supporting Paul in spite of his dubious associations and those who supported Barack Obama in 2008 despite his own dubious associations with anti-American and anti-Semitic minister Jeremiah Wright and ex-terrorist/self-described communist Bill Ayers. Paul’s defense is strikingly similar to Obama’s. Just as Obama claims he didn’t know about Wright and Ayers’ despicable views and doesn’t agree with them, Paul claims he didn’t know about the newsletters and doesn’t endorse their content. When the issue became a public controversy, Obama distanced himself from Ayers and Wright, and Paul has similarly denounced the newsletters. If I had to choose between the two cases, I would say that association with a person who has actually done evil deeds (Ayers’ terrorism) is more reprehensible than association with people who have merely said evil words (Wright, the authors of the Paul newsletters).

The evidence suggests that neither Paul nor Obama actually agree with the more despicable views of their past associates. There is no proof that Paul is actually a racist or that Obama is actually an anti-American, communist, or supporter of terrorism. Their fault, rather, was a failure to recognize that such views are reprehensible and beyond the pale of respectable discourse. Such errors of moral judgment can and should be held against a candidate. But one can reach that conclusion while still believing that the candidate is sufficiently superior to his opponents on other grounds to outweigh this defect.

UPDATE: The blame legitimately due Obama and Paul for these past associations diminishes if one believes their claims that they were unaware of their associates’ beliefs. I am skeptical, however. I do not believe that Obama could have maintained a close association with Wright for years without knowing about his beliefs, and the same goes for Ayers, especially given that his terrorist background was well-known and widely publicized (including in the New York Times). In the case of Paul, I highly doubt that a professional politician would, for years, publish newsletters named after himself without checking their content, or at least having his staff do so.

UPDATE #2: Tim Carney, the third commentator cited by Kirchick as an example of a libertarian inclined to ignore the newsletters, also seems to agree that Paul deserves blame for them. Conor Friedersdorf responds to Kirchick here:

Libertarian journalists very much care about the newsletters, as do the institutions of the movement. For now, I’ll refrain from speculating about the inner thoughts of libertarian voters except to say that Kirchick presents no evidence about them, and that not all Paul supporters are libertarians. To the Paul supporters who don’t think the newsletters are fair game for inquiry: you’re wrong.

In critiquing Paul supporters, Kirchick does get some things right. The candidate does inspire fervent, sycophantic support from some backers. It’s off-putting at times. But so was Hope and Change. And the exaggerated praise of Bush’s leadership after 9/11. Welcome to politics.

Friedersdorf also states, as I did, that he would have preferred that Gary Johnson had emerged as the most prominent libertarian-leaning candidate rather than Paul.

UPDATE #3: Some commenters doubt that Obama had any real association with Ayers. I don’t claim that the two were close or that Obama shared Ayers’ ideology. However, they did have a longstanding association, and Ayers and his wife (also a former terrorist) even held a key event for Obama’s first run for political office at his house, back in 1995. If Ron Paul had held a key campaign event at the home of an unrepentant former KKK terrorist, he would surely be blamed for it, and rightly so.