Various people have asked me what I think of Ron Paul's presidential campaign, and whether it will be good for libertarianism. Here's my take:
Ron Paul deserves credit for his strong commitment to limited government on many issues, including taxes, regulation, federal spending, and federalism-based limits on federal government power. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that his candidacy will provide much of a boost to libertarianism. There are also a number of major nonlibertarian elements to Paul's issue positions, some of which are extremely disturbing. The worst is his highly statist position on immigration. I should also note that I strongly disagree with Paul's foreign policy positions. But I'm not going to focus on those issues in this post, because I think libertarianism leaves room for extensive disagreement in that field.
I. Why Ron Paul's Candidacy Won't Provide Much Help to Libertarianism in the Long Run.
The big problem with claims that Paul's candidacy will provide a major boost to libertarian prospects is that he has virtually no chance of winning the Republican nomination or even coming close to doing so. Virtually all polls have Paul running under 10%. Despite the understandable enthusiasm of Paul's supporters, I doubt that he will even come close to winning a single primary, let alone the nomination. I don't see how libertarian ideas are helped by becoming associated with a presidential campaign doomed to abject failure. To the contrary, if libertarianism more generally becomes closely associated with Paul, his virtually inevitable crushing defeat will be viewed as a major setback for all of us.
Some Paul advocates compare him to Barry Goldwater or George McGovern, presidential candidates who advanced their ideology's longterm prospects despite suffering overwhelming electoral defeat. The big difference between Paul and these predecessors is that they managed to win control of their respective political parties, even though they went on to lose in the general election. Paul, by contrast, has no realistic chance of taking control of the Republican Party.
II. How Libertarian is Paul?
Even if Paul has no chance of winning and little chance of providing a major boost to libertarian prospects, it might be reasonable to support him as a protest candidate, in order to express support for libertarian views for its own sake. I might be willing to go along with this view if it were not for the fact that some of Paul's major issue positions are distinctly nonlibertarian.
As the Club for Growth describes here, Ron Paul has opposed virtually all free trade agreements. Few ideas are more fundamental to libertarianism than free trade. As the Club has documented, Paul also has opposed school voucher programs. In both of these cases, in fairness, Paul claims that his position is based on the idea that some other approach - unilateral free trade or home schooling - is even more libertarian than what he opposes. Even if he is correct on these points, I see no libertarian virtue in supporting the far less libertarian status quo against free trade agreements and school vouchers respectively. Even if trade agreements and vouchers are not the optimal libertarian policies, they are surely superior to the status quo of tariffs and government monopoly schooling.
Perhaps worst of all, Paul has bought into the conservative nativist line on immigration. He not only favors a massive crackdown on illegal immigration but even seems to endorse the view that immigration should be "reduced, not expanded" whether legal or not. To my mind, the freedom to choose where you live and the right to move to a freer and more prosperous society are among the most important of all libertarian principles. From a libertarian perspective, our relative openness to immigration is one of the most admirable aspects of America.
Unlike in the case of free trade and school choice, Paul doesn't even pretend to argue that his position is based on the idea that there is some other policy that will be even more libertarian than the one he opposes. Instead, he clearly endorses the big goverment option of a "allocat[ing] far more resources, both in terms of money and manpower" to cracking down on illegal immigration and perhaps reducing legal immigration as well.
Lastly, like David Bernstein, I am troubled by Paul's refusal to repudiate the Stormfront neo-Nazis, racists, 9/11 "Truthers," and other assorted wackos who have endorsed him. Paul is not responsible for the views of these people, and I do not believe that he personally agrees with them. However, his apparent unwillingness to distance himself from them suggests that he is insensitive to the despicable nature of their views, and the significant damage that association with them could do not only to his campaign, but to libertarian causes more generally.
On some of the above issues, I might be willing to swallow Paul's shortcomings if he had a real chance of winning. A successful campaign necessarily requires compromise, and I'm not naive enough to believe that I can find a viable candidate that I agree with on everything. A libertarian protest candidate, however, must be judged by higher standards. If I am to support a candidate not because he is the lesser evil among those with a chance of winning, but as a statement of libertarian principle, he better actually reflect those principles. By that standard, Paul clearly falls short.
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