Libertarian Steve Horwitz explains the context of those Ron Paul newsletters with a fascinating survey of the history and the varying strategies of that movement:
The attempt to court the right through appeals to the most unsavory sorts of arguments was a conscious part of the “paleolibertarian” strategy that Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard cooked up in the late 1980s. . . .
Classical liberalism started as a movement of the left, with folks like J.S. Mill being our standard bearers against the forces of reaction and conservatism in England, especially over issues of race. We were the “progressives” of that era, viewing the market as a force for progress for all, especially the least well-off, and as a great equalizer. It was Mill who argued that it was a good thing that markets would lead to racial equality in opposition to people like Carlyle and Ruskin who rejected markets because they wanted to maintain racial hierarchy. The liberal revolution was a revolution against privilege and the old order. It was the radical progressivism of its day.
Unfortunately, classical liberalism never figured out how to respond to the development of socialism, and especially the state socialism of the Soviets and others in the early 20th century, in a way that maintained our progressive credentials. By default, we moved from the “left” to the “right,” thrown in with the conservative opponents of the growing socialist wave. From the Old Right of the 1940s through the Reagan era, libertarianism’s opposition to socialism, especially interferences in the market, led us to ally with the forces of reaction. But even with the demise of really-existing socialism, we have been unable to completely break free of that connection to the right, though things are better than they used to be.
Even as this happened, though, the liberalism of libertarianism did not die. Within that libertarianism on the right was a strong strain of leftism, particularly from the late 1960s into the early or mid 1980s, both in the broader movement and in the Libertarian Party in particular. When I came into the movement in 1980, I can vividly recall meeting members of the Michigan LP and being surprised at how, for lack of a better word, hippie they were, right down to smoking dope during the breaks at the state convention.
By the mid-80s though, conservatism was hot, thanks to Reagan, and the internal strife of the movement pitted Murray Rothbard against the Koch Brothers, with the accusation by Rothbard that the liberal libertarians were undermining the movement’s ability to appeal to a broader audience thanks to their supposed libertinism. Murray wanted the hippies out. The irony here was that it was the Koch controlled parts that were (largely) the source of the left-deviation that pissed Rothbard off. . . .
This led to the paleolibertarian strategy by the end of the decade after Rothbard broke with the Kochs and helped Lew Rockwell found the Mises Institute (originally located on Capitol Hill – right smack inside the hated beltway, it’s worth noting). The paleo strategy, as laid out here [go to the site for the link] by Rockwell, was clearly designed to create a libertarian-conservative fusion exactly along the lines Jacob lays out in his post. It was about appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism: one built on cultural issues. With everyone broadly agreeing that the market had won, how could you hold together a coalition that opposed the left? Oppose them on the culture. If you read Rockwell’s manifesto through those eyes, you can see the “logic” of the strategy. And it doesn’t take a PhD in Rhetoric to see how that strategy would lead to the racism and other ugliness of newsletters at the center of this week’s debates.
The paleo strategy was a horrific mistake, both strategically and theoretically, though it apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists. The explicit strategy was abandoned by around the turn of the century, but not after a lot of bad stuff had been written in all kinds of places. . . .
Through it all though, Ron Paul was a constant. He kept plugging away, first at the center of the paleo strategy as evidenced by the newsletters. To be clear, I am quite certain he did not write them. There is little doubt that they were written by Rockwell and Rothbard. . . .
Even after the paleo strategy was abandoned, Ron was still there walking the line between “mainstream” libertarianism and the winking appeal to the hard right courted by the paleo strategy. Paul’s continued contact with the fringe groups of Truthers, racists, and the paranoid right are well documented. . . .
Those of us who watched all of this happen over two decades knew it would come back to haunt us and so it has, unfortunately just as Ron Paul and libertarianism are on the cusp of something really amazing. And that only goes to show what a mistake the paleo strategy was. . . .
So why deal with this now, when libertarianism is so hot? Because those newsletters are not what libertarianism is and the sooner and louder we make that clear, the better. There are too many young people who don’t understand all of this and who we need to help see the alternative liberal vision of libertarianism – and to understand that “liberal libertarianism” is radical, principled, and humane and not “beltway selling out.” To do that, we need to confront the past and explicitly reject it. That doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting Ron Paul in electoral politics, but it does mean that we cannot pretend the past doesn’t exist and it means that Paul and the others involved need to do the right thing and take explicit responsibility for what they said two decades ago. That has not happened yet. Then we need a complete and utter rejection of the paleo world-view and we need to create a movement that will simply not be attractive to racists, homophobes, anti-Semites etc., by emphasizing, as we have done at this blog, libertarianism’s liberal roots.
This explains a lot, but my questions multiply. So is Ron Paul just an ideological stalking horse? Are libertarians deliberately disguising themselves in a bid for popularity and political power? Is libertarianism actually liberal in its anti-traditionalism, radical individualism, and rejection of moral limits?
I had heard Ron Paul described as a conservative Republican with libertarian leanings. I had no idea he was such a movement figure, his prominence probably coming from his being the libertarian who has risen to the highest public office. I wouldn’t characterize the Paul supporters who participate in this blog–Cincinnatus, tODD, SKPeterson, Father Hogg [an orthodox priest]–as libertarians. (I’m sure they will correct me if I’m wrong.) So it must be possible to support Paul even if you aren’t, as he is, a card carrying libertarian. I haven’t got my mind around that, though.
HT: Justin Taylor