Tuesday, December 27, 2011

USSR then, U.S. today, Ron Paul next week, Rothbard forever (despite those newsletters)

Sunday was not only Christmas, it was the twentieth anniversary of the official end of the Soviet Union (not that things are perfect in Russia nowadays).  I wish Vaclav Havel had lived long enough to mark the anniversary, but then, he was a smoker, and smoking has claimed almost as many lives as Communism (really: they’re both around 100 million; aliens would say Communism and smoking were the main ways humans killed themselves in recent centuries).

We cut an empire in the process of breaking up a little bit of slack philosophically as it adjusts to its new context.  Russia has had its moments of nationalism and paranoia as it (most likely) settles into being a capitalist and democratic nation over the long haul.  And I hope historians – not to mention voters in Iowa next week if you know any – will forgive the Ron Paul movement for being an odd blend of arch-individualists with a passion for tolerance and peace...and a few weirdo racists and border-obsessives. 

I seek unalloyed truth in philosophy, but in electoral politics, I am happy to pick the least of nine evils – and if, for instance, you want sound money and a decrease in overseas military commitments, you may as a practical matter at this juncture in history have to hold your nose and get there through a dose of nationalism.  Hell, it’s not much weirder than putting up with Obama’s socialist youth or most of the Republicans’ religious views.  Steering the big, stupid ship of state is the main thing, as the Paul-bashing neocons should be the first to understand.


But what about those newsletters?

Much as I admire economist Murray Rothbard, co-founder of the contemporary libertarian movement, he was downright postmodern (perhaps my anarcho-capitalist friend Evan Isaac would say troll-like, in current Net parlance) about gleefully (but temporarily) adopting any damn philosophical/rhetorical tack that seemed like it might piss off defenders of big government, especially since hardly anyone in the broader populace was paying attention anyway.  He was almost like Foucault or Robert Anton Wilson that way.

I look forward to the press conference at which someone, perhaps Rothbard/Ron Paul associate Lew Rockwell, tries to explain how philosophical principle logically led the same group of people to ally with the Black Panthers, sympathize with the Viet Cong, co-found free-market thinktanks, and flirt with racist militias over a period of twenty years or so (any port in a storm, basically).  And I’m not saying I won’t find that hypothetical speech persuasive, either.  I’m just saying I would enjoy that press conference.  (It could happen any day now.) 

Regardless of who (possibly Rockwell) penned the racist passages in the newsletters, it’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that they seem to have occurred mainly around the time the Cold War was ending and Rothbard was fumbling around trying to create a “paleolibertarian” alliance (that is, a union of libertarians and local-tradition-defending paleoconservatives along the lines of Pat Buchanan).  And then – perhaps more tellingly – such passages seem to have stopped by 1995, the year:

(A) Rothbard died (and I do not mean for a moment to give the impression I relish his passing – I even attended the New York memorial service for him and still recall wondering whether it was in bad taste for a friend of mine to wear a Starfleet insignia pin to the event),

(B) Oklahoma City put an end to many people’s brief fascination with the “militia” movement, and

(C) I noticed the Mises Institute’s Free Market newsletter, which started coming to me in the mail around then, sticking to econ and, to my great relief, being devoid of the racist taint of some of the earlier Mises Institute material (I hadn’t then seen the really rough stuff from the earlier Ron Paul survivalist newsletters but had noticed a somewhat fishy passage or two in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, which existed roughly in between the Paul newsletters and the current version of Free Market – and so was relieved to see that, whatever those unpleasant and stupid tangents had been, the group seemed to have worked it out of their system).

Is it possible that the reason Rockwell hasn’t fallen on
his sword in spectacular fashion over the whole newsletters thing is that it was mainly Rothbard himself who inspired (or even wrote) them?  Admitting Rothbard went awry in his final years would be as difficult for some libertarians as denying their indebtedness to Ayn Rand, not so much out of dogmatism (Rothbard was too strange and eclectic to be truly dogmatic about) but just because no decent person wants to look like an ingrate. 


If you want an idea how hyperbolic – yet in a way charming – Rothbard could get when picking fights, check out this “Special Conflict Issue” of one of his newsletters, in which he unleashes even more venom than is seen in the Paul newsletters but on, yes, Ed Crane (and the Koch brothers) of the Cato Institute (thanks to Dante Bayona for pointing this article out). 

(How confused will the left get if they really start sorting out the Paul/Koch conflict, by the way?  Perhaps keeping them confused is a good idea, come to think of it.  If so, libertarian factions have been prepping for this moment for decades!)

Just the fact that Rothbard referred to his ouster from Cato as “Black Friday” and deployed the phrase “cloven hoof” within the first few paragraphs gives you some idea how he bordered between comedy and demagoguery (quite fun, most of the time, but you can see how it might go wrong at times).  He was more like a Thomas Pynchon than a David Duke, really, and he exerted a great deal of influence back when we libertarians assumed no one was taking us seriously anyway (indeed, it’s not clear they take us seriously now – I’m hoping that will change suddenly on January 3, even if that means a few rough and strange months ahead, followed by years of peace and prosperity).

As in the Wallace Stanley Sayre joke about the conflict being vicious because the stakes were so small, this sort of thing was largely designed (consciously or not) to keep people busy when they were nowhere near the reins of power.  I trust libertarians (believe it or not) to stick largely to the consensus issues of spending cuts, deregulation, and civil liberties once they get closer to those reins (and, as if in anticipation of the day when responsibility might actually be required of us, I have largely stuck to those causes myself and mostly avoided the more coalition-splitting ones such as foreign policy and immigration).

Jacob Levy pointed out a decent Conor Friedersdorf piece about “Grappling with Ron Paul’s Racist Newsletters,” and Friedersdorf followed up with a piece more explicitly differentiating between the fundamental libertarianism in the Paul movement and the more tangential paleoconservatism.  Even a minuscule political movement becomes a coalition once it tries to win elections. 

And I don’t really lament that – on the contrary, in my small and largely unnoticed way, I’ve really been following in Rothbard’s strange coalition-building footsteps, in a way, when I’ve done things like praise the Howard Stern run for governor of New York as a Libertarian or talk sympathetically with neoconservatives during the Bush administration, hoping to nudge them more marketward instead of turning them into cartoon villains as so many paleos do.  Yet I’ve learned a great deal from the paleos as well, since so many other factions ignore the role of traditionalism in politics.


And if all this is simply too bizarre to stomach, it appears that Gary Johnson will bolt the GOP and announce his run as a Libertarian Party presidential candidate tomorrow at noon Eastern, so there’s something to look forward to (the pot-defending, gay-friendly, pro-choice ex-governor of New Mexico is just as libertarian as Ron Paul and has no connection to paleo-anything, really).

Also on TV tomorrow, reminding one and all of broader coalitional possibilities: a 10pm Eastern C-SPAN show on Goldwater, part of a potentially very interesting series they’re doing on losing presidential candidates who nonetheless had lasting influence. 

And if you’d rather keep reading about weird, internecine libertarian disputes, this week is also the tenth anniversary of this useful post by Hans-Herman Hoppe (also from the controversy-prone Rothbard circle): a bibliography of communism’s logical opposite, anarcho-capitalism, the philosophy that Hoppe and I share with Rothbard when Rothbard was being sane.

Less useful but amusing is this (very awkward) “Anarcho-Capitalist Theme Song” by Randy Goble.  Awkward but certainly accurate (it is not, however, actually our theme song).


Avery J. Knapp Jr., M.D. said...

As always a good post. Johnson is not as libertarian as Paul - his rhetoric is nearly nonexistent on central banking monopoly called the Federal Reserve, and much weaker on nation-building and policing the world (i.e. current Republocrat foreign policy)

Todd Seavey said...

Stop splitting my coalition or I'll excommunicate you!

Troy Camplin said...

Nice historical summary. It would be nice if the author were in fact be made public -- but the fact that it is most likely to have been Rothbard does, I fear, make that unlikely. Too bad there are those who would sacrifice whatever success we might be able to have to a cult of personality. (Ironically.)

Gerard said...

At least two Republicans in this race, Johnson and Buddy Roemer, have already made it explicit, but I expect a few more to throw their hats into the ring as independents once the GOP primary clarifies.

phillip said...

Enlightening article! My guess is Paul gets through this the same way Obama got through the Jeremiah Wright issue... because nobody actually believes he is a racist - and that is the point.

John Reed said...

I've spoken to some people that were around the Ron Paul campaign back when the letters were written, and if they think it's Lew, then Lew should come forward and let us know who the hell wrote those damned letters!

And Nice article by they way! : D

I got involved in the libertarian movement back in the late 90's via the Libertarian Party and then the Republican Liberty Caucus.

John Reed

Juraj said...

Who's James B. Powell? Did he write that stuff?


Todd Seavey said...

It now appears so, and I know him a little. He's no frothing racist, just a harmless nerd with a history at Cato and Forbes -- and even a Wikipedia page listing the numerous (non-offensive) books he's written (including one that praises MLK, warts and all):

Jim Powell

He also is -- or was -- a New Yorker, not one of the Alabamians who've been getting most of the suspicion and blame, so if it was him who wrote the tiny handful of suspect passages, I think we need to start giving them at least as much sympathy as we would if, say, Gawker were writing with cynical humor (and bad taste) in the late 80s in reaction to high crime and economic stagnation in the Big Apple. In truth, they might not sound that much different than, for instance, this one of the now-notorious offending passages, if you'll pardon me for repeating it:

A mob of black demonstrators, led by the
> "Rev." Al Sharpton, occupied and closed the Statue of LIberty recently,
> demanding that New York be renamed Martin Luther King City "to reclaim it
> for our people" Hmmm. I hate to agree with the Rev. Al, but maybe a name
> change is in order. Welfaria? Zoovile? Rapetown? Dirtburg? Lazyopolis?

See what I mean? Not perfectly tasteful, but more P.J. O'Rourke than Klansman. (And I don't think I've ever been accused of racism, so if I don't exactly scramble to denounce all the relevant writers, I hope at least some readers here will take it as a sign that there may be less here than meets the eye.)

There seems to be less and less to this scandal the more details come out (and some emerging evidence that the racist anti-Huntsman ad was produced by anti-Paul saboteurs, by the way, as you'll discover from a bit of Googling). But I'm supposed to be taking care of offline stuff this month, so the rest I leave to you, student. Others closer to it than I will likely address it all soon, and I only hope doing so enables Paul to rebound against an inevitable-seeming Romney.

Todd Seavey said...

This clip of Cher and the Osmonds doing a Stevie Wonder medley might help to bridge the gaps between all races, by the way. I will have to hope, anyway.

Juraj said...

I know very little of the specifics of what was happening back then. But from what I read (books, speeches, pamphlets etc.), I can hardly believe that Rothbard or Rockwell would stoop so low, or be stupid, as to try to get some racists on their ancap side with dodgy newsletters. It's obvious that deep hatred towards a race is collectivist in its nature and requires some centralised agency to carry out their policies.

Todd Seavey said...

Now this list makes me unsure now if I even ought to assume I know which James Powell it is. I'll just hope it's all sorted out by the time I get back online on Groundhog Day. Semper Fi:

Which James B. Powell?

This James B. Powell?:

Or, this James B. Powell?:

Or, may be not this Jim Powell?: