Tuesday, January 3, 2012

People of Iowa: from Ron Paul voters to Will Wilkinson (plus Rudy, “thick” libertarianism, and more)

After seeing the very good (and conservative-friendly) Iron Lady last night, I wish Margaret Thatcher were a plausible write-in candidate for the Republicans this year (and I look forward to seeing the whole Iron Trilogy this year – Iron Sky about Nazis from the moon in April and of course Avengers).

Instead, many of us today hope we will see Ron Paul win the Iowa caucus, despite his flaws (all politicians have some, as you may’ve noticed).  At the very least, it would foster wider discussion of libertarianism and in the best-case scenario, of course, it might lead to government’s evil presence in our lives and in the economy starting to recede in one year, changing the course of human history. 

(I actually predict he will win Iowa, given the failure of the usual polls to gauge the far greater likelihood of Paul voters actually showing up in large numbers relative to other candidates’ fair-weather supporters.  All the number-crunching strategy by my geeky faction, which wants to transform both the home team and the game itself, actually reminds me a bit of the Aaron Sorkin-penned Moneyball, another fine film.)  

So naturally, on the eve of potential triumph, yesterday Will Wilkinson announced that he is not a libertarian after all, is in fact a liberal (not just a “liberal-tarian”), and would not want to be part of a movement that included Ron Paul (nor indeed any movement at all).  I bear Will no ill will but feel as though some sort of apology may be owed to the people who kept telling him a few years ago that he’s not really a libertarian.  I never even went that far – I’m all for letting people define these things somewhat broadly – but for some reason, I still feel sort of vindicated.

Coincidentally, I only just learned that Virginia Postrel doesn’t want to use the label anymore either (but at least she takes care to put a “classical” in front of her “liberal”).  The real question here, of course, is: OK, WHICH ONE OF THE REST OF YOU WANTS TO JUMP SHIP?  KERRY?  MEGAN?!  All the recent “voluntaryists,” maybe?!?  I’m simply a libertarian, by the way.  Feel free to use me as the definitional case from now on, especially if I’m the only one left.

Libertarians Who Need Their Space

No, but, hey, man – it’s cool.  It’s cool.  We OK.  We OK.  (And if we win, I hope the ensuing celebration rivals the New Year’s Eve party at which I photographed the knock-off “Snowballs” seen above – and my thanks, too, to Kevin Walsh for pointing out that other photo, which really is Ron Paul in a Houston Astros uniform.)

And I can understand mainstream libertarians – very much including me, despite all the scorn and skepticism young Ron Paul-wave libertarians heap on Beltway-style, thinktank-funding, white-paper-producing type libertarians – such as Ed Crane wanting to be on record distinguishing between (what I still see as) libertarianism proper and Paul’s brand of paleolibertarianism, with its extra (and occasionally weird) cultural baggage (none of which has much effect on policy prescriptions, still deducible from imagining strict property rights and laws forbidding only assault, theft, and fraud). 

But I think some outright enthusiasm from libertarians at this potentially-historic juncture is not only warranted but arguably morally necessary.  For one thing, we should not appear to be lazily echoing the “Paul can’t win” mantra when there are so many useless, big-government-loving, unphilosophical, mainstream types to perform that function already (like John Podhoretz, for instance).

To his credit, liberal Jonathan Chait at least finishes his article by going into far more amusing detail than most people about how unlikely he thinks a Paul victory is.

I’m sticking to the #JifnotP vow I’ve been encouraging people to take, though – publicly tell the GOP you’ll vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson in the general election unless the GOP nominates Ron Paul and proves it’s serious about shrinking government before big spending destroys civilization.  Really let the GOP know they won’t have our vote this time without our man leading them.  Otherwise, they’ll just think, “Well, Romney’s kind of a business guy – that should be good enough for those, what you call ’em, libertarian people.”

Speaking of electoral strategy: you know, it might never have occurred to Ron Paul to focus on this first caucus so much had it not been for Giuliani failing to do so back in ’08.  THANKS, RUDY!

(And Rudy was briefly under consideration again in this election cycle, too, along with so many rise-and-fall GOP candidates and potential candidates that you may not even be able to remember them all.  At least the Herman Cain – remember him? – left behind this wonderful artifact, noted by Gerard Perry.)

Paleos and Catholics

But suddenly, it’s not just Paul vs. mainstream choice Romney.  
Iowa suddenly experiences a Santorum surge, one that seems far less likely to be repeated in other states than the long-gestating Paul movement (but maybe I’m biased).  “Santorum surge” sounds vaguely obscene given Dan Savage’s use of the term, but I won’t consider the headline “Santorum Drops Out” obscene if I see that one soon.  In the meantime, the more ways the non-Paul vote is split, the better, from my perspective. The headline I really want out of Iowa, of course, is:

Weird old man beats patrician in magical underwear despite late Santorum surge and combined efforts of anti-gay cowboy, woman with gay-seeming husband, and fat guy with three wives (Guy with hot daughters not even really trying until New Hampshire, reports indicate).

It’s sort of fitting that a very-Catholic candidate is complicating the libertarian-vs.-mainstream battle, by the way.  As Jacob Levy – still a “liberal-tarian” in good standing, I trust, unlike the merely liberal Wilkinson – discovered a few days ago when a post of his about “thick” forms of libertarianism (ones that insist on cultivating certain cultural attitudes instead of just defending property rights) spawned a comments thread that was largely about Catholicism, much as we libertarians may think of the paleo/non-paleo split in terms of econ and tradition and sometimes attitudes toward the military, for young self-identified paleos in particular, the paleo phenomenon has been in large part about Catholicism in recent years.

(I recall one paleo sort telling me these things come in waves and that all the paleo college kids seemed to be Nietzscheans in the late 90s, then converts to Catholicism or something like it in the mid-00s – and in at least one or two scary cases I’ve encountered, both at the same time.)

Wait, so how does “paleo” mean anything, you’re wondering?  The prefix literally means “old,” but it’s gone through a few rapid phases over the past decades, initially connoting “anybody who’s not a neocon” (or in my case you might almost have said “neolibertarian” at the time, since I was mainly interested in seeing libertarians get along with the neoconservatives and the paleos were mainly an interesting sideshow until the increasingly-divisive post-9/11 decade).  The consistent quality of the paleo movement (whether paleoconservative or paleolibertarian), though, has been an emphasis on local rule and local tradition over rule by distant elites.

Long story short, you can see how that could be awesome or lead to the occasional defense of small-town hick thinking and resentment of outsiders, as has already been thoroughly discussed in the past couple weeks due to the old racist Paul-affiliated newsletters (which I don’t ultimately think matter that much). 

If you’re a libertarian in search of “thickness” (as opposed to “thin” rationalist principles detached from any implied cultural prescriptions or attitudes), I would contend that you’re as plausibly drawn toward tradition as toward Kerry Howley-style love of feminism and diversity (nothing is thicker than tradition – and the handful of actual racists might add that blood is thicker than water, as is soil).  And if you’re drawn toward tradition, the West’s longest-standing is arguably Catholicism.  Q.E.D.

Of course, there’s no God, which complicates things a bit. 

Thickness vs. Neutrality

But an appreciation for tradition keeps me from ever being able to comfortably just call myself a “liberal.”  I think the academics and lawyers keep forgetting that most of the populace will never read their treatises (half don’t own books at all) and that tradition must be taken seriously – and respectfully nudged in a pro-property direction – if one is serious about moving the culture in any direction at all.  Matthew Yglesias is not going to write an article that rivals “Thou shalt not steal” in its cultural impact. 

So keep an eye on how the little fifth column of paleos fare within the broader and blander “conservative Catholic” faction of which Santorum is a suitably bland exemplar.  But be grateful if we can just shrink the damn government and thus not have to worry so much about what our neighbors think and who’s with which damn faction. 

That’s why I try to just keep people focused on property rights – once you start wandering off, like Howley in that online dust-up I had with her four years ago, saying libertarians should have an array of “thick” views, you are going to have to get bogged down in a very complicated conversation about why, for instance, Catholic-style thickness (a type she particularly dislikes) is not just as firm, if not firmer, a foundation for principles than p.c. and diversity-talk.  Certain feminist ideas have prevailed for decades now – sometimes with liberty-friendly results – but Catholicism dominated Europe and shaped many of its legal and philosophical conventions for a thousand years.

Just as thinkers are notoriously prone to claim disingenuously that they are espousing a “neutral,” bare-bones system (a problem the Catholic-paleos are, to their credit, very, very alert to), so too are some Kerry Howley and Matt Zwolinski types prone (much like Rand, oddly enough) to assume that if you move toward a thicker libertarianism, you of course move toward their “liberal” kind of thickness, as opposed to paleo thickness.  (If it were up to me, everyone would move toward more of a “bourgeois, moderate” thickness, actually – which is to say, I simply want people to be very libertarian indeed, but I’m happy as long as they abide by property rights and do not want to sneak a host of other values into that already-tricky sales pitch, to use a common bourgeois metaphor.)

Telling libertarians what additional things they ought to believe besides property in order to qualify as real libertarians is as obnoxious in its way as leftists assuming that being truly “socially conscious” instead of apathetic (obviously) means waking up to how great the left’s ideas are.   The hasty assumption that “thick libertarians like feminism and diversity” could become the new “Susan Sarandon is so socially aware,” in short.  Someone can be more aware without necessarily more fully agreeing with you.

Property rights simpliciter avoids all those vaguer issues, that’s all.

In any case, I think whether Paul fizzles or triumphs today, it may prove a good time for more self-conscious and cautious diplomacy.  We all know we can do factionalism, but it would be much more mature to focus on consensus and coalition-building, I think – and I don’t just mean factionalism disguised as outreach.

The arrogance of assuming that liberal values are the only alternative to nihilism (sort of like in the atrocious film I Heart Huckabees) is akin to the hardcore left’s assumption that, say, you either love performance art more than pork rinds or are probably some sort of fascist.  Attitudes like that are what create these tensions.  They are not the route to eliminating them. 

(But I can still echo Catholic Dimitri Cavalli’s recommendation of this article about interactive video art from Whit Stillman.)

And Yet Isn’t Todd More Radically Libertarian-Sounding Lately?

Many of you are thinking: Sure, we all like coalitions – but which coalitions?  Instead of aiming for the best, I think there’s something to be said for aiming for the biggest (or rather, as big as possible without any real violation of principle – think of it as a challenge).  But lately, you may notice, I’m a Paul booster with less patience for his neoconservative foes, so many of whom were my friends or colleagues during the Bush years.  Am I changing my tune and, hypocritically, getting less willing to compromise?

Well, I am getting less willing to compromise in some ways, but I’d contend that it’s neither because I was a sell-out before nor because I’m being prematurely purist now.  Rather, the times have changed since four years ago, when I was at least willing to ask questions like “Would it make more sense to back Romney in order to beat Obama than to stick with the most libertarian candidate?”  What’s changed?  A lot.  Think about it: 

Top Ten Politics-Altering Things That Have Changed in the Past Four Years (from a fusionist libertarian perspective, that is)

In chronological order, the things that make it more appropriate (and urgent) to take a stand for electorally-relevant libertarianism instead of just playing along with the political establishment or sneaking away to philosophize on the sidelines unnoticed:

•Ron Paul movement outliving his ’08 campaign and growing beyond the man
•financial crisis creating urgency and placing a new focus on econ
•Bush bailouts
•Obama stimulus
•Tea Party hitting explicitly limited-government, anti-spending, and pro-Constitution themes
•Tea Party-influenced ’10 elections with their “Tea Party” and “Ron Paul Republican” candidates (and open conflict with mainstream GOP)
•Occupy Wall Street, with emphasis on real problems of cronyism, bailouts, banks (plus an anarchist streak, for all their errors) – which means solutions of some sort are being sought to these problems, and we’d better offer ours loudly and clearly
•tenth anniversary of Afghan intervention (plus Libya, etc.)
•GOP lead contender Romney explicitly framing himself as the defender of Social Security and Medicare against more-radical rivals
•Ron Paul faring much better in ’12 campaign while attracting both far-right and far-left constituencies – but also while causing both conservative and libertarian in-fighting

In short, before I was being long-term and subtle (and sometimes disagreeing with others who had rival long-term strategies, such as “liberaltarianism”).  But now it’s open warfare whether we like it or not.  Here’s hoping we win a major battle tonight. 


And speaking of geeks, no sooner does my fellow comics fan Will become a liberal than (I think) his transhumanist domestic partner Kerry has turned into...a trad or a steampunk or something...or at least she’s senior editor of this, Defunct.

In other libertarianism-meets-geeky-art news, it was wonderful to see comics writer Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and libertarianism joining forces to defend free speech (about guns!) on campus.  I mean, what part of that equation wouldn’t I like?  Have I mentioned lately that Gaiman’s married to the lead singer of a steampunk band?

(On a stupider geek note, here’s an almost-useful joke ad: No woman to be seen, and three males get hot, rock-hard, and elongated.  It’s THE FANTASTIC FOUR.)

Longer-Term Arguments

Much as I would like to immanentize the eschaton tonight – or at least immanentize kicking Romney and Santorum’s asses – I know we’ll keep having these debates for years to come.

And January 12 in nearby Newark, the Rutgers Federalist Society will address an issue that definitely won’t be settled overnight: animal rights, with Objectivist philosopher Tibor Machan making the case against.  Damned if I can figure out the precise time and location yet, but tonight all I care about is Iowa anyway.  We’ll figure out the rest later.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I don't think that anyone just wants thickness for its own sake, so saying that "tradition is thicker" as an argument is just weird. It's also odd to think that Kerry or Matt has said that thickness will automatically be of the liberal sort. They think it's *preferably* of the liberal sort-- and not [just] because that provides a surer foundation for their politics but [also] because it's normatively preferable in its own right.

Most of us who aren't Rothbard actually have normative views about the thickness part, not just tactical calculations.

Todd Seavey said...

No kidding. And the conservative argument is that traditionalist thickness _is_ a better guarantor of liberty than culturally-left thickness. And I think they're right, but it may be time to put harder work into accommodating al these factions simultaneously, since the excommunication thing was done to death back in Rothbard's day.

Todd Seavey said...

And to stave off Asperger's-like terminological dispute (for which the potential is obviously high in these matters), let me clarify I mean "a" conservative argument, not by any means "the" conservative argument.

And I meant to type "all" above, not "al" -- I am opposed to Gore and Qaeda forces.

Matt Zwolinski said...

For what it's worth, I don't assume that any move toward thickness is good, though I realize from some of the reactions to my post that this is something I didn't make clear. Randianism and paleo-libertarianism are both thick, but both worse in many ways, I think, then the thin gruel served up by Block et al.
But hey, I'm a philosopher, so I'm more than happy to dive into the much and argue about which thick values are worth defending, and which aren't. Not in order to determine who's the real libertarian in the room - Bryan Caplan's purity test is still the gold standard for that purpose. But in order to understand why libertarianism matters, and how it should be interpreted in those cases where something like the NAP itself won't do the work. I'm thinking I'll write something about this with specific reference to the immigration issue soon.

Todd Seavey said...

Right, I know. I'm saying the case for a liberal sort of thickness will in fact fail against the case for a traditionalist sort of thickness. I don't think anyone wants thickness for thickness's sake. I'm saying a culture more concerned about honor and paying its bills will likely find strict property rights congenial, and a society that thinks "gender equity" is paramount will look with suspicion at inevitably inegalitarian things like markets. Want liberty? Encourage a combo of Ayn Rand, Rambo, and the Amish, if you can figure out how to do that. By contrast, Simone de Beauvoir was a Stalinist and the MacKinnon/Dworkin types actively supported censorship, just as nearly all feminists support affirmative action. Teach people to stick to "thin" and we have a coalition. Ask for something thick, and smart libertarians ready the cultural demolition of the left. In other words, "Let's not get into it" and "Accept a diverse coalition" are options. "Diminish traditionalism by promotion of left-liberal cultural values and then expect the world to become more libertarian" very plainly is not.

Dave said...

I knew libertarianism was no longer going to be cool once I took up the cause!