Ron Paul in One Lesson: A Primer on Libertarianism

Last updated on February 9th, 2013 at 12:59 am

Quadrennial asterisk Ron Paul is once again displaying his Libertarian Wolf Boy exhibit at the Republican freak show, again prompting puzzled onlookers to remark “oh yeah, I remember that guy,” and “what the hell is he doing up there?” Now that Paul has risen from novelty candidate to so-called “top tier” status, his libertarian principles arguably merit closer examination before being mothballed for another four years.

The superannuated jester of the U.S. House has long attracted a comparatively young throng of supporters, conspicuously younger than the great ossified bulk of rank and file Republicans. This seeming paradox is no great mystery. As a former long-haired pot-smoking Libertarian, I can attest that libertarianism attracts—not only pot-smokers, but—starry eyed idealists, believers in a Lennonesque live-and-let-live utopia tantalizingly within reach if only they could manage to convince all of humanity to abruptly and simultaneously stop being assholes. It takes a while for the smoke to clear, and by then the Libertarian larvae have metamorphosed into more or less mature creatures, plunged unwillingly into a workaday world which brooks no such chimerical stargazing. The ugly truth sinks in: All of are mortal, and none of us is self-sufficient. And libertarians lose another follower.

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It might seem odd for a liberal to call a libertarian idealistic, particularly since we liberals for so long have borne the moonbat sobriquet, but to my mind there is a distinct difference between the idealism of libertarianism and the comparatively hardheaded realism of liberals. Libertarians believe that if government and all such collectivist enterprises simply vanished, an ideal world would miraculously arise on the ash heap of the old. Liberals, on the other hand, are willing to work for it. Why trust an invisible hand when you’ve got two visible ones at the ends of your arms?

Libertarians, as the bumper sticker goes, “love their country but fear their government.” Like whipped dogs wary of strangers dangling juicy bones, libertarians deny themselves the blessings of a beneficent government for fear of plummeting down a slippery slope of totalitarianism. Anyone who has dealt directly with an unthinking Federal bureaucracy or even contemplated from a safe distance the staggering injustices often dispensed by such agencies ought to come away with the same sense of awe and respect as one might experience after a close brush with an irritable bear. Government is no trifle, that is a certainty, but abolishing it in an attempt to ward off potential abuses makes no more sense than killing all bears to avoid an unfortunate potential camping incident.

For all its power to kill, destroy, and generally wreak havoc, government is also the most powerful tool for good at our disposal. In libertarian lingo, government doesn’t enslave people, people enslave people. Rather than letting disappointment and misgivings regarding government metastasize into hopeless cynicism however, we liberals idealize that our government can be harnessed to serve the will of the people, as indeed (mostly) it has. Liberals embrace self-government; libertarians shirk. When things go awry, liberals seek to reassert control of government and restore balance, whereas libertarians seek to blow it all to hell and let the chips fall where they may.

In a nutshell, libertarians are anticommunists. By this, I do not mean to say that libertarians are opposed to communism (although they are), but that libertarianism itself is in nearly every respect the precise opposite of communism. Libertarians don’t want less communism or even no communism; they want anticommunism. If Karl Marx says the glass is half full, libertarians insist it’s a completely empty beer stein. If Karl Marx advocates a strong centralized government to enforce social justice and equality and create a workers’ paradise, then libertarians instinctively advocate a weak central government that ignores social injustice and inequality to permit a capitalist’s paradise. It’s a pity that most libertarians have not read any Marx and don’t know that he envisioned the state eventually withering from disuse as a natural consequence of proletarian bliss. If they did, they might start reflexively predicting that a flourishing bourgeoisie would most assuredly bring about the rise of an all-powerful state, catch themselves mid-sentence, and slink off to register Green.

Alas, libertarians are quintessentially fat, dumb, and happy, satisfied with the blunt but serviceable concept that government is the enemy of liberty. Libertarians view government on a scale (actually, it’s a four-quadrant bi-directional chart) ranging from brutal totalitarianism on one end to—at the other end—an idyllic anarchy of well-educated, nonviolent, freedom loving individuals pursuing their own enlightened self-interest to the unintentional benefit of all. Sadly, the paradise envisioned by libertarians as the result of eliminating or minimizing government to Norquistian levels does not exist in reality. The closest thing we have experienced to it was Gilligan’s Island, which was only a television show and which was regrettably canceled after only three seasons. Those of us who are less sanguine about anarchy are inclined to want a good bit more government than Somalia and a good bit less than North Korea.

And what is liberty in the libertarian scheme of things? It is quite simply the freedom to do anything you can afford to do, no matter how stupid. That’s right. We’re all born with a bushel basket of freedoms we can exercise with abandon. We all have the right to drive a Rolls Royce and vacation on the French Riviera, at least to the extent that no one is forcibly preventing us from doing so. Likewise with food, housing, and medicine. If you can afford them, great! If not, well, we never promised you a rose garden. What about your inalienable right to charge for sex, or wager your house in a poker game for a quick payoff? No, that mean old government says it’s illegal. You can’t kill the pain with drugs or even kill yourself because some imperious prig in a powdered wig is always peering over your shoulder, harshing your buzz. All our precious liberties are under assault by meddling do-gooders, while inconsequential fripperies such as food and housing are rammed down our throats by a nanny state gone wild.

And don’t forget: anarchy may be free, but government costs a lot of money. To fund its sinister activities, we have unwisely conferred upon our governments the right to collect taxes. But libertarians don’t just hate taxes because government misuses the money. They hate taxes because taxation is theft, an involuntary confiscation of the fruits of our labors. The battle cry of the original Tea Partiers was “taxation without representation is tyranny,” but libertarians prefer a more concise “taxation is tyranny,” or the ever-popular “I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off my stack.”

Liberals will instinctively retort that such things as fire departments and police forces require money to function, but any libertarian worth his salt will strenuously maintain that private enterprise can provide these services more efficiently in voluntary transactions. For those too sheepish to extol the free market models of “pay-for-spray” fire departments and policemen who must regretfully inform you they can’t investigate your robbery since now you don’t have any money left, the American Libertarian has a handy dodge at the ready: Federalism.

Here’s how it works: If I buy fire protection on the free market, I have a choice in the matter. If the fire company I use hikes their prices, I can go elsewhere. If they’re slow to respond, again, I can change companies after the smoldering ruins of my old house are razed and rebuilt. I can even elect to forgo fire protection altogether to save money, and hope for the best. If my burning house ignites the meth lab next door, well, dem’s da berries. The point is that I’m in charge.

By contrast, if the federal government provided all fire services, I’d be stuck. I’d have to pay for the service even if I didn’t want it, and if the service was poor I would have no alternative because the feds would have a monopoly.

However, since fire departments are typically run by cities and counties, I always have an option: I can move. If I don’t like the fire department in Phoenix, I can move to Tempe. If I don’t like the fire department in Maricopa County, I can move to Pinal County. If I don’t like any of the fire departments in Arizona, I can move to Colorado. But a federal fire department leaves me no options because it’s impossible to leave the United States. Lo, there be tales of serpents, dragons, and cannibals in the lands and waters beyond the contiguous forty-eight, and woe be to those who venture into that unknown horizon. Yar!

So it’s very neat and elegant. Everything the federal government does is confiscatory tyranny, but individual states and municipalities can impose some burdens and strip some rights without slipping into outright despotism because freedom-loving citizens can always vote with their feet, scampering across the border into a neighboring patch of dirt. And business cannot possibly amass too might power over the rights of man because we can always let our fingers do the walking and change companies, early termination fee be damned.

This is a critical concept for many Republicans, as well. For instance, a health insurance mandate under ObamaCare is an audacious arrogation of our rights under God, but the same mandate under RomneyCare is just another experiment in one of fifty vibrant laboratories of democracy. Cigna is just making an honest buck writing checks for aspirins and bedpans. If you don’t like them, well then, just change jobs. See how easy?

Can’t get seated at a restaurant because you’re black? Find another restaurant. Can’t rent an apartment because your spouse is the same sex? Keep looking. Didn’t get hired because you’re a Muslim? Send out more résumés, and if you get the interview, for God’s sake, leave the prayer rug at home. Libertarians have all the answers, don’t they? And they love African-Americans, yes they do. But that restaurant owner reserves the right to refuse service to anyone, remember? And we can’t mandate that apartment building owners rent to homosexual couples because that would be tyranny. And you Muslims have every right to be as Muslimy as you like, but understand that rednecks have an equal countervailing right to be as rednecky as they like. That’s fair, isn’t it?

It is fundamental to libertarianism that all business is inherently good and naturally self-policing. If I bake an apple pie and sell it to you, that’s a good thing. I have money and you have a pie, so we both win. If my apple pie tastes bad or makes you sick, you won’t buy any more, and soon I’ll be out of business. Presto! Problem solved! Now, if I make you a home loan I know you can’t pay back and sell the paper at a profit to someone else, that’s even better than baking pies because I made a lot more money, you have a house instead of just a pie, and dumbass over there has a nice-looking asset for his balance sheet. The whole thing may blow sky high one day soon, but by then I’ll be sipping my fourth mango daiquiri while sunning myself on a beach in the Caymans. Too bad about that house, pal! Sorry about tanking your economy! Looks like I wasn’t as enlightened as you’d hoped, but at least I’m out of business!

And what of the commons, that time-honored notion that there are certain resources which are best owned and shared by all, rather than auctioned off to the highest bidder? To libertarians, this is the cruelest of all communist hoaxes, ineluctably resulting in the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons.” The Parable of the Public Restroom teaches us that common resources will be abused or overexploited by individuals because they have no significant individual stake, and act in their own self-interest even to the detriment of their own long-term interests. Somewhat less technically, in a public restroom someone can always be counted upon to shit in the sink simply because it amuses them and they don’t have to clean it up.

As per usual, libertarians have a pat answer to solve this problem: private ownership. Just think if McDonald’s owned the Grand Canyon. You could get a Spicy McChicken sandwich for a buck, and Happy Meals replete with John Wesley Powell action figures, and the bathroom sinks would be appetizingly shit-free. And no one would dare scrawl graffiti on the pristine rock walls of the canyon, reason libertarians, because the unspoiled nature of this wonder of the world would be an asset McDonald’s would protect assiduously. Besides which, graffiti would detract from the eighth wonder of the world: the gleaming nine-mile-wide neon golden arches towering over the newly remodeled Grand McCanyon.

Non-libertarians are often perplexed by what seem to be conflicting ideas within the Libertarian Party platform, which admittedly is a mishmash of high-minded idealism and muddleheaded policy prescriptions. Conservatives revel in the gun rights and anti-tax rhetoric, but blanch at their freewheeling approach to social issues. Liberals like their stance on war and personal privacy but are horrified by planks calling for the privatization of nearly every function of the federal government. I have often opined aloud (usually just to piss off Libertarians) that these mixed messages we get from the Libertarian Party arise from the shamefully collectivist practice of holding conventions and adopting platform planks in a democratic process. To be true to libertarian principles, oughtn’t they retire individually to their respective bunkers with their jars of gold coins, spark up some doobs and write their own personal platforms?

In truth, libertarianism may seem conflicted, but it is internally consistent at least. The only true conflict is between libertarian idealism and reality itself. You may say the devil is in the details, but libertarians have no use for either. Everything is so damn clear, simple, and digestible for libertarians it’s easy for them to be consistent. I’ll confess I sometimes envy them.

Oversimplification of complex issues may have been popularized by the Tea Party, but it’s long been the stock in trade of Libertarians. Try to discuss abstruse international trade theory with a Libertarian and he’ll always manage to boil the issue down to a story about Jack and Judy trading car washes for pomegranate pastries. Indeed, any good libertarian has a compendium of reductio ad absurdum and slippery slope fallacies and thought-terminating clichés at the ready for any occasion, and can recite them on cue with the polished obduracy of a telephone solicitor.

This is the fractured intellectual crucible which has produced the self-professed “Party of Principle,” and its spry but doddering elder spokesman, Ron Paul. Though he calls himself a Republican, he is the nation’s best-known Libertarian. He laughs at those who call him and his followers “dangerous,” but while he rightly decries creeping fascism and assaults on our civil liberties, his cure is worse than the disease.

Libertarianism is like liquor. A little bit warms your cockles, but too much impairs your judgment. Ron Paul is driving nuclear waste through a school zone with a jug of libertarian hooch under his belt. Thankfully, a plurality of Republicans think he’s nuts, too, albeit for different reasons. Since this is likely his last hurrah before Mitt Romney slouches to his inevitable Republican primary victory, we’ve very nearly heard the last of Ron Paul’s entertaining rants.

But we haven’t heard the last of his poisonous philosophy.

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