Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, and Murray Rothbard Walk into a Bar...

Leading into this politically fateful day, the barbs have been flying. Ever since Ron Paul managed (somehow) to pick up some polling numbers that actually had him pegged as a front-runner, the dredging of the infamous newsletter(s) have commenced. I haven't followed Paul as closely in previous election cycles, but I'm told this is the third or fourth time the issue has been brought to the forefront in a prominent fashion. This time, because of his standing, it seems like a lot of the mud-slinging is coming from the direction of his own party. More on that aspect, possibly, at a later date.

But here's what I can gather based on when and where I happen to plug into the proverbial zeitgeist (follow at your own discretion)...

There's a series of tedious yet consequential occurrences in the evolution of libertarianism over the last forty years or so that we will not be afforded in a public discussion. When the average person knows nothing of what happened at the CATO institute, the several schisms and clashes of Rothbard with the brothers Koch, the attempted paleo-conservative fusionism of the late 80's, or even the difference between a libertarian and a Libertarian - we can be sure that there's no politically salvageable explanation. In any case, on we go...

Over the course of Rothbard's career, he attempted to reach out to lots of different groups often radical in their own nature. Early on he abandoned his "Old Right" roots and sought to court the New Left on the civil rights and anti-war fronts. And with the resurrection of Goldwater Republicanism in the era of Reagan, he attempted to court the small-government/anti-government factions from among the right. Part of that courtship, particularly in the late 80's and early 90's, involved pulling at the threadbare fringes of swelling militia movements, who, as it may happen, are often known for their radical conservatism in the social department. And, at the time, hot-button political issues, other than 2nd Amendment rights, were things like welfare, spiralling urban culture, and affirmative action.

Ron Paul, apparently, had adopted the Misesian flavor of libertarianism early in his political career, and was courted by Rothbard et al in that camp. They, as they do now, stumped for him in their publications, and tried to provide some political outreach. As it happens, some people in this camp were responsible for, although maybe not generating the actual content, at least handling the publication of Paul's newsletter(s) at the time. The same newsletter(s) which people have pulled some racially animus comments from in recent weeks.

The somewhat popular "in the know" rendition of the story is that Lew Rockwell likely had ghost-written the article(s) in question (as he had ghost-written several things for Paul over the years). So there is a burgeoning call for Rockwell to come out and accept some form of culpability - to save Paul's campaign I suppose. However, with my ear to the ground regarding some larger players in the Misesian camp, I hear that the more likely candidate is actually Rothbard himself!

Now, a fan as I am of Rothbard, I have to say that this suspicion proved pretty disheartening at first. But, after a good deal of thought, and, ironically enough, reading some comments on Callahan's blog, a fuller picture of Rothbard's work came into view. It's painfully obvious if you look at the entire body of his work in context (especially strolling through his work generated while courting the New Left) - a large part of what Rothbard was good at was pulling disparate and often differing viewpoints in the same direction, towards his proverbial rendition of anarcho-capitalism. Whether communists, anti-war leftists, civil rights supporters, Reagan conservatives, or almost anything else under the sun, Rothbard tried to court just about everyone. He focused on each groups' idiosyncrasies, found overlapping sympathies, and went for the jugular. Would it really surprise me that he would have made some unflattering comments while appealing to the sympathies of unflattering people? Not particularly.

So does that mean that what he did, if he did indeed to it, was OK? Well, again, not particularly. There's something terribly ironic about a man that was so ideologically driven being so pragmatic in his pursuit of support for the movement. Pragmatism wasn't his strong suit. Of course, I suppose, to the extent that he was a libertarian of the "thin" variety, I guess he didn't feel as if he contradicted his own political ethos in any specific way by doing so. Pretending to be a racist (or even actually being one) is not anti-libertarian (again, in the "thin" sense at least). I have a hard time believing Rothbard himself was a racist. I don't have a hard time believing he'd gesture at being one to pull wayward racists towards liberty.

So, what can we say here? Well, from a pragmatic (political) standpoint, whatever support you might get in numbers from appealing to racists is clearly not what you're going to lose from it - particularly in the long run. We live in a post-Bush world. The Lew Rockwell's and Murray Rothbards of the world no longer have to garner the fringe support of uber-conservatives walling themselves up in the mountains of Idaho. With two parties that are completely eaten up with war-mongering and redistribution of wealth to the well-connected, they can all come out of their proverbial caves and court the not-so-radical group called the dissaffected.

And, as the success of the current Paul campaign shows, they're doing that well enough. Unfortunately they couldn't foresee how the outreach of decades past would hamstring them in the present. And, for that, I'm sure that all those living that were involved in that previous push have some level of remorse, whether for poor beliefs once held, or false beliefs once touted - either for very little political advantage in hindsight.


  1. There aren't even that many racists holed up in Idaho these days, from what I hear from the Spud-Americans ;-) of my acquaintance.

    If it's true that Rothbard wrote the newsletters in question, I shall be saddened and disappointed. I became a libertarian and (as a matter of fact) an anarcho-capitalist, or the next thing to it, in part because I thought libertarianism was about as far as a body could get from "the end justifies the means," which I consider merely another expression of "might makes right."

    My own philosophy runs more in the line of "fiat justitia, ruat caelum," and I'm afraid I'm gonna get to put my money where my mouth is.

  2. I can't say I completely disagree with you here. All I can offer is the half-hearted justification I did in my post; that, as far as it goes, being or pretending to be racist doesn't, all things being equal, explicitly break the libertarian ethos I suppose. Although it certainly doesn't paint libertarianism in a positive light either.

    Gene Callahan, oddly enough, has had some good posts on this in the last couple of weeks. I'm left still feeling like I owe a great bit of intellectual debt to Rothbard, but also understanding that he was a bit of a professional "troll" for lack of a better term.

  3. Very well thought out article. I'm having a hard time coming to grips at the moment with the fullness of all this entails. I've heard of the racist newsletters as far back as 08, but found his explanation to be sufficient. The whole evolution of libertarianism seems a lot more... merky. That's all I can say. I'm not a fan of any kind of pandering and I feel that's why I loved Ron so much. He just seemed to be speaking his clear thoughts on the subject. Rothbard I discovered later and thought he was a brilliant economist, but didn't have the same fervor for his writing and speechs. I'd like to feel that truth wins out and that the work Rockwell and Rothbard are separate then Ron's. Both in approach and ideology. Is that being too hopeful?

  4. Seeing that Ron is likely in the twilight of his career, and his association with those at the LvMI so prominent for so long, I'm not really sure what worth there is in trying to divorce the connection at this point. Rothbard and Rockwell were both people with, I believe, the best intentions. But, politically speaking, they certainly weren't (aren't) above opportunism. Unfortunately in this particular case they seemed to reach out a little too far - or at least beyond what would eventually be politically feasible. I still believe Rothbard's works are fantastic. I believe he was a genius in the truest sense. And I believe Rockwell, especially over the last decade, has done fantastic work for the movement. But, at this point, what happened in the past happened. And simply trying to separate themselves from one another won't make what was going on twenty years ago go away at this point. They're going to continue to anchor Paul with it regardless of what he says or does because that's how it works in politics; it's effective, unfortunate as that may be for those in the liberty movement. Their best bet at this point, I believe, is to take a more direct tact when confronted with the issue from this point on and hope for the best.