On Libertarians and Ron Paul

By popular demand (i.e., Abbi), I present a brief synopsis of why some people like Ron Paul.

A few points:

  • The most basic ascription of a libertarian is someone who believes in maximal individual liberty and minimal state intervention. Libertarians are in favor of things like gay marriage and drug decriminalization, on the theory that a consenting adult shouldn’t be prohibited from engaging in an action that doesn’t infringe upon the life, liberty or property of another. State regulation is limited to basic infrastructure — including a predictable property-rights regime — intended to provide individuals a defense against force or fraud by others. Libertarians tend to be non-interventionists in international affairs and favor user fees instead of taxes for public goods. They’re also often more trusting of the free-market system despite occasionally demonstrating cynicism about very large corporations and multinationals.
  • Libertarians often (but not always) align with Republicans on many issues, because many Republicans tend to favor smaller government and lower taxation. However, this association strained during the George W. Bush years; libertarians did not support intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor did they smile upon the “compassionate conservative” agenda that included Medicare Part D and democracy-building across the world.
  • The above notwithstanding, there’s really no such thing as a “typical libertarian” any more than there’s a typical conservative or liberal. Adherents of libertarian thought argue robustly among themselves about various aspects of their ideology, perhaps even more so than denizens of other main ideologies.
  • Some libertarians — again, like some liberals and conservatives — have their hobbyhorses. Ron Paul, for example, doesn’t much care for the Federal Reserve System and America’s current monetary policy. Paul doesn’t much care for “fiat money” — that is, money issued solely on the credit of the issuing government — and favors a return to a gold-backed dollar. The dollar was actually backed by gold until as recently as 1971, when President Nixon unilaterally terminated the convertibility of U.S. dollars into gold.
  • Ron Paul is, by all accounts, a highly intelligent man. He’s also not much of a team player; House leadership could rarely count on him to vote against his principles for the sake of a party goal. Some characterize him as a crank. Others think he’s a modern-day Cato.
  • Many young people who favor conservative economic policy but remain uncomfortable with the quasi-evangelical social policy of today’s GOP aligned with Ron Paul.

Questions? Bueller? Bueller?

Knock It Off: An Open Letter to @RepJustinAmash

Dear Congressman Amash:

Greetings from one of your constituents, a long-time resident of Kent County, Michigan.

I’ll be blunt. Congressman, we need to talk. I think you need an intervention.

When Rep. Ehlers retired at the end of the 111th Congress, the people of the Third District faced a three-way contest for the Republican nomination.  In that race, I supported Bill Hardiman, an experienced leader with a good read on the pulse of our community. Alas, Hardiman and Steve Heacock — another respectable candidate — split the grown-up vote, letting you squeak by on the vapors of the Ron Paul Revolution and the advocacy of fired-up youth who thought Facebooking votes is a sign of virtue.

You are from West Michigan. You know as well as I do that the people here — the actual voters, not the Country Club Republicans here who pull the strings — are a sensible lot. We don’t like unnecessary and counterproductive conflict or obviously self-aggrandizing behavior. We favor quiet competence over flashy showmanship, which is why we have a long track record of electing men like Vern Ehlers, Paul Henry, Hal Sawyer and Gerald Ford to the House of Representatives. That’s why giants of the Senate like Arthur Vandenberg hailed from Grand Rapids, too. We favor substance over symbolism. We like our leaders to matter, and we reward them with re-election when they do.

During your first term, your whole communication apparatus seemed to consist solely of Facebook and Twitter. You’ve been the black sheep of the 112th Congress, bucking leaders so often on so many issues that people stopped trying to persuade you about anything. No one heard much about you, except for odd commentary about you being the lone Republican dissenter on bills — with your dissent rooted in distinctly Libertarian interpretations of the Constitution that differ in important ways from the ideals of mainstream contemporary conservatism.

(Seriously? Voting “present” on defunding Planned Parenthood or NPR because the operative legislation might be a bill of attainder? And then apparently believing that out of all the members of the House, you alone have the penetrating insight into the Constitution to see a bill of attainder for what it is? Chutzpah!)

It wasn’t until you got the boot from Budget that people really started to notice you. And we noticed because you decided to break your radio silence with a series of blistering, ill-formed attacks on the House GOP leadership.

Word on the street among your real-life constituents (as opposed to your make-believe constituents at Reason): You’ve embarrassed us. Your reaction to being removed from Budget has all the hallmarks of a temper tantrum, complete with idle threats against the Speaker and infantile protests that you’re the only one out there who’s actually a conservative — that the rest are spineless Beltway types who’ve failed the Reagan Revolution.

As John Stossel would say: Give. Me. A. Break. A real leader wouldn’t conspire over an ill-fated coup against the sitting Speaker; a real leader would have met privately with the Speaker to smooth things out in private, without affecting an air of entitlement about something as inconsequential in the long run as a committee seat. In fact, this whole Budget kerfuffle should never have happened — first, because you shouldn’t have treated the party that elected you as if it were some sort of annoyance to be dismissed at will; and second, because when you finally felt the consequences of your behavior, the right response was to seek redress of your grievances in private.

What do you expect when you’re an unreliable member of the caucus who snipes from afar? Do you think you’ll be coddled and empowered? Did you really expect Speaker Boehner or Leader Cantor or Chairman Ryan to say, “Hey Justin, thanks for being a great Monday-morning quarterback whom we can’t count on when the chips are down; how’d you like a raise and promotion?” Politics is, and always has been, about the art of balancing the possible against the ideal. Open revolt and unreliable allies make it harder to tip the scale closer to that ideal, so effective leaders will minimize this disruption for the benefit of the greater good at the expense of the black sheep.

With Barack Obama in the White House and Harry Reid calling the shots in the Senate, the power of the House of Representatives is circumscribed by reality. Yes, the House GOP should fight for the best deal possible on every issue of public policy that comes up for debate. But the best deal possible in this climate isn’t going to be the most ideologically pure solution. That’s just reality. We can lament it all we like — and boy, do I lament it! — but we cannot escape it. To think that the House alone can force fiscal sanity upon the nation by simply digging in deep enough is, I believe, delusional. You know: Baby, bathwater.

Worse, our focus as a party and as the conservative movement is substantially harmed by the infighting that arises from battles to prove who’s purest. We need to fight Obama and Reid and Pelosi, not each other.

Congressman, on a purely personal level I don’t much care if you oppose the House leadership. I don’t care if you write 10,000-word essays on Facebook about your votes. Just as I am not a fan of childish dissent, I’m also not a fan of lock-step conformism, and I believe that Libertarians have just as much right to seek to influence public policy as conservatives and liberals. I’m not asking you to change your beliefs or to stop articulating your personal perspective — I am, however, asking you to change your behavior and your voting pattern. I’m asking you to recognize that you represent the people of the Third District — a people who aren’t doctrinaire liberarians — and to behave in a manner that seeks our best interests and reflects our innate dispositions. We didn’t elect you to be Ron Paul’s designated heir.

Please don’t act as if you’re some sort of martyr being silenced by a corrupt establishment. You’re not, and protests to the contrary reflect poorly on we hard-working folks in West Michigan who yearn for leadership instead of drama. Actions have consequences, and the consequence of abandoning your party and your leadership is that you’re not going to be granted access to the levers of power. Them’s the rubs. Deal with it and quit the public whining and sniping. Please.

One more thing. With the 2010 redistricting, your constituency has changed. Not many local politics watchers are confident that the Second Coming of Ron Paul will be able to hold this re-formed district in the long haul. You were damned lucky that the local Dems had a bloody enough primary season that Steve Pestka was mortally wounded before the fight began. Next time, you might not be so lucky; already, locals are showing their decided lack of amusement in your antics. I’ve even heard whispers of a primary challenge in 2014.

There’s a battle afoot, in Kent County as well as other communities across America. Sometimes the struggle is pitched as “Tea Party versus Establishment,” but this characterization isn’t quite right. It’s more like a struggle between the pragmatists and idealists. The idealists have made inroads recently, but the pragmatists are fighting back.

Congressman Amash, I implore you: Stop being a source of distraction and an agent of fragmentation. Given the choice, the people of the Third District would rather see you be a loyal Republican over a dogmatic Libertarian. We want news about you to be positive — that you’ve written a great bill or brokered a valuable deal. We grow weary of headlines about you launching coup attempts and declining to support conservative causes over pet Constitutional theories that only you seem to find.

We want a Member of Congress who fights for us. For all of us. You have the potential to get there — but will you be a leader or a bomb-thrower? I’m praying for the former.

Regards and best wishes,

P.S. — If Speaker Boehner ever does decide to visit Grand Rapids, he’ll have a warm welcome by a whole lot of us, even if you decide to sit at home and play on Facebook.

It Goes to 11: Ideology and the Increase in Ad Hominem Political Discourse

A wise man will study the opinions from all sides of a question to improve his knowledge of the underlying dispute. Whether this scribe counts among the wise is open to debate, but modeling the behaviors of the wise is surely a start, on the theory that a journey of a thousand steps begins by letting a hundred flowers bloom.  As such, although I’m a center-right conservative, I frequently read the perspectives of libertarians, liberals, socialists, anarchists, reactionaries, centrists — the rich range of contemporary political discourse. I’ve found this engagement has helped me to better define my own arguments while occasionally giving me an opportunity to correct various distortions or elisions that “my” side may perpetrate, sometimes accidentally and sometimes not.  I’ve even changed opinions on some things (e.g., civil unions) based on reasoned argumentation posed from outside my tribal echo chamber.

Alas, over the last few years, it seems that the investment in this process pays ever smaller dividends.

What fascinates are two simultaneous trends, both fueled by bloggers.

First, within the conservative movement, the mainstreaming of a handful of influential bloggers has led to a sharpening of the knives — with blades directed inward. The folks at Red State are perhaps the most top-of-mind, but they’re not the only ones. Divorced from the need to actually win elections, they content themselves to play the kingmaker, with ideological purity and loyalty to a self-defined “conservative base” serving as the paramount virtues.  That folks like Erick Erickson and the activists at Heritage Action believe they’re empowered to define what constitutes authentic conservatism (i.e., “what Mitt Romney isn’t”) is bad enough; that more established and more prudent voices haven’t mounted a healthy defense of a more robust and well-rounded definition of contemporary conservatism smacks of kowtowing to the barbarians at the gate without even bothering to pour flaming oil o’er the rampart to see if the ruffians will scatter.

Second, within the progressive movement, it seems like snark and invective increasingly substitute for coherent argument. Once upon a time — those far-away days of the second term of the Bush administration — I’d read the headlines from FireDogLake or Talking Points Memo; although I rarely agreed, at least on balance I’d encounter well-formed opinions to make the effort worthwhile. Nowadays, vulgar epithets reign supreme and simply asserting that someone is a Very Bad Person is considered the “QED” part of the argument. Contemporary progressive bloggers — with notable exceptions like Hamsher, Kaus and Mitchell — usually engage in more spleen-venting than discourse, and bumper-sticker sloganeering constitutes the breadth and depth of most progressive writing nowadays. Even local bloggers get in on the act; Michigan Liberal refuses to refer to Gov. Rick Snyder as anything but “benevolent overlord Rick Michigan.”

And don’t get me started on the libertarians; reading Reason sometimes enlightens, sometimes infuriates, with clear fact-based reasoning in one piece and smug condescension dripping from the next. The ultimate political box of chocolates.

So. Picture American ideology as a spectrum. It’s not black-or-white, or even a tri-color bar. Instead, it’s a sliding scale of opinion animated by value judgments that date to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Inasmuch as some would like to identify a laundry list of personal policy preferences and ascribe them as the only authentic form of whatever -ism they favor, the average person doesn’t break into a clear, pure ideological archetype. Except, of course, for politicians who vote according to their ideology, but that’s more a matter of cynicism than belief.

In the current environment, some conservative bloggers are looking more and more like mafioso enforcers, whereas progressive bloggers are looking more and more like spoiled six-year-olds simultaneously deprived of a favorite toy and effective parenting.

Is it any wonder that people feel like contemporary political discourse is more polarized?

The parallel to institutional Catholicism is astonishing. Over the years, bishops largely stopped exercising the role of moral authority, delegating those functions to those with an agenda more politically tactical than ecclesiologically strategic. The bishops wasted their moral capital, to the point that even Barack Obama thought he could roll the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the recent contraception flap.

In like manner, mainline political leaders either ignored the problem of hyper-aggressive activists or pandered to them. Very few have actually stood up to them in a meaningful fashion, despite that they don’t really represent even their respective bases.  Where’s WFB’s successor when we need him? Or the next Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

Instead, we have weak political leaders who respond more readily to a small sliver of their home ideology’s activist base than to the demands of responsible governance.

I’m not sure that America is substantially more polarized, recent statistics notwithstanding. I think people are more willing to fit themselves into certain canned ideological categories, but much like with ethics, no one really fits well into a single bucket. The difference is that it’s easier in the Age of the Internet for self-appointed commissars of purity to purge their ideological segment of the kulaks than for political leaders to stand up to the bullying.

Just like with the bishops in the 1960s and 1970s, but I digress.

The TL;DR version: If you’re tired of increasing ideological polarization, look no further than the unchecked ad hominems flowing from those who’ve been most successful at seizing the megaphone. Until political leaders step up and actually lead, we can look forward to more of the same.