Compassionate Libertarianism?

Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto (Grand Central Publishing, 2008)

There are times when I—a lifelong liberal—am tempted by libertarianism. The attraction tends to coincide with the arrival of a paltry paycheck made even more pathetic by the subtraction of federal, state, local, FICA, and Social Security taxes. I start to daydream about a life without income tax, which might allow me extra money to pay off school loans or even start a savings account.

This may explain the fascination I’ve developed with the small but growing movement surrounding Ron Paul. The ten-term Texas congressman and former obstetrician was by far the most revolutionary candidate running for the Republican presidential nomination this year. Paul preached strict fidelity to the Constitution and reintroduced the GOP to the orthodox, libertarian ideals of small government, personal freedom, free-market economics, and an end to overseas military misadventures. Though he was never close to gaining the nomination, his radical ideas greatly expanded the American political conversation, especially among conservatives.

But Ron Paul’s ambitions extend far beyond the 2008 presidential race. He wants to fundamentally change the way all Americans, liberal and conservative, think about politics. Where most of us would be content end the war in Iraq, he wants to drastically slash the military budget and bring troops home from around the world; where most of us grudgingly acknowledge the necessity of taxes, he sees them as theft, plain and simple. Paul outlines these, along with his full slate of positions, in The Revolution: A Manifesto, a book that avoids the biographical and anecdotal bent of most “campaign books” in favor of an analysis of the issues.

By turns artificially humble, commonsensical, and bursting with “told ya so”-style hubris, The Revolution introduces what one might call “compassionate libertarianism.” Often seen as a rich man’s political philosophy, devoid of social programs and indifferent to the plight of the poor, libertarianism needs a makeover if it is ever to break through to the mainstream. Paul understands this, and he thus softens up his views with a vague, benevolent populism. In a passage that condemns all forms of welfare, he is quick to tell us that he is also talking about government aid to rich corporations. “I do not understand why we take for granted that the net result of all this looting is good for those who are lower on the economic ladder,” he writes. True enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that Paul still opposes giving federal aid to the disadvantaged.

The congressman also makes a point to vocally disavow racism, obviously in response to the revelation earlier this year that racist and homophobic articles appeared in newsletters bearing his name. “Racism is a particularly odious form of collectivism whereby individuals are treated not on their merits but on the basis of group identity,” writes Paul. “Nothing in my political philosophy, which is the exact opposite of the racial totalitarianism of the twentieth century, gives aid to such thinking.” This statement justifies his denunciation of both the drug war and the death penalty, two positions that will be difficult for most conservatives to support. Strangely, though he touches on nearly every other relevant political issue, The Revolution makes no mention of gay rights.

Unfortunately, aside from his “compassionate” pandering to both the left and the right, there isn’t much in The Revolution that you can’t learn by visiting Ron Paul’s campaign website. The diverse collection of references to everyone from old-school conservatives Robert A. Taft and William F. Buckley to new-school lefties Jon Stewart and Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald show that the 72-year-old congressman remains culturally literate. And though we may not echo Paul’s admiration for the libertarian, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, it is at least nice to know that, unlike John McCain, Paul actually has given some thought to the economy. But none of that is enough to elevate The Revolution beyond propaganda, and redundant propaganda, at that.

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Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.