Ron Paul and Cranky Libertarianism

by A. Jay Adler on January 2, 2012
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Here’s the thing about Ron Paul – he’s not an outlier. I don’t mean that every libertarian is as bad as the worst of what is on the record of what Ron Paul has published in his name or believes or may privately feel. I mean that libertarianism by nature – which is to say the nature of the people who find their self-expression in the libertarian attitude – leads to Ron Paul. Libertarianism is a cranky political philosophy and those who espouse it have a foolish tolerance for, if they are not themselves, cranks. Look at Glenn Greenwald or Andrew Sullivan, the latter of whom, of notoriously unsound judgment, explicitly did endorse Paul, as did, ahem, Stormfront. No, Paul does not endorse Stormfront. The founder of the white-supremacist neo-Nazi organization endorsed him. And this does not give Ron Paul or his supporters pause. Cranky is as the crank does.

What is the essence of libertarian crankiness? One can rhetorically and philosophically elevate the core expression by articulating it as a fundamental distrust of centralized government, or belief in an original, natural and unfettered personal liberty, but the cranky expression of the same ideas is “leave me the fuck alone.” I do not mean to diminish the feeling by going so basic on us. Any strong personality accustomed by individual nature to going his own way as he determines that way best to be, among whom I will tell you I number, will know the feeling of “leave me the fuck alone.” One has to be clear, though, that that is a feeling and not a philosophy. There has to be a basis in ideas for determining how to respond to what one might reactively consider an albatross around one’s neck. It might be someone attempting to wrestle you to the ground; it might be someone in real need – assuming, for it to make a difference, that you even accept another’s need as any sweat off your back.

That latter consideration points to the crank in crankiness, i.e.

a person who unshakably holds a belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false.[1] A crank belief is so wildly at variance with those commonly held as to be ludicrous to many. Cranks characteristically dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict their own unconventional beliefs, making rational debate an often futile task; this is the essential defining characteristic of the crank: being impervious to facts, evidence, and rational inference.

Of course, this is a claim that most – maybe nearly all – people will make about some of those with whom they passionately disagree. The only basis for distinguishing among these claims, to separate the supportable from the insupportable, is “facts, evidence, and rational inference,” which we all together have to judge. There ain’t no referee in a bottle. Far be it from me (actually, not) to suggest that whether a person’s political beliefs regularly induce the affinity of neo-Nazis, theocratic bigots, and conspiracy theorists should play any role in developing these judgments.

The crank core in the crankiness of libertarians is found, ironically, in a quality they share with Marxist-Leninists and their heirs – disregard for the empirical evidence against the programs they espouse. This apparently remarkable claim about Marxist-Leninism seems so because of the rhetorical apparatus that Marxists have used through history to claim the label of science for Marx’s analysis. (Beware of “sciences” founded in language.) However, Marx argued that communist revolutions would arise in industrially developed capitalist economies that had arrived at a decadent terminus.

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. (Critique of Political Economy)

This has been a much argued point in Marxist history and philosophy owing to the fact that not a single communist revolution has ever occurred under these conditions. But ideologues, even those claiming the mantle of science, will never be deterred by empirical evidence to the contrary. They will account for results that deviate from the predicted in any way but that which alters the underlying premises. The ideology must stand. Disconfirmation bias must rule: one raises the evidentiary bar for the claims one opposes. Here, for instance, is Glenn Greenwald on Ron Paul.

 …even though I don’t support him for President, Ron Paul is the only major candidate from either party advocating crucial views on vital issues that need to be heard, and so his candidacy generates important benefits. (Emphasis Greenwald’s)

Characteristic of Greenwald’s disingenuousness is this disavowal of endorsement of Paul for president while otherwise praising Paul’s political positions and arguments – in a manner one otherwise would in supporting a candidate – as superior in truth-telling to those of any other candidate.

…his candidacy generates important benefits.

Would the benefits include that of Paul’s actually winning the presidency? If so, why not endorse him? If not – if there is a more holistic consideration to be made of Paul, his positions, and his political philosophy, a consideration that would, comprehensively, make another candidate superior to Paul as the next president of the United States, would it not behoove an honest discussant of ideas to articulate this more comprehensive truth?

Greenwald proceeds to say,

The thing I loathe most about election season is reflected in the central fallacy that drives progressive discussion the minute “Ron Paul” is mentioned. As soon as his candidacy is discussed, progressives will reflexively point to a slew of positions he holds that are anathema to liberalism and odious in their own right and then say: how can you support someone who holds this awful, destructive position? The premise here — the game that’s being played — is that if you can identify some heinous views that a certain candidate holds, then it means they are beyond the pale, that no Decent Person should even consider praising any part of their candidacy.

Well, we know in reading Greenwald that we get a great deal of his loathing, but he immediately after these words argues that President Obama has committed such “heinous” acts that – if Greenwald’s arguments have any meaning at all (a questionable hypothesis at this point) – he himself would seem to be so “beyond the pale, that no Decent Person should even consider praising” him. So, working through the convolutions of Greenwald’s unendingly contradictory and unfailingly slippery arguments, one is left with two approaches, which are not alternatives: weigh the bad one can find in any candidate against that of any and all others, and consider the coherence of the political philosophies and the values of the national visions they present.

The unseemly nature and appeal of many of Paul’s positions and supporters is now near the top of the news. What then about the coherence of the political philosophy? It is two-pronged, but it offers a unified field. One prong is the simplistic opposition to “centralized government” and any enforced tie to one’s fellow human beings. The other is the corollary conspiratorial perception. What unites the two is the crank’s cranky antagonism to the humanistic and systematic developments of modernity.

I’ll explore that next, in part by considering what Greenwald described as Matt Stoller’s “genuinely brilliant essay on the history of progressivism and the Democratic Party.” We’ll get deep in the cranky.


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