A Politics of Reason

2008-01-11

So I've carved out some time to read up on the Ron Paul controversy (some perspective can be found here and here). To the extent that I have supported Dr. Paul, I have done so not because I think he is a great prophet of the libertarian future, but because I think the Republican Party needs to learn that some significant number of voters care about freedom. My impression of Dr. Paul from watching several of his speeches and interviews is that he is a kind of absent-minded, eccentric, even goofy professor of Constitutional law, with a tendency toward conspiracy theories and other such nonsense. He makes some good points, but they are mixed in with long ramblings about the evils of the Federal Reserve and the value of the gold standard. His supporters are even less coherent -- when they call in to C-SPAN, they seem incapable of making even one salient point in favor of liberty.

And now, it emerges, for many years Ron Paul published a series of newsletters in which appeared not just the usual garbage about the Bilderbergs and the Trilateral Commission, but also irrational bilge about people of color (some of which was merely politically incorrect, but much was actively racist). There is some question about whether Dr. Paul wrote this swill or whether it was written by someone in his employ, but to me that is immaterial. A free society is a society in which you take responsibility for your own actions, including the actions of your staff. Dr. Paul could have paid attention to what was published in his name, and he could have fired the person who wrote this guano or even shut down the newsletters (which were published over a series of years). He didn't do so, and he is paying the price for that now.

Do the actions of one loose cannon cast a pall over libertarianism as a political philosophy? Not particularly, I think. Indeed, my sense is that Dr. Paul is more of a paleo-conservative than a true libertarian (although it's always easy to say that someone you don't like or agree with is not a "true" advocate of your preferred ideology). In any case he is just one misguided politician, not a giant of the intellect in the realms of economics, international relations, history, or philosophy.

That said, I sense that there has long been a seamy underside to some modern advocates of the Constitution and private property rights. In particular, they are attracted to something like libertarianism because it would allow them to discriminate against people of color ("it's my property, I can decide whether to hire black people at my company" or whatever). Even Ayn Rand, who supposedly held that reason is much more fundamental than liberty, made such arguments in the run-up to the civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in the mid-1960s, and wrote her lone essay on the irrationalism inherent in racism only upon being urged to do so by her acolyte Nathaniel Branden (or so the story goes).

This undercurrent is disturbing and must be squarely faced. To me, the solution is the one that even Rand did not pursue: the primacy of reason. Where were the Objectivists in the 1960s (or before and after) in denouncing such an abject form of unreason as racism, and in recognizing that such unreason is not to be countenanced in any fashion whatsoever? Instead, too many Randians (and certainly their less-philosophical cousins the libertarians) have focused on the surface political issue of property rights instead of the more fundamental issue of prejudice, bigotry, and unreason. What matters (or should matter) to someone who values reality, facts, reason, and individualism are, say, the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities of a job applicant -- not his or her skin color, sex, class background, parentage, or any other inherited and unchangeable characteristic.

Here again I return to a theme I've mentioned before: the fact that even those philosophical Objectivists don't have a consistent political philosophy. Such a political philosophy needs to be based first of all on reason, not on something as derivative as the principle of non-aggression or the importance of the Consitution. Unfortunately, as far as I can see many practical (not intellectual) libertarians, and in particular many supporters of Ron Paul, are not exactly paragons of reason. Theirs is a politics of symbolism, paranoia, conspiracy, fear-mongering, alarmism, and other emotional appeals.

Yet many important scholars have explored ideas that are broadly libertarian, and the unfortunate fumblings of a presidential candidate do not undercut that body of work in economics, law, sociology, history, ethics, and other disciplines. I don't pretend to have all the answers (I'm just a philosophy major masquerading as a technologist, after all) but more and more I realize how important it is to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs -- and blaming it on you, to boot. That means immersing yourself in facts, science, history, reality, and reason. I don't know exactly what a politics of reason will look like, but I do know that it's important for those who care about the future to figure it out.

Let's get to work, shall we?


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