The Ron Paul Movement

Isaac Chotiner gets a happy buzz off of Ron Paul’s weak showing in New Hampshire:

Rather, it is always satisfying to see a libertarian candidate crash and burn—something which forces libertarians to face the reality that their philosophy has almost no appeal. Now, it’s certainly true that Paul was far from the ideal libertarian presidential aspirant, but he did raise an obscene amount of money and garner an insane amount of publicity. Moreover, he was running in the Live Free or Die state in an open Republican primary (against a weak GOP field). And he still couldn’t get 10 percent of the vote!

But back to the Schadenfreude. Again, what happened to the appeal of libertarianism? Where were the great and good American people irate over the Federal Reserve and smoking bans? Do we not care about liberty anymore? Whither freedom?

Even as someone who isn’t a gushing Ron Paul convert, I don’t share Chotiner’s pleasure at the results, but I’m not in the least surprised at them. Despite the regular protestations of Cato’s David Boaz, there just isn’t much support for true-blue libertarianism in this country — the kind that wants to end Social Security and kill off S-CHIP — nor are its ideas even widely understood. Milton Friedman is only moderately well know, and folks like Hayek, Von Mises, and Rothbard are really, really obscure. Sometimes it seems otherwise, of course, but that’s what happens when you start to mistake going to Reason happy hours and reading Julian Sanchez’s blog for an accurate representation of the world at large. Diehard libertarians are few and far between (and, as Chris Hayes recently pointed out, there are some pretty serious fissures even in the ranks of true believers.)

Add to this the fact that it seems probable that a significant number of Ron Paul supporters aren’t even libertarians – they want universal health care, heavy corporate regulations, etc. – but simply disaffected voters with a grudge against anything that reeks of mainstream politics, and Ron Paul’s showing at the polls becomes even less notable. This is one reason why I’ve always been so put off by the Ron Paul triumphalism of the Lew Rockwell crowd (as well as the legions of Paulite comment raiders); it’s wishful thinking, especially when it claims that Ron Paul is leading anything that really resembles a “libertarian movement.” Though there may be significant overlap, being anti-establishment, anti-politics, and anti-mainstream is simply not the same thing as being a libertarian. Moreover, being anti-mainstream and anti-establishment lends itself to low turnout pretty much by definition.

As has been pointed out time and time again, limited government is pretty popular in the abstract, but it gets very little support in the specific. Even within the Republican party, the Fabrizio GOP breakdown to which Daniel Larison loves to refer shows that supply siders are the smallest constituency on the right. Populism, on the other hand, is on the rise, and the heartfelt religious rhetoric of modern evangelicals is making its way into the mainstream, which is what (frustratingly) makes Huckabee so appealing to so many.

So I do suspect that Republicans and conservatives will move to slightly softer, more centrist positions on various economic issues over the coming years. This isn’t a trend I’m excited about in the least, but it seems likely. All that said, however, and I do think the long-term prospects for the libertarian/limited-government message are reasonably good. Politics moves in waves, fluxing between opposing ideas. Right now, the trend is away from limiting the scope of government. But after a period, perhaps a little less than a decade, perhaps a little more, of somewhat more liberal dominance and conservatives inching to toward the center (it’s already happening), the trends will begin to pull in the other direction. Ron Paul may not be the great libertarian hope, but that doesn’t mean there won’t ever be one.