Ron Paul Supporters Are Worth Talking to Amicably
On December 30, AT ran a very lively, informative article called "To Get Ron Paul's Insanity, You Have To Understand Libertarianism," by Don Feder. As I received it, the article dealt with this question: what is to be done about Ron Paul?
Especially interesting was the panel of commentary. Commenters were basically at odds with Mr. Feder, and each other, over the question of just how amicably libertarians and conservatives ought to regard one another. As one insightful commenter noted, the answer to this question lies in the past -- specifically in our framing era -- not in our future.
To be blunt, the "fusionist" philosophy which distills both conservatism and libertarianism cannot be called a new amalgam, because the constitutional ratification debates of 1787 and 1788 across the new American states were peopled exclusively by proto-fusionists. As such, the product of such debates -- the Constitution -- became the font of American fusionism.
Granted, among such fusionists, there was genuine conflict among priorities and emphases: the Federalists were, as republican theorists, proto-conservatives roughly prefiguring Russel Kirk's scope of government, with a view to libertarian commercialism as the means of mediating factions. The Antifederalists were perfectly opposite: more or less libertarians (as theorists of republicanism) with a hyper-conservative, classical-republican sense of the needfulness of public and private virtue. That is to say, the Federalists were commercially libertarian conservatives, just as the Antifederalists were socially conservative libertarians.
One brief word on the meaning of libertarianism. As Mr. Feder's article shrewdly points out, Libertarian partisans cannot necessarily be aligned perfectly with libertarian economists of the Austrian school of economics, notwithstanding much natural overlap. The two groups remain conceptually distinct. Similarly, as a matter of republican theory, to be libertarian (as the Antifederalists) in this third sense means to posit and secure individual liberties as the end of political communities, which contrasts (albeit not diametrically) with the proto-conservative republican theory of Whiggism, which valued individual rights but generally held them to be important qua constituent parts of durable republics.
The Whigs, one remembers, constituted the party of Edmund Burke, Hugo Grotius, and John Locke. The last in this catalogue of Whigs, Locke, illustrates the point that only a distinction of degree, and not a distinction of kind, separated classical and libertarian republican theorists, because Locke's philosophy honed in upon and enlarged individual rights from within the Whig Party. Thus, even prior to examining the political economies of the Federalists or Antifederalists, one sees an innate fusionism through their universal deference before Locke's more extreme Whig thought, which aggrandized the role of individual liberties from within a classical theory of republicanism. That is, he made classical, Whiggish republicanism more libertarian. Locke is indeed the original fusionist.
Equally important to the ratification debaters was the thought of Montesquieu, though references by Federalists to Montesquieu's political philosophy are generally charged to be much more superficial than Antifederalist allusions thereto. That is, Antifederalists observed with greater fidelity certain doctrines of Montesquieu: that a republic cannot expand its borders vastly if it wishes to maintain a common purpose; that to such an end (maintaining a common purpose) univocity must abide, and not diversity of viewpoint among the population; that to such an end, the populace must maintain sufficient virtue to focus their common purpose, and to ward off prodigality and licentiousness (a four-letter word to the Antifederalists, repeatedly named in the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788's summer). In other words, Montesquieu's philosophy itself represented a new sort of classical republican theory, forming a sort of doctrine on the scope of government to the American framers. While verbally Madison and the Federalists also avowed loyalty and imputed importance to the figure of Montesquieu, Antifederalists Patrick Henry and George Mason noted that such Federalist lip-service actually located means of weathering factions and popular "licentiousness" altogether contradictory to what Montesquieu and his Antifederalist discipleship admonished.
And here is the bizarre turn: the Federalists, who advocated the more "consolidated" purview of national government, informing traditional Whig theory and early conservatism (more than the more purist, more individual-centered, newer Antifederalist republican theory of libertarianism), cut the figure of economic libertarians by resolving to mediate factionalism with the non-classical expedients of commercialism and hyper-pluralism. The republic could grow without limit, Madison reasoned against Montesquieu (and against his close friend Jefferson's Antifederalist adherents), as long as the competing interests of various factions came to a zero-sum result, leaving the democratic process unmolested by such competing interests.
So whereas the Antifederalists simply rejected the problem of special interest by denying it the conditions for the possibility of existence -- through small geographical size, univocity, and popular virtue -- the Federalists claimed to have circumvented the problem without need for moral or geographic restraint, or singleness of viewpoint for that matter (Madison called such an expedient "impracticable"): the Federalist solution lay in, well, Beanie Babies and iPods. Robust free trade by manifold diversely interested parties, in a vast, commercial republic, would allow the populace to factionalize without serious detriment to democratic purity, Madison reasoned. He acknowledges this explicitly in Federalist #10: "There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes [endorsed by Antifederalists]; the other, by controlling its effects." Madison's Federalist argument eventuates in the latter position, of course, rendering his party economically libertarian, though paradoxically, also the party advocating bigger central government.
Noteworthily, neither side in the foundational American debates of 1787 and 1788 entertained a scintilla of what constitutes the central part of "today's leftism": socialism or a vision of huge government. And this means that, to resume the mantle of our initial prompt, while there has always existed a very halcyon disagreement in our country (among "those who know") as to which fusionism is correct -- libertarian conservatism or conservative libertarianism -- unpacking the "true" American political theory is a contest among close friends, with more shared assumptions than points of departure. The same cannot be said of either conservative or libertarian arguments with socialists, whose xenophilic assumptions enjoy zero basis in either our founding or the Constitution as it exists today (i.e., amended 27 times).
And such a fact should be remembered when one dialogues with Ron Paul's true believers, even if too often they argue as belligerently as socialists (or, for that matter, when they employ actual socialist arguments against national security measures). The great majority of their arguments hail faithfully from a constitutional locus, and from a place which would have been recognized by the framers of the Constitution. I cannot think of a better watchword than this for separating arguments worth having from those not worth having. Dialogue with a libertarian certainly falls in the former category...just avoid any talk of Iran.