The libertarian world has been abuzz the last couple of days with the endorsement of Mitt Romney by Rand Paul (on the vile Hannity show, to add insult to injury). In many corners, the sense of betrayal is palpable. The question on so many minds seems to be, did Rand act alone – or was Ron on board with the decision? Does it really matter though? I suppose the answer to that question comes down to whom and what one thought Ron Paul was in the first place.
Personally, I’ve been telling people for a while, whatever they thought of Ron Paul, don’t confuse him with Rand. I remember seeing Rand on the same Hannity show back when still a candidate for Senate explicitly distancing himself from his father’s foreign policy. So, I’m not the least surprised, if indeed, Rand acted alone. However, if Ron was part of the decision making process, I can’t say I’d be all that surprised either. A little more surprised, but only a little.
I have never been a supporter of electoralism, even way back in the bad old days when I was on the left. I was in the Greens for several years and a staunch member of the wing that wanted it to be an educational and organizational movement, firmly opposed to its becoming a normal political party. If anyone can dig up any back issues of the old anarchist magazine Kick It Over, there’s a piece in there describing my confrontation with the electoralists’ attempts to take over the “party” and the aggressive hostility to which I was subjected when blocking their much beloved consensus. That the Green Party has today turned into precisely the vanilla, eco-advocacy, opportunistic political party that my little group of dissenters anticipated is hardly surprising. It’s an old story.
I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the history of the radical agrarian movement in Canada in the early decades of the 20th century. It was the same story. For years and years they engaged in grassroots organization against the high tariff policies of Ottawa that reduced them to mere agricultural servants of central Canadian mercantilist interests, feeding the industrial heartland. Finally, though, against the warning of their wiser voices, they took to the electoral route only to see their movement finally destroyed by, first, the allure of power, and later by the marriage they executed with the far more regimented labour movement in the formation of the CCF. And of course the story is even older than that.
Those who know the history of socialism know about the century long series of betrayals of the anti-authoritarian left, by Kautskysts, Leninists and Stalinists of various ilk, all too many of which were resolved in front of firing squads in dank basements. The Spanish Civil War was only the most famous and heartbreaking instance. For all its faults, Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution gives a memorable and insightful telling of the constant battle between the statist political parties and the liberty movement.
Those who have read Rothbard’s brilliant economic history will know that there’s nothing new in the delusion that the system can be changed by way of its own mechanisms — from within. The liberal Burgundy Circle aspired to educate the duke of Burgundy – eventually to be next in line to the throne of Louis XIV – in laissez faire principles, in the hopes of bringing into power the values and principles of classical liberalism, only to have him die of measles. And later, again, the Physiocrats were notorious for this strategy of trying to change the state from within.
Turgot’s reform platform as minister of finance under Louis XVI was seized upon as the best prospect for again trying to realize this classical liberal strategy. Again though it came to nothing and Turgot was soon out of a job. Indeed, those who really pay attention to the story of the French Revolution know that this conflict was a major part of what led it down the path of savagery. The internal story, the one rarely told in high school textbooks, is the story of how the project of harnessing sovereignty to the liberty revolution morphed into the widespread delusion that capturing sovereignty itself constituted fulfilment of the liberty revolution.
This is delusional thinking. Sovereignty can never be a vehicle for liberty; they stand at polar opposites of political possibility. (See my talk at the Libertarian Dinner Club to understand better why this is.) Yet, it is this very confusion, for over two hundreds since we should have learned better from the French Revolution, which continues to lure people into the false promise of electoralism and using sovereignty or the state to achieve liberty.
I understand the thought process of those like Walter Block, Lew Rockwell and Brian Doherty who say it is not really about using the state’s own mechanisms to defeat itself, and recover liberty from within, but about the educational benefits of building a great movement. And I have a friend who recently told me her story of how it was indeed the existence of a libertarian political party that provided her a gateway into the liberty movement, where she today is a well grounded anarchist. It is because I understand this possibility that I avoid getting into arguments about Ron Paul. The fact, though, is that that path always has and always will lead us to this place.
There is widespread outrage and anger over this Mitt Romney endorsement among those new recruits to the liberty movement. Like so many before them, those who have invested their hopes in a change-from-within strategy have wound up feeling betrayed, yet again. In the end, will they feel betrayed by electoralism or the liberty movement? Will the betrayal harden their resolve or cripple their morale? Was the adoration of Ron Paul steeped in growing intellectual wisdom or was it yet another case of political hero worship gone awry? There’s really not much point in arguing over this. Only time will tell. But there is a lesson in all this that it is well past time that we started heeding.
1. Michael McConkey, “The Trouble with Normal,” Kick It Over, 30, Fall 1992.