On Libertarianism and Utopianism, and the Candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul

We are once again facing that most dreadful of all seasons, a presidential election. We on the Republican side are again faced with the choice of selecting a presidential candidate, and many of us feel that on this selection hinges the future of the country. The stakes are high. Of course they are always high. But the choice of the right Republican to run against Obama is, we feel, of crucial importance.

It is in this backdrop that many point to a candidate such as Ron Paul. As something of a political junkie, I am frequently asked what I think of Ron Paul. I have had difficulty articulating my objection to Paul as a candidate, but decided it was time to think it out and express it. I will do so by means of a literary allusion, from one of the greatest novels in the English language, Middlemarch:

He had formerly observed with approbation her capacity for worshipping the right object; he now foresaw with sudden terror that this capacity might be replaced by presumption, this worship by the most exasperating of all criticism, -that which sees vaguely a great many fine ends and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them.

A little background is necessary, which is worthwhile since this is such a fascinating book. Mr. Casaubon, the speaker in the previous quote, is a middle-aged, eccentric clergyman whose life is poured into writing an epic book which will seek to unlock the common key in all the mythologies of the world. Dorothea, the “she” mentioned in that quote, fell in love with Mr. Casaubon and married him, despite the warnings that many gave her that it was an unsuitable marriage. She is a deeply idealistic young lady, and has projected onto Mr. Casaubon all of her desires for changing the world, believing that by being his partner and help she will share in his noble work. Once she marries him, she finds out that Casaubon is in fact a rather small and petty man, whose fears and insecurities prevent him from ever finishing his work, and that in fact the book he is working on is simply his way of hiding from the world.

Casaubon is not a bad man. The novel is at pains to point this out. He is merely human. The problem comes from the fact that Dorothea has projected her highly unrealistic ideals onto Casaubon, forcing him to carry a burden which he is unable to bear. The quote above reflects the moment when Casaubon realizes this.

This is the approach, I feel, which a certain segment of the electorate takes to selecting a presidential candidate. Some, of course, pick candidates for the shallowest of reasons- who is more attractive, who promises them all the goodies the want, etc. But there is also a segment who has a vague idea in their mind of what kind of world they would like to live in without any conception at all of what would be required to get there, and fall in love with the candidate who promises them that. Because this candidate is connected to their Utopia, they refuse to see any real flaws in that candidate and even make the flaws out to be virtues. So, if a person has no experience, they say that’s a good thing, since experience corrupts. If the person regularly says stupid things, they say that just shows that they’re “real” or “honest”, instead of being a fake, airbrushed candidate. This is mainly the way that we elected our last president, Barack Obama. There were of course some who knew exactly who the man was and elected him, because they want radical socialism in this country. But many others simply projected all of their fantasies and wish fulfillments of a post-racial society, of an end to political conflict, of brilliant post-partisan political leadership, onto that man, who had deliberately cast himself in such a light as to make such “wishcasting” possible and desirable. He deliberately spoke in vague generalities and platitudes, reserving his much more specific (and very progressive) statements for small friendly audiences.

Conservatives must not make the same mistake. We live in a sinful world, where there is no such thing as perfection. Not by a long shot. All of our candidates are flawed in one way or another. But this should not be surprising. There is no savior in politics. There is no way out of the messy world we live in. Anyone who stays in the spotlight of elected government for any length of time is going to have some uncomfortable things revealed about them, and is going to make some bad mistakes. Oftentimes we are drawn to political outsiders such as Herman Cain, because they appear to be untainted by the corruption of government. But does that really make them better than anyone else? It’s easy to be untainted by the corruption of government when you’re not in government. Will they remain untainted once they’re in? I’m not against political outsiders, but there as in all cases, we must remain realistic. Pride, ambition and greed exist just as much in the private sector as they do in the government. It’s often just less visible- that’s why we call it the “private sector”.

Real candidates also know that there is a difference between where you want to be and where you have to go to get there. Dishonest political campaigns are always telling you, “Step 3- Profit!” without making terribly clear how we get there.

This is why I am a conservative, and not a libertarian. Libertarians and progressives both fail to be realistic about human nature. They claim they are, of course. But both of them simply posit an ideal world and insist that we go to that ideal world as fast as we possibly can. The major difference between the two is the nature of their utopia. Conservatives recognize that this world is fallen and that there is no such thing as perfection, and that anyone telling you that they can deliver any kind of perfection is a snake-oil salesman. Therefore we must be realistic about our candidates and realistic about the kind of change we can expect and the kind of change that is desirable. Government must be limited because of the sinfulness of politicians. But government must exist, and be strong in the things it needs to do, because of the sinfulness of politicians in other countries, as well as of non-politicians in our own. By being realistic about the human condition can we do the best job of restraining its defects and excesses, and encouraging its better side.

A further point about human nature- Revolutions always end badly, because in the breakdown of social structures, revolutions are always coopted by the worst sorts of power-hungry people, the people unrestrained by moral codes and driven most by personal ambition. Change therefore must always be incremental. Anyone promising you quick change is either deeply naive and unrealistic, or is a snake-oil salesman.

This brings me to Ron Paul in particular. I agree with much of Ron Paul’s ideals of limited government, sound currency and fiscal restraint. But the conservative movement as a whole agrees with those things, though we disagree about some of the details.

But I have two major issues with Paul. First, he does not seem to be living in the same country I am in. He seems to think that we can just get where he wants to be just by virtue of him being elected. Perhaps I am selling him short here, but he does not seem to have any concrete plan for dealing with our situation now in a realistic way, and instead just tells us how he’d like things to be, which is how I’d like things to be too. It doesn’t take any particular competence or virtue to dream. It doesn’t take any great intelligence to tell me the things that are wrong with the country right now. What is hard, but necessary, is to articulate a doable plan for moving the country in the right direction, from where we are right now.

Secondly, and this is an extension of the first, is his foreign policy. I understand that we are all weary of war after the last decade. Paul seems to think that we can end all these wars unilaterally, just by leaving. I have plenty of criticisms of how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were handled. But again, that takes no special brains; hindsight is 20/20. Paul was saying we shouldn’t be involved back then, and everybody thought he was a crackpot. Now that we’re all tired of war, he’s starting to look (to some) like a genius. But he was wrong then and he’s still wrong. Just because we’ve seen the bad consequences of what we did doesn’t mean that those consequences are worse than if we had done nothing, or done something different. We don’t know what the consequences of doing nothing would have been. We cannot go back and have the argument again based on what we now know, much of which is only true because of the choices that were made in 2002-03. It’s always easy to criticize people who try things, to criticize the messes that are caused by accomplishment. It’s like the modern environmentalist who criticizes the pollution of industry- he’s not criticizing failure. He’s criticizing success. Because the industrialist has succeeded in industry, some secondary problems are created that need to be dealt with. But what is the alternative of no pollution? No industry, and living in caves. Where there are no oxen, there the stable is clean.

So it is with foreign policy. We can’t just not have a foreign policy. We can’t just withdraw from the world. I know we’d all like to. But the world isn’t going to let us withdraw. 9/11 happened because people hate Christianity and freedom, not because of some evil America committed. It’s not like 9/11 was the first time Muslims ever attacked Christians. 9/11 would have kept happening, and will keep happening, until America simply surrendered, unless we did something about it. We did something about it, and it wasn’t perfect, but we haven’t had any more 9/11’s.

Jesus told us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If I lived in a country where I and my family were in danger of being tortured and killed for being Christians, or for being from the wrong tribe, or being opposed to the government stealing all my property, and there was a powerful nation who could do something about it, I would want them to do it. America can’t save the world. We can’t help everyone. But to say we can’t help everyone is not the same as saying that therefore we shouldn’t help anyone. God has given us overwhelming power and strength, and I believe that those who have strength and power should do what they can to help those who do not. We’re going to make mistakes. But the alternative is to hide our talent in the ground, which I do not believe is a viable alternative.

So this is my take on Ron Paul- like Dorothea, he has a vague vision of a great many fine ends, and not the least notion how to achieve them. Therefore, we need to find a presidential candidate who has plausible plans that make sense, who has integrity, who shares our vision. We need to understand that such a candidate is going to have flaws, and it’s always a judgment call where to draw the line. If you think your candidate has no flaws, then you are being unrealistic or you are being lied to. This is what being a conservative is all about- about being realistic. There is no savior, there is no golden age. Not in this world, anyway.

8 thoughts on “On Libertarianism and Utopianism, and the Candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul

  1. Middlemarch? Really?

    While I am not sure that I support Ron Paul as much as I used to, I think some of your logic is wrong. First, I agree with Libertarians not being realistic about human nature. That we can agree on.
    Second, I think Ron Paul probably does have a plan. I think it involves drastic action that would clearly hurt our economy in the short term. But, the question is whether or not that drastic action is needed.
    Third, you can withdraw from the world. Isolationism is a foreign policy. You may not like it, but we could do it. We have had more 9/11's. Fort Hood comes to mind. The scale of death may not be the same, but it was a Muslim killing Americans in a way we were not ready for. It counts. This current foreign policy of having troops all over the world has not worked all that well. Our involvement in war has gone up since WWII and the current foreign policy. I think maybe it is time to try something else.

    What worries me the most about your post is that you seem to be saying that what's done is done, and we cannot go back. This means conservatism is a losing proposition from the get-go, and a long slow slouch toward Gomorrah is unavoidable.

    I also am not sure that the parable of the talents applies to states/nations. There are plenty of nations where Christians are killed and their property is stolen. What exactly do you want America to do about it? Do you want America to send the army to help the Christians of East Timor? Do you want us to overthrow the butcher of the Sudan? Saudia Arabia is awful to Christians, do we invade? Sanctions? If doing nothing is not an option what action is required?

  2. Lee,
    Ron Paul voted against Paul Ryan's plan in the house, as did Rand Paul in the Senate. Why? It didn't go far enough. So that perfectly illustrates what I'm talking about. A good plan that would move us in the right direction is rejected because it's not good enough for Ron Paul. At a certain point, it starts to feel more like he just wants attention, rather than to get anything done.

    Ron Paul also believes that 9/11 was our fault, blowback for all the terrible things we've done. And you're right, there have been other terrorist attacks since then and they do count. But Paul's foreign policy is about the same as Code Pink's- people only hate us because of the wicked things we've done. That's foolish. America has certainly made mistakes. But I cannot accept the idea that America is the greatest force for evil in the world, as this position requires. If only we would withdraw, then all the bad guys would go away, stop targeting us, stop targeting our friends? We should leave the Israelis, the Taiwanese, the South Koreans to their fate?

    Again, I said that we can't fix every problem in the world. Far from it. But that doesn't then translate into helping nobody. If I were walking down the street and saw a woman being mugged, and ignored it, because after all, there are thousands of women being mugged and I can't save them all, would that be a legitimate position? And I think that is analogous to the foreign stage. I think there are times when it is right to intervene at times when atrocities are being committed, in situations where there is something we could do without just making it worse. Additionally when friends and allies of ours, and important trading partners, like Kuwait, are attacked and invaded and subjected to oppression and brutality, I think it's right to try to help. That doesn't mean I agree with every choice associated with the Gulf War in the early '90s or the one this century. But I think we were right to do it.

    I'm not saying there's no going back. I am saying that undoing damage in a sudden and catastrophic way often does more damage than it solves. The situation now requires more urgent and rapid change than would have been the case had we tackled this ten years ago.

    But even so, a plan that all the Democrats and some liberal Republicans think is a "meat axe" approach, way too drastic, is still not good enough for Paul. It doesn't pass his purity test, so he'll just say no and do nothing. He is not committed to actually solving problems, in my opinion. He is just interested in Ron Paul. And a lot of his followers are the same way- Ron Paul or nothing. Many of them refused to vote for any candidate when Paul didn't get the nomination, and thus helped Obama win. They refuse to see any possible flaw in the man, and viciously tear down every other candidate. I get the feeling he'd prefer that we do simply collapse as a nation so that it can be remade in his image. And that perfectly illustrates the broader point I'm making. Conservatism is about careful change, and recognizing that there is no perfection. Libertarianism is a pipe dream.

  3. I basically agree with you about Ron Paul. He is a great "no" vote, and should always be re-elected to Congress for that reason, but perhaps not put in the White House for that same reason. My two main problems here ( I use the term problem loosely) are foreign policy and the "pipedream" nature of Libertarianism.

    First, foreign policy can be isolationist. Paul is wrong about blaming us for 9/11. But, I think enough time has gone by to show that stationing troops all around the globe involves us in "entangling alliances" warned about by Washington. Before WWII we only went to war when we were attacked: Impressment in 1812, the shooting in the Mexican-AMerican war, Fort Sumnter in the Civil War, the Main in the Spanish American War, the Lisutania in WWI and Pearl Harbor in WWII. Since then we have gone to war often without provocation other than our "allies" are in trouble. Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Gulf War II, and that is not even to mention things like Lybia, Nicaragua, and other such incidents. Only Afghanastan fits the pre-WWII bill. In my opinion it is time to get back to a pre-WWII mindset about war.

    As for Libertarianism being a pipedream, I am not so sure. As you say, "Conservatism is about careful change". Which means that Conservatism does not stand for an ideology, but rather a "do not change" mind set. This is okay when everything is right. But when things go drastically wrong, perhaps drastic action/change is required. Sometimes you have to chop off the arm in order to stop the infection from killing the body. A little bit at a time might save the body and the arm, but it might miss it and kill the whole body. I think the debate now is about how drastic to be. Thinking Ryan is not drastic enough is a legitimate position. Just because Republicans like Olympia Snow think it is too much speaks more about Republicans than it does to the "meat cleaver" nature of Ryan's plan.

    And just for the record, I am not so much arguing for Ron Paul as I am against Tim Pawlenty and other establishment candidates. If i had to vote right now for a Republican I would go with Herman Cain.

  4. I like Herman Cain a lot. And I am not a big fan of establishment Republicans- they've done a lot of damage to the conservative brand. I'm not sure it's fair to lump Pawlenty in with them. He's got some blemishes on the record, no doubt. But he's saying things that need to be said, and he's delivered in the past. But if Cain continues to catch fire, I'd be proud to support him.

    So it's a legitimate position, certainly, to think the Paul Ryan budget didn't go far enough. I don't think anyone would disagree with that, including Ryan. I doubt he's going to just stop advocating for change once he gets it passed. But to say, it doesn't go far enough, and therefore vote against it, like Ron Paul did- that's the kind of idealistic libertarianism that I'm against.

    And I also agree that we should be less involved in a lot of places than we are. I would stop well short of full isolationism, but I would like to see us far less interventionist. The Libya mission, for example, is very foolish, and attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably pretty pointless as well.

  5. I agree with you about the awesomeness of "Middlemarch"…one of those amazing books that left an empty space in my days when I finished reading it.

    I do have a few quibbles, however. One is with your claim that conservatives aren't idealistic. You accurately assess the fallibility of politicians and citizens, but what about corporations? I've seen firsthand how frequently corporations don't play by the rules. I've worked for companies that get away with breaking labor laws, employment laws, import/export laws, nonprofit/for-profit laws, and on and on. And these aren't frivolous laws–these are Bernie Madoff-type situations, on a smaller scale. I don't necessarily trust the government, either, but the government does have some accountability, in the form of votes and recalls. Corporate heads have none, if the government can't or won't exercise controls on them. I think a significant flaw in the contemporary conservative movement is an inexplicable naivete where corporations are concerned, a belief that while people are sinful, corporations will somehow act in everyone's best interests.

    Second, I don't think it's accurate to state unequivocally that 9/11 occurred only because people hate Christianity and freedom, and not at all because of the US' actions throughout the rest of the world. I'm absolutely not saying we deserved what happened, but we did treat a good chunk of the Third World as our chess board during the Cold War. (So did the Soviets–I'm not implicating only us.) The American government has, at various times, implemented policies that have been extremely damaging to innocent people in other countries. I can even understand why people in some of these places hate us; we've done things that are, frankly, worthy of hate and not remotely Christian. Now, I also believe that the American people can be extremely generous, both with money and with time; I'm proud to be an American, and I'm proud that so many of us do care so deeply and become so involved in trying to improve the lives of people in other countries. I believe, however, that the causes for 9/11 are more complex than you're allowing, that our past behavior has not been blameless, and that part of why many people hate Christians is because of decidedly un-Christian acts committed in the name of God and/or by a country that made much of its Christianity.

  6. Monique,
    I can't really disagree with anything you said.

    I think the Republican party would be well served to stop being "pro-business" or "pro-corporation" and instead be "pro-market". The government should not pick winners in the market. Picking workers as the winners (Democrats) is not really any worse or better, in my mind, than picking business owners (Republicans). The state should just work to ensure a level playing field where laws are followed and contracts are honored. Of course, the Democrats of today are actually far more in bed with big corporations than Republicans are, but never mind- the state shouldn't pick winners on either side.

    And as far as 9/11 goes, I'm not so naive as to think that everything we've done for the last 70 years was right, or that we haven't made any enemies by those actions. Of course we have. America has been at best only vaguely guided by Christian principles since WWI or so. My point there was more rhetorical; I feel like Ron Paul seems to put the blame mostly on America's shoulders, that we have earned these terrorist attacks. Perhaps that's an oversimplification. Perhaps I'm sensitive from all the Michael Moore / Code Pink nonsense I've seen for the last decade or so. But Islam has been at war with the Christian world since its beginning in 632 AD. They have continued that war literally whenever they have the means. Their religion requires the forcible subjugation of the world. There are certainly moderate Muslims who aren't at war with us all the time, but they can only really hold this position by ignoring parts of their own religion. I think we have to be realistic about that.

  7. Fair enough, Matt!

    Unfortunately, I don't think anyone of either party can be elected to office (certainly not on the national level, and probably not on the state) without being in bed with big business. And while I like the idea of a level playing field, my definition of that would be very different from that of a company president who makes millions annually.

    Something that I find disturbing about Rand Paul–which may or may not reflect on his father–is his reaction, or lack thereof, to the "curbing" incident at his campaign rally last year. Yes, the woman attacked was an agitator from an organization whose politics and tactics are not always aboveboard, but she still had the right to protest at his event. She did not deserve to be kicked, punched, etc., and I thought it was extremely irresponsible, at best, of Rand Paul not to condemn the violence.

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