The Medium Is The Message: Why I Cannot In Good Conscience Support Ron Paul

The best an intellectually rigorous libertarian can say about the Ron Paul movement is that it's a great form of advertising. No one seriously believes Paul will win the nomination; the most we can hope for is that the campaign will awaken the dormant love of liberty in many who would have otherwise continued living a life of apathy in the campaign's absence. While I no longer actively support the Libertarian Party, and long ago ceased deluding myself into thinking it will ever achieve electoral success, I do owe a considerable debt to the LP for awakening my own personal interest in liberty. (Thank Zeus it didn't all begin with Rand for me; I can only imagine the sort of nutcase I might have become if it did.) If Paul's campaign manages to do the same for others like me, so much the better, and I hope it succeeds in this limited way.

But I am not the norm, and neither are you. Of the many who actively support and are involved in the Ron Paul movement, and who were not already libertarians to begin with, very few will have the time, patience, and energy - let alone the interest - to continue to explore the ideas of liberty long after the campaign ends in miserable failure, as it inevitably will. Don't believe me? Just go to any local LP meeting in your area and observe the topics of conversation. I lucked out; my local LP group consisted entirely of stereotypical white, male, suit-and-tie corporate professionals in their late 20s/early 30s, with no stereotypical Starchild or Papa Smurf in sight. The discussion ranged far and wide, from who among us would consider running as a candidate for the Municiple Water Treatment advisory board, all the way to the importance of promoting property tax cuts and good governance in our public electoral campaigns. Good governance? Tax finagling? A radical and invigorating intellectual discourse on the virtue of - and means of promoting - liberty in society this was not.

As the Bush administration has been piling mistake upon squandered opportunity upon violated campaign promise, increasing the size and scope of government beyond anyone's expection or desire, all the while isolating us from the international community's genuine post-9/11 sympathy, libertarians correctly advised both Democrats and Republicans unhappy with these outcomes that the problems are not (at least not solely) the result of putting the wrong person in office, but instead, are systematic of any massive, centralized bureaucracy given the power to coerce its subjects, expected to solve any and every problem, and with little to nothing in the way of competition to check, balance, and ultimately restrain its limitless authority. To believe that if, next time, we just elect the right candidate, all of these problems will surely be avoided, is to embrace the Care Bear Stare theory of politics: perhaps endearing when exhibited by young children, but embarrassing in adults seemingly incapable of or unwilling to recognize the structural incentives that monopolies of power inevitably create.

What, then, are we to make of these same libertarians who, after so wisely redirecting our focus away from the specific qualities of individual electoral candidates and instead towards the structural limitations of any system of centralized power in theory, now wish to endorse Ron Paul as the presidential candidate worthy of our attention, money, and votes? Of course we don't expect him to win, but even as a vehicle for advertising libertarianism, what sort of message are we sending?

The medium is the message. Communicating a message of liberty through an electoral campaign necessarily entails endorsing electoral campaigns as a legitimate and effective tool for achieving collective goals. In our case, as libertarians, our collective goal is liberty, and in this particular case, our collective goal is increasing our ranks through advertising. Yet if libertarianism means anything at all, it means a strong aversion to the use of electoral politics as a tool for solving social problems - if not categorically restraining ourselves from doing so, than at least doing so as infrequently as humanly possible.

This is not to say that the hypocrisy of using a means libertarians themselves frequently consider illegitimate or ill-advised will have no chance of getting our message across. It certainly worked in my case, and I'm sure it has worked for many others. But it is unreasonable to expect most of the target audience, having been successfully persuaded that Ron Paul is the candidate to support, to then go through the trouble of seperating the wheat from the chaff and come to the self-realization that implicit in Paul's message of liberty is the notion that our focus should not be on selecting a candidate with admirable qualities such as honesty, integrity, and devotion to constitutional limits on government, but instead our focus should be on the inherent threat to liberty of the system itself, regardless of who happens to be temporarily at its helm. Bundling these two things together involves a self-contradiction between the medium and its message. Expecting people to ignore that contradiction, expecting people to hear the message we actually intend to send while rejecting the message of the medium itself, is expecting too much. Far better to communicate the message of liberty through legitimate, direct and non-contradictory means: academia, mainstream newspapers, pop-culture, and alternative, bottom-up sources.

All of the above takes for granted that, apart from the chosen medium, I agree with the overall content of Paul's message. I do not. While his positions on such issues as immigration, gay marriage, abortion, and the gold standard are well within the libertarian milieu and can be justified, with varying degrees of success, using libertarianish arguments, Paul's position on these issues represents a virulent strain of libertarianism, a strain I find in parts distasteful, outdated, kooky, unmarketable, and unlikely to result in a "thick" and flourishing liberal order if enacted.

On a related note, Stefan Molyneu, whose radio show I happily discovered through a favorable endorsement from Brad Spangler by way of Roderick Long, argues that if Ron Paul somehow miraculously wins the presidency, he would be a complete disaster for libertarianism, forever associating libertarianism in the minds of the general public with chaos, violence, and fascism at worst (assuming he actually tries to enact the libertarian policies we and he support), or incompetence, impotence, and failure to make good on any of his campaign promises at best (assuming he doesn't do anything at all).

Edit:  Co-blogger Scott Scheule responds 

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A post two years in the

A post two years in the making.

The medium is the message.

That's a concise and elegant way of saying what I've been trying to say for a few months, so I couldn't agree more.
Ron Paul is publicity for democracy, for the democratic myth, it is publicity for the idea that freedom is merely a democratic option available to the "will of the people" not a moral requirement.

Or perhaps it could be a way

Or perhaps it could be a way of saying the more nuanced: "Democracy's generally problematic, but nonetheless sometimes the better option will win out, even if it's a longshot."

Also, Micha, you should

Also, Micha, you should title this post "Why I Am Not a Ron Paul Supporter."

Yes.

Thank God we have a safe little bubble in which we can discuss changing things without ever having to actually worry about doing something but talk.

(I'm not sure if I should

(I'm not sure if I should read you as being sarcastic or serious, but since I frequently come across the serious version of your argument, I'm going to take it at face vale. Apologies if I'm incorrect.)

So you think voting for/giving money to/commenting on blog posts in support of/ Ron Paul constitutes "doing something"?

I'm interesting in "doing something" to achieve my goal of liberty, I'm just not entirely sure what that something is. I know that some projects are more likely than other projects to achieve liberty, and for the reasons I've given here, I don't think devoting scarce resources (time, money, attention) to a "serious" political candidate like Ron Paul (as opposed to a joke candidate where the main purpose of the support is to make a mockery of the system itself) is likely to be effective, and risks being counterproductive, particularly if our goal is persuading more people that electoral politics is a poor tool for solving social problems.

"Doing something" just for the sake of doing something, regardless of whether that action is likely to achieve its intented purpose, is precisely the type of mindset libertarians (and economists) routinely criticize. It's the kind of feel-good, Care Bare Stare, Green Lantern theory of politics discussed above.

No, I don't think any of

No, I don't think any of that does much to promote liberty. But then I don't think talking about promoting liberty does much to promote liberty either.

What I think will do more to promote the idea you state, that electoral politics is a horrible method of solving problems, is when Ron Paul loses as you and Scott have predicted. All of those people that were waiting for the "right" candidate, that found what they thought was the "right" candidate in Ron Paul, that dumped millions of dollars into his campaign, turned out by the thousands to hear him speak, spent countless hours, dollars, and other resources on promoting his campaign, only to see him lose; those people will then recognize what many of them already knew intuitively and what you have stated here: electoral politics is a poor tool for solving social problems.

In a sense, you're right: The Medium is the Message. But in this case, the message benefits much more from a failure of the medium than it does from success. Or in a twisted sense, success is failure, and failure is success. Isn't that what we would expect in an economic sense, that the failure of a system would result in the adoption of better system?

When the medium fails to deliver the message, those that are devoted to the message will find a new medium. That failure will do more to promote liberty than any of our invigorating, intellectual discussions of liberty amongst people that already agree with everything we're saying.

Thank God

Thank god nobody cares about your "good conscience." You beltway libertarians are morons.

"outdated, kooky, unmarketable"

This sounds like the uninformed commentary of Hillary Clinton pollster. Ron Paul is bad because he doesn't use focus groups to choose his positions.

Re: Beltway

I take your "beltway" comment as intended to place me on the Cato side of the Cato vs. LvMI divide. That's partly true and partly false. I share with (many, but not all) D.C. libertarians a strong rejection of social conservatism and an embrace of liberal cosmopolitanism, and a visceral disgust at (many, but not all) Auburn libertarians' embrace of the confederacy, religious fundamentalism, and anti-gay, anti-Mexican bigotry. At the same time, I consider myself much closer to the Auburn side in terms of radicalism and a skepticism regarding the stability and likelihood of piecemeal, practical politics, a position at odds with most D.C libertarians. Which makes it all the more strange when I get labeled a "beltway libertarian" for criticizing the Ron Paul movement. What could be more "beltway" than that?

As for the focus group comment, libertarianism is far enough from the mainstream already; why distance it even further by embracing issues that aren't even central to libertarianism itself? Do you honestly think selling himself as a Gold Bug is helpful to Paul's campaign? For every preexisting Gold Bug he attracts, he turns off countless others who view it as a sure sign of nuttiness. And the shame of it is, there is absolutely nothing in libertarianism that should lead one to sing the praises of some arbitrary commodity over any other. Free banking, sure, and if the circumstances call for a historical citation, bringing up past uses of the gold standard is more than appropriate. But continued insistance that any future free banking system will necessarily be backed by gold is ludicrous even on strictly libertarian grounds.

To be fair to Micha, I'm the

To be fair to Micha, I'm the beltway libertarian (Arlington represent) and the moron.  Micha's neither--so you should really be criticizing me, not him.

Real Libertarian, Attacking

Real Libertarian,

Attacking Micha for his substantive disagreements with Ron Paul is unacceptable. (For the record, I am a Paul supporter, but one who shares some of Micha's concerns about Paul's social conservatism.) What is even more unacceptable is for you to call Micha a "beltway libertarian" with what can only be no knowledge of who Micha is.

Last time I checked he lived no where near D.C. and was as radical a libertarian as you can find. Perhaps some of his views have changed since last we met, but I sincerely doubt that Micha has "sold out," whatever that may mean.

Micha is making a good faith critique of Ron Paul's campaign. The least you can do is the same when commenting on it.

You know what you are

You know what you are absolutely right. I'm no longer going to vote for Ron Paul. It's Rudy all the way now. Rudy Giuliani aided the recovery efforts in New York following the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001. He has addressed some of the most important issues on hand, and promises to be a charismatic leader to protect America to the fullest extent. I believe Rudy Giuliani will continue to inspire Americans, and bless this country like never before. The Medium Is The Message.

Mean people are the ones destroying the LP

It's too bad "cosmopolitan" libertarians are so intolerant.

*sigh*

It's this kind of attitude which tightens the chains which oppress us all.

but

Your argument implicitly assumes that the contradiction you describe renders the results useless. And there I totally disagree. Sure, the contradiction hurts. Sure, it's a bummer that the most successful vehicle for libertarian (or at least constitutionalist, which is close enough nowadays) views in quite awhile seems to be an electoral campaign. Sure, it's sad that people on our side are falling for the so-wrong-but-so-easy anthropomorphic fallacy of government failure. But none of these things means that the net impact must be negative.
The people who supported Ron Paul may not be brought all the way to the systems-level view by their support. But surely they are brought closer to that viewpoint. After all, Paul's beliefs are that a particular system - strict constitutionalism - is better than the system we have right now. So despite the contradiction, it does start people thinking on systems-level lines.

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