Libertarians: Stop worrying about Ron Paul

Matt Zwolinski Associate Professor, University of San Diego
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A lot of libertarians are getting awfully excited about Ron Paul these days, especially after his strong showing in the New Hampshire primaries. As a libertarian myself, I am sometimes tempted to share in this excitement. But it is a temptation, I believe, that I and others with libertarian sympathies ought to resist. And no, it’s not because of those newsletters.

Two things have happened in the past year that ought to be of some interest to libertarians. The first is the phenomenon of the Ron Paul campaign. The second is the 50th anniversary of an organization called the Institute for Humane Studies. My guess is that almost everyone reading this post is familiar with the former, and almost none with the later. And this is a terrible, terrible mistake. Libertarians, like everyone else, have limited time, money and other resources. And if we want to advance the cause of liberty, we should use those resources in the way that has the highest expected return. The Paul campaign is not it.

A lot of libertarians are excited about Paul because they believe that a Paul presidency could help put an end to the drug war, or to overseas military adventures, or that it could bring about a return to a golden era of sound money and constitutional constraint. But how likely is any of this? Even after New Hampshire, Paul is still a longshot to win the Republican nomination. But suppose that he does? Before he can start making any of the changes libertarians are hoping for, he’d still have to win a general election in which his libertarian views on environmental regulation, Social Security, health care and a host of other issues would be a much bigger target than they are in the Republican primaries. And even if he won that election, he’d still have to implement policy with a Congress and judiciary that is largely hostile to many of his views.

Of course, Paul himself is smart enough to know this. As recently as the Iowa caucuses, Paul admitted that he doesn’t see himself waking up in the White House. What he sees himself doing is producing a philosophic revolution. He is convinced, he says, that “a nation does not change just for partisan/political reasons. What has to happen is there has to be an intellectual revolution to energize the people and get people to understand the problems in economic and political terms.”

So, you ask, can’t the Paul campaign contribute to the cause of liberty by educating people about these ideas? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. As political theorist Jason Brennan has written, “politics teaches enlightenment in much the same way that fraternity parties teach temperance.” As human beings, we are subject to all kinds of rational defects and biases. And researchers like psychologist Drew Westen and political scientist Diana Mutz have shown that politics makes these defects worse, not better. We’re set up to view politics as a game of us vs. them, and in a game like that, the search for truth and new ideas does not fare well.

So if Paul is right that the libertarian revolution requires changing people’s ideas, and if politics is a bad way to do that, then what’s the alternative? Well, let’s go back to that second recent event I mentioned — the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Humane Studies. This organization doesn’t get involved in political campaigns, doesn’t run flashy ads, doesn’t go out of its way to promote itself in the public eye. What it does is change ideas. Slowly, methodically and effectively. It runs summer seminars for undergraduate students where they are exposed to the ideas of Locke, Hayek, Friedman and others. It mentors graduate students through the process of finishing their classes and writing their dissertations. And it helps them find jobs. In the 50 years of its existence, IHS has put over 1,200 professors into classrooms across the country where they teach over a quarter of a million students each year. And those students are exposed to libertarian ideas not just in a 30-second advertisement or debate answer, but for an entire semester, rigorously and in depth. It might not be flashy, and it might not be quick, but IHS’s strategy gets results.

Friedrich Hayek once noted that socialism has never really been a mass movement of workers. To the extent that socialism has gained prominence, it is because of the support it receives from intellectuals. Those of us who want to move the culture away from socialism must likewise do so by working through the intellectuals, who Hayek referred to as the “secondhand dealers in ideas.” Until the philosophical and economic foundations of a free society are common knowledge — something every journalism student, MBA and art history major hears over and over again in the course of their education — political campaigns alone are not going to bring about the changes we want. As Ayn Rand once wrote about another campaign that excited the dreams of lovers of liberty, “It’s earlier than you think.” And it’s still early. But fortunately for us, and thanks in no small part to IHS, it’s at least later than it was when Rand wrote those words.

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.