Ron Paul and the Libertarian Moment

Walter Block’s Self-Hating Libertarian defense of Ron Paul is not compelling. The “Self Hating X” argument is nothing more than an accusation that the consequences of rejecting a claimed premise necessary for X implies you hate X. It originates with the derogatory label, “self-hating jew,” a label that could be applied to both Block and Rothbard.1

I have no idea idea why Block would wish to re-package that garbage label as a libertarian accusation, other than the fact he has no real libertarian defense of Paul against a logical critique. Indeed, Block’s accusation of Stephen Molyneux being a “State lover” because of his critique of Paul’s constitutional apologetics is nonsense. That claim is something that needs to be demonstrated, and not supposed.

The following Block claims can be readily challenged:

  • We are now at a point in time where, thanks to Dr. Ron Paul, people are hearing of libertarianism to a degree that possibly never before occurred in our entire history.
  • Ron Paul is from “flyover” country. He is not “sophisticated.” He is a rube. If you look closely, he has hay on his suit. Our sophisticated libertarians thus see him as an embarrassment.
  • Historically, I view libertarianism as three wings–capitalist(Bastiat), Socialist(Proudhon), and Communist(Déjacque)–that emerged from radical French liberalism. Immediately, we would have to qualify what “our history” means since there is an unequivocal case that from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century what we would call “social anarchism” was by far ascendant over what we would call liberal or individualist anarchism. Social anarchism was the “mass movement”(a labor movement) while liberal anarchism was much more of an intellectual movement(literary and journalist). It would be social anarchism that would challenge and rock the foundations of Western governments; liberal anarchism was more or less relegated to the east coast “literati”(to borrow a recent Newt Gingrich term).

    So let us dispense with the rube that we are in the midst of some unprecedented libertarian moment and drop the pretension of a “populist” appeal against “east-coast libertarianism.”

    Today, liberal anarchism is far ascendant to social anarchism as the primary challenge to the State. Social anarchism, which can be identified as a radical labor movement, was expropriated and assimilated into the progressive corporate liberal borg. Progressivism destroyed social anarchism. Social anarchism has never recovered from this and likely never will.

    Now, can we credit Ron Paul for the rise of today’s liberal anarchism? Hardly. This ascendancy is not rooted in liberal economic argument. Rather it is cultural, and we can perhaps best summarize it by the term, “lifestyle anarchism.” Lifestyle anarchism provides a path back to liberal individual autonomy, but the modern genesis of this was the 60s counter-culture movement, which itself was not a self-conscious libertarian movement.

    I credit the likes of Murray Rothbard for hooking a New Left class critique of American progressivism on top of the momentum of lifestyle anarchism to forge a second self-identified libertarian movement in the US. However, I also credit Murray Rothbard with attempting to later unhook libertarianism from lifestyle anarchism with the pursuit of the so-called “Paleo phase,” which was a disaster.

    In terms of Rothbardian proteges, I would associate Karl Hess with the earlier Rothbard and Ron Paul with the second, “Paleo” Rothbard.

    Paul represents a legitimate dilemma for liberal anarchism. He is not source of liberal anarchism’s rise but he is certainly capitalizing from it. On one hand, his non-interventionist challenge to the Orwellian Double-think of American Empire is invaluable. But on the other hand, his “sanctity of life” union with the libertarian principle, as means to gain majority traction within the GOP, utterly undermines the very lifestyle anarchist underpinning of modern liberal anarchism.

    The “Ron Paul Revolution,” as it pertains to assimilation into the GOP Borg, promises to do to liberal anarchism what the “progressive revolution” did to social anarchism.

    So, two cheers for Ron Paul, but death to the GOP. The consequences of the latter development do not finger me as a “self-hating libertarian.” Quite the contrary…

    1 Specifically, the term “Self-Hating Jew” refers to a baseless accusation that the consequences of rejecting Zionism means you hate Judaism. Certainly,Rothbard qualified as being guilty of this accusation.

    The Moral Foundations of Tolerance

    Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance, wrote a very instructive paper over a decade ago: How English Libery was Created by accident and custom–and then destroyed by liberals. The premise of the paper is this: British Liberty sprung from a spontaneous order. Attempts to formalize a meta-ethical foundation behind this spontaneous order destroyed it.

    Keep this in mind when you read Professor Andrew Cohen’s attempts to rationalize the need for a meta-ethical foundation behind libertarian tolerance. Cohen is essentially arguing that tolerance only makes sense as a meta-ethical statement, which is another way of saying “toleration requires judging.”

    Professor Cohen’s continued ethical musings serve to remind us of the actual meta-ethical divide between libertarianism and liberalism. I would define “tolerance” in the libertarian sense not as a moral principle but rather as a moral constraint. The distinction here is important. As a moral constraint, we understand “tolerance” to be a product of a rational “tit-for-tat strategy” that results in higher payoffs for all agents. A “Tit-for-Tat” strategy requires no assumptions of moral judgements or moral foundations on the part of the players. Anyone can play this strategy. Hence, we can say the foundation for “libertarian tolerance” is strategic, not moral.

    “Liberal tolerance,” however, does derive from a meta-ethical claim: “The moral agent should be given enough space to decide for itself what the good life is. The Liberal State should be neutral on what the good life is, but it should not be neutral in terms of protecting minorities–in their exercise of this right–from the objections of the majority.”

    Cohen’s apparent fixation with “multi-culturalism” is actually more applicable to the liberal vs communitarian debate that raged in the academic community back in the 1980s. Communitarians deny the meta-ethical claim of “liberal tolerance” because they deny any practical meaning of the individual self outside the social context. Hence, they reject the the idea of institutional neutrality regarding “individual space” and the ethical basis of the good life.

    The liberal contingent retorted that communitarianism lacked any meta-ethical foundation for an actual multi-cultural society, i.e., “multi-culturalism,” and that communitarianism relied on a provincial “culturalization” of institutions. Communitarians such as Charles Taylor responded that a communitarian basis for multi-culturalism could be achieved by a pervasive introduction of a multi-cultural curriculum into the common educational institutional system. Taylor is one of the better-known communitarian academic luminaries associated with the idea of the cultural equivalence of meta-ethical foundations(an idea that appears to be a pet peeve with Cohen).

    By the 1990s, the heated liberal vs communitarian debate had begun to recede from the landscape of formal academic debate, with the conclusion that communitarianism was largely a conservative political philosophy. Nonetheless, Charles Taylor’s “The Politics of Recognition” would become dominant in the institutional setting of academia and communication media, but better known by the term, “Political Correctness.”

    Political Correctness is a communitarian moral foundation (of a social order) that relies on the cultural equivalence of meta-ethical foundations as means to cultivate equal self-respect among cultural groups. From this social context, then, respected “role models” can emerge from each group, serving both an educational purpose and a purpose of a unification model across all cultural groups.

    It would be wrong to say that Political Correctness and the Politically Correct Role model serve as a font of moral subjectivism. On the contrary, Political Correctness very much provides an objective standard for tolerance: We will tolerate mass violence against minority communities, but we won’t tolerate disrespecting the “recognized” leaders of these minorities communities.

    Unofficially, of course, Political Correctness is lampooned. And there has arisen this curious cottage industry known as “tabloid media” that finds it very profitable to tear down our politically correct role models.

    Moral subjectivism is not the problem. The problem is with the moral foundation…

    Libertarianism and Moral Foundations

    George: Yes. And listen to this, listen to this; her uncle works for the Yankees and he’s gonna get me a job interview. A front office kind of thing. Assistant to the travelling secretary. A job with the New York Yankees! This has been the dream of my life ever since I was a child, and it’s all happening because I’m completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment I’ve ever had. This is no longer just some crazy notion. Jerry, this is my religion.

    Seinfeld, The Opposite

    This post is a brief rejoinder to Professor Andrew Cohen and Julian Sanchez that started with this post at BLH, Against Subjectivism.

    First, let me outline my position a bit more formally than the one posted in a comment.

    Libertarianism is a social theory, not a moral theory. By this I mean it should only be concerned with personal duties owed to each other but not with deriving what those duties should actually be “a priori.” In other words, it should be concerned with moral violations against one another but not with moral foundations. We can express this in a more technical manner: Libertarianism should be unconcerned with Meta-Ethics.

    Recasting this as a Meta-Ethical problem allows for a bit more precise treatment. We then pose this question: Are moral judgements (1) descriptive Statements that are truth-evaluable or (2) Statements that are undecidable(neither true or false, no truth content).

    (2) is the non-cognitivist camp. For example, David Hume or Anthony De Jasay. By default, non-cognitivism implies libertarianism should be unconcerned with metaethical foundations. So we scratch this camp from further consideration.

    This leaves us with (1), the “cognitivist camp.” I realize that moral cognitivism is sub-divided(just as non-cognitivist camp is) into a litany of different branches/positions, but the basic position held by all is: moral judgements are descriptive Statements that are truth-evaluable.

    Given (1), a cognitive meta-ethic framework can then be expressed as formal language, with each symbol of this language mappable to a Gödel number. This allows any formal language F to then be subject to the rules of arithmetic and deductive logic. And thus, subject to the famous Gödel’s incompleteness theorems:

    (i) one can construct a sentence G which that is not decidable from F
    (ii) any statement C which expresses the consistency of F will be undecidable.
    Alternatively, F includes a statement C if and only if F is inconsistent.

    (i) is more or less the “liars paradox.” (ii) can be thought of as the “Halting problem”

    Essentially, Gödel’s theorems demonstrate that the consistency of F cannot be proved in F. Note: Gödel’s incompleteness theorems have nothing to say about “objective reality.” I quite realize this. Nor do they imply that G is not provable in another formal language, say, F1. What they do imply is this:

    Principle I:
    If moral judgements are truth-evaluable descriptive Statements, no single Moral Foundation, or cognitive meta-ethic Formal Language F, as a formal axiomatic basis to derive these descriptive Statements, can prove it’s own consistency.

    Now, I’m going to establish another principle based on Löb’s Theorem:

    Consider the below Sentence:

    “If this Sentence is True, then Objective Morality Exists”

    I’ve just logically demonstrated that Objective Morality Exists. If you are having a problem seeing this, refer to this explanation.


    “If this Sentence is True, then Objective Morality Does Not Exist”

    I’ve just logically demonstrated that Objective Morality does not exist.


    “If this Sentence is True, then God Exists”

    I’ve just logically demonstrated that God exists.


    “If this Sentence is True, then Elvis is still alive”

    I’ve just logically demonstrated that Elvis is not dead.

    The point being demonstrated is that logical truth may having nothing do with “objective reality” and that “truth” should be differentiated from “proof.” Informal reasoning combined with self-reference can “prove” anything.

    This leads to another principle:

    Principle II:
    Any Formal System F that asserts it’s own consistency can prove anything. In other words, no Formal System F can trust itself.

    For a more thorough discussion regarding Löb’s Theorem, refer to this informative post by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

    In a moment I will return to what I think the two principles above reasonably imply, but for now let me address Sanchez and Cohen.

    Julian Sanchez

    Is Subjectivism in Ethics Coherent?

    Sanchez, in his piece–as an attempt to avoid the “incoherence” of moral non-cognitivism–makes the cases for a “coherent” ethical subjectivism that nonetheless allows at least one objective moral principle. Sanchez proposes the below as an objective principle:

    It is wrong to act in ways that you believe to be wrong

    The first thing I thought about when I read this was the Seinfeld episode, “The Opposite.” This episode presents us with a moral agent, George Costanza, that realizes he is own worst enemy. Thusly he concludes to use his own moral judgements as the basis of a principle of action to do the opposite. Yes, George Costanza is fictional character, but Larry David is real enough. We can easily see then that Sanchez’s principle is not necessarily an “objective principle.”

    The second objection would refer to my second principle: using “self-reference” as the basis of a “truth” when you actually haven’t proved anything.

    Andrew Cohen

    I declare that I now believe in the “Purple Invisible Sky Spirit.” Part of the moral foundations that come with believing in PISS is that all believers are allowed to seize the property and kill anyone wearing the color purple because that color is allowed to only be donned by PISS.

    Now does the introduction of PISS create a dilemma in “moral subjectivity,” or I have I invented PISS to logically demonstrate objective morality. After all, PISS objectively exists or it doesn’t exist. To quote Cohen, but substituting in PISS for God.

    It is either the case that PISS exists or it is the case that PISS does not. One of those is the objective truth. If PISS exists, PISS-Deniers are wrong; if he does not, then PISS-Believers are wrong. There is an objective fact of the matter even if we do not know what that objective truth is. Our lack of knowledge of the truth has no effect on the truth whatsoever.

    The obvious flaw here is conflating “truth” with “provable.” The proposition P=”God Exists” is not provable. It therefore, as a logical truth, is irrelevant as part of a logical deduction to establish “objective truth.” You are not proving anything. It is this constraint, of course, that also prevents my invention of PISS from proving anything.


    The two principles I have outlined, of course, say nothing about “objective morality,” moral realism, moral subjectivism, etc. And they only apply to the cognitive assumption that moral judgements are descriptive Statements that are truth-evaluable. But what they do imply is that no single Formal Language F, as a formal axiomatic basis to derive these descriptive Statements, can prove it’s own consistency. And to claim such a consistency means that it can prove anything.

    From those principles, therefore, a reasonable case can be made that if you are concerned with “liberty,” Libertarianism should not be a moral theory.