Libertarianism, Ron Paul, and Jeffrey Sachs

 

The surprising persistence of Ron Paul during the Republican presidential primary process has brought the libertarian theory that he champions into the spotlight. At one level, what Paul says about the tradition is surely correct. It does not take a bold imagination to think that the level of government intrusion in the lives and businesses of its citizens has moved to an unacceptable and unsustainable level. He is right to stress the corruption that large government brings to social life.

In today’s environment, individuals divert their energy producing wealth for themselves, which would otherwise create greater opportunities for others, to securing the transfer of wealth from others, which in the end diminishes all the possibilities for growth created by human ingenuity and invention.

In this piece–my weekly column for Hoover’s Defining Ideas–I do not want to defend the Paul candidacy. Candidates all take many positions, and I have little sympathy for what I regard as the dangerous isolationism of Paul’s foreign policy, for his relative silence on the vital issue of free trade, and for his quixotic effort to abolish the Federal Reserve (which stands in need of extensive reform) in favor of a return to a gold standard.

It is, however, important to note that the attractiveness of Paul’s central message has brought forth a number of attacks on the basic libertarian approach toward governance that urgently cry out for some answer. In this regard, my University of Chicago friend and colleague Todd Henderson sent me a brief post by Jeffrey Sachs entitled “Libertarian Illusions,” whose dismissive message is all too apparent from its title.

Sachs, a Columbia University professor, isolates the chief defect of the libertarian position to its single-minded pursuit of one virtue—liberty—to the exclusion of all others, like compassion and justice. But his grotesque mischaracterization of libertarianism and capitalism requires a response. These two great systems of thought should be acquitted of all the charges that Sachs makes against them. Sachs’s weak and misconceived attack says more about his own intellectual poverty than that of the systems that he hopes to undermine with a few deft strokes.

Since he does not offer a systematic account of what it is to be a libertarian, in my column I tryto fill that gap in order to explain why his views are so deeply flawed.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BillDoublewide

    Is Ron Paul not a fraud as a libertarian? Our current entitlement state is the greatest threat to our liberties in the economic sphere. Paul ignores this threat. So his appeal is something that is not libertarianism in any serious sense. It’s a facade of libertarianism, but I think the appeal might be characterized as a nostalgia. Get the boys back home, move back to the gold standard, spend less on discretionary items, and everything will be okay again like it used to be. A false nostalgia.

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  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @kgrant67
    Richard Epstein: In today’s environment, individuals divert their energy producing wealth for themselves, which would otherwise create greater opportunities for others, to securing the transfer of wealth from others, which in the end diminishes all the possibilities for growth created by human ingenuity and invention.

    · 1 hour ago

    This the single best sentence I have read in a long time encapsulating exactly what wrong with our sytem today.

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  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JeffY

    Finally, a sensible article on Libertarianism in Ricochet. Why did you select Jeffrey Sachs’ criticisms of libertarianism instead of Paul Rahe’s? Rahe is the band leader against libertarian thought on Ricochet. Such a debate would also make a great Uncommon Knowledge episode. (Peter, nudge, nudge.)

    I have problems with some of Paul’s positions, too. The Federal Reserve is not one of them, but his pandering to protectionists has long been problem for me. It’s an on-balance question, though. Other people have a different take, I even agree with most of the criticism of Paul (except the ad hominem stuff). I support Paul simply because he will actually reduce the size and scope of government and no one else will. I’m willing to take the other stuff. I get it, if other people don’t’ want to.

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  4. Profile Photo Member
    @Fastflyer
    I support Paul simply because he will actually reduce the size and scope of government and no one else will. I’m willing to take the other stuff.

    Reducing the size of government is meaningless if the USA ceases to exist as a people because of a deeply flawed foreign policy. How many cities does the USA have to lose to nuclear weapons before we surrender to our avowed enemies? One? Two? It only took two for Japan. Once the USA surrenders, we cease to exist as a people and become vassals. Ron Paul is blind to this threat. We should listen and heed what our enemies are saying. Our enemies every waking moment is spent engineering the downfall of America. Nuclear weapons give them the tools. (Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, Rules of War, Mass. Nuclear weapons bring mass to the battle cheaply)

    Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will not deter this enemy as it did the USSR because this enemy welcomes armageddon as a fulfillment of the prophecy. A “death seekers” culture cannot be reasoned with, they can only be destroyed (i.e.Imperial Japan).

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  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JeffY
    Fastflyer Reducing the size of government is meaningless if the USA ceases to exist as a people because of a deeply flawed foreign policy.

    The false erudition (now on Clausewitz) and the conspiratorial hyperbole against Paul once amused me, then irritated me, and now makes me sleepy.

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    @NoesisNoeseos

    Thank you, Professor Epstein. As always, you are a beacon of clarity. May your light continue to scatter many-a cockroach.

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    @Goldgeller

    I want to follow-up Jeff Younger’s point about a debate (conversation?) feature Mr Rahe and Mr Epstein. That would be great. I don’t believe I’ve encountered any of Mr Rahe’s critiques of libertarianism.

    The main followup to Jeff’s point is that there is a debate on eminent doman between Walter Block and Richard Epstein that I believe is on iTunes and it was great debate. It actually convinced me that classical liberalism was better than say, minarchism (my position for a while).

    Kgrant67 focuses on Epstein’s quote about rent seeking. That is the main point I think. I prefer low taxes and low gov’t spending but there are reasonable arguments to be had about that. Laws that encourage regulatory capture and rent seeking are the real dangers that, in theory at least, both left and right should be against. Because it isn’t a “left” or “right” phenomenon. It’s a phenomenon of big gov’ts that don’t respect the classical rule of law.

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