Security, Freedom, and the Reagan-Goldwater Era

Patrick Ruffini has an excellent post on the Ron Paul candidacy and what it means for lowercase-l libertarians:

Mainstream Republican libertarians might be gung-ho for Paul’s small-government idealism, they might adopt Glenn Reynoldsish skepticism of the homeland security bureaucracy, and even John McCain has lately made a thing of ripping the military-industrial complex, but there is no way — I repeat NO WAY — they will embrace Ron Paul if he continues to blame America for 9/11 and imply that America is acting illegally in defending itself around the globe. Even if they aren’t the biggest fans of the war, most people that are available for Ron Paul on the right are by temperament patriotic and will never vote for someone who sounds like Noam Chomsky.

As someone who routinely called myself a libertarian prior to 9/11, here’s how I would square the circle: Absolute freedom within our borders, for our own citizens; eternal vigilance and (when necessary) ruthlessness abroad. For libertarian ideals to survive, they must be relentlessly defended against the likes of Islamic extremists. Take a look at Andrew Sullivan’s writing right after 9/11 to see this ideal in its purest form; far from a religious crusade, ours was a war for secularism, tolerance, and free societies where gays don’t get stoned to death.

The key principle is one of reciprocity. If you behave peacefully and embrace the norms of a libertarian society, we leave you alone. If you seek to destroy a free society, we will destroy you.

Naturally, Mr. Sullivan has problems with this comparison, which he describes in detail:

A libertarian also understands that there is no deeper threat to liberty than war and that a state of permanent war is close to the end of libertarianism. Hence the discomfort with amorphous wars against “drugs” or “terror,” wars in which no enemy can ever surrender or ever be defeated. Patrick needs to grapple with that, it seems to me.

The trouble is: this war knows no geographic boundaries and so the warpowers we have rashly given to the president against anyone he calls an “enemy combatant” inevitably affect US citizens and residents. The clear divide Patrick wants is impossible, alas. It seems to me that the most rational divide is to treat all non-citizen enemy combatants as prisoners of war (with traditional baseline protections against mistreatment) and US citizens as criminals, accused of the most heinous crimes and facing the direst consequences.

But at a deeper level, conservatives have to decide what their deepest value is: security or freedom. And how many have the balls, like Paul, to choose the latter if it really comes to that? (emphasis mine)

Sullivan misses the target, posing a contradiction where there is none.

Need an example? The Cold War, that “endless war” against Soviet Communism was no different than a war against drug cartels or terror organizations given Sullivan’s definition. Yet civil liberties at home did not suffer at the hands of increased security abroad. After all, during the Reagan years how many Russian Studies majors would have argued the Soviet Union would be a mere memory in 10 years time?

Of course, all this Ron Paul navel-gazing is done against the backdrop of the Reagan-Goldwater era, where lowercase-l libertarianism (classical liberalism if you prefer) was ascendant in the GOP from 1964 onward.

Whether the Ron Paul candidacy is prodding the sleeping classical liberal giant, or whether it is a flash-in-the-pan coalition of kooks and conspiracy theorists remains to be seen. Nonetheless, if Ruffini’s instincts are right about the Ron Paul candidacy, the Reagan-Goldwater majority is looking to perform an electoral version of a hat trick — even if Ron Paul may not be the man to do it.

Let’s hope for takers — if not in 2008, then soon.

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