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Let Me Teach You My Secret Beltway Handshake

January 17th, 2008 · 58 Comments

So, I’m getting plenty of nice feedback about Dave and my Reason piece about the Paul newsletters, but a quick scan of some of the comment threads out there makes clear that we’ve also made a lot of people very, very angry. Interestingly, they’re mostly not taking issue with the specific claims we make, but the very fact that we would write about the topic at all. A lot of this criticism is, frankly, pretty unhinged, and I doubt that many of the people airing it will be open to persuasion. But maybe some of them are. So briefly, some of the main points.

Old News? Some people seem to be under the impression it’s just beyond the pale to go digging up musty old scrolls from the antediluvian period of 1989-1996. This is odd. It seems to me perfectly normal, and perfectly justifiable, that when someone launches a presidential campaign, we begin looking into and scrutinizing their history. We do this even when elements of that history had already been published in local media, long before the candidate became nationally prominent. Is it irrelevant to bring up the Bernie Kerik scandal, even though politically engaged New Yorkers knew about it already? And, not to harp on the obvious, but is it actually “old news” when we’re breaking the story that the author of this stuff Paul repudiates so vehemently continues to be one of his close advisers? Because that seemed like new news to me, except, apparently, to a handful of longtime movement insiders.

For what it’s worth, I myself didn’t know anything about this stuff until Ryan Sager wrote about one of the newsletters last spring. I was disappointed that Paul had apparently defended the ugly language Sager cited, even if he himself hadn’t written it. But I was willing to take at face value the idea that it had really just been a couple comments in one or two newsletters, something written by a rogue staffer that had somehow slipped through the cracks. On net, I was willing to give him a pass. The full extent of the ugliness, the amount of it, and the long span of time over which it appeared were actually news to me when Jamie Kirchick’s article dropped. I figure that means they were probably news to some other people too. And I’m hearing from, and seeing blogs by, plenty of Paul supporters who find all this unsettling and want some better answers from the campaign. Which, incidentally, is all we’ve called for in a piece that strikes me as a hell of a lot easier on Paul than it could have been, or would have been had it run anywhere else.

But Paul’s Not a Racist! I know, I know. You’ve even got a genuine black guy who’ll say so. You can stop sending me the link. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. I’ve never thought it very likely that Paul was personally a racist, and I’ve said as much. But that’s not the point, is it? If you decide to get into the publishing business with a bunch of guys who are very loudly proclaiming their intention to drum up political and financial support by reaching out to racists, that’s just pretty bad in itself, isn’t it? Is it really a defense to say that, after all, Paul himself knew the views his colleagues were exploiting to be pernicious and wrong? Are we supposed to think that in addition to never reading the newsletter, Paul was totally in the dark about the well-publicized views, both substantive and strategic, of the Paleo intellectuals he handed his newsletter to? Views that had been the subject of ample controversy among libertarians, and a source of much criticism directed at Paul for being linked with them, well before the newsletters turned rancid? It doesn’t pass the straight face test. I’m glad Paul’s not personally a bigot, but stressing this over and over, as though we’d been centrally concerned with what lies deep in Paul’s heart, just seems like an attempt to change the subject.

Cosmolifestyleorangebeltwaytarian Conspiracy! There are a depressing number of variants of this one going around: Here is one of the saner versions, and it’s still pretty nuts. The gist of it is that a bunch of us nefarious “Beltway Libertarians” or “Cosmopolitan Libertarians” have a vendetta against Ron Paul or his paleo buddies, and are conspiring to destroy his campaign.

Slight tangent: I’ve even seen that we’re now “self-described” Cosmopolitan Libertarians. Who on earth would self-describe that way? Why not just call yourself a Douchebagatarian? As far as I can tell, the term was coined all of a month ago by The Nation‘s Chris Hayes, and I’ve sure never heard anyone self-apply it other than jokingly. But aside from the annoyingness of that particular term, this whole “there are two kinds of libertarians” frame is, if possible, even stupider than the average for bromides of the form “there are two kinds of X,” which is pretty low. There are lots of “kinds” of libertarians, with lots of different views.

Anyway, theories differ on why we’re so fired up to sandbag Paul. One theory holds that it’s because of our commitment to war-mongering. The only problem with this theory is that most of the folks at Reason—myself included—were opposed to the Iraq war from the get-go, and said so loudly. Cato opposed it too, and their foreign policy analysts churned out plenty of op-eds and policy papers making that case. But there was one guy at Cato who did initially support it, and Reason had the gall to run a debate between him and a war opponent, which means we were all secretly for it.

Another theory is that while we profess libertarian views, we’re actually threatened by the growing likelihood that a future Paul Administration (yes, really) would usher in libertopia and deprive us of our cushy sinecures. Because libertarian print journalism is an awesome profit maximizing strategy, let me tell you. So we had to stop the R[EVOL]UTION before it was too late. I’m not sure what to say about this other than “well, that’s completely fucking insane.” But then, Charles Koch is probably handing me a brown paper sack stuffed with twenties to say so.

Speaking of the “Kochtopus,” theory three is that this actually all goes back to an old internecine squabble between Cato/Koch and the Paleo crew dating from the 80s. Paul was just collateral damage: We were really out to take down Lew Rockwell, and didn’t care if we took out a burgeoning pro-freedom movement in the process. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it, but I really couldn’t care less about some pissing match Ed Crane and Murray Rothbard had while I was in grammar school. Anyway, if you search through the archives at, say, Reason and LewRockwell.com, this rivalry really looks pretty one sided. The folk at the latter site practically define themselves by opposition to the evil sellout Beltway Libertarians, who are the subject of near-daily diatribes. But they basically seem to be having a fight with Tom Palmer; the rest of us were pretty much over it. Or never under it in the first place. In retrospect, though, maybe Tom was right to be pointing out some of this creepy stuff. Anyway, the idea that our goal was to “smear” Rockwell (and man am I seeing that word alot–apparently it now means “publish well-documented factual statements”) faces the niggling problem that we had to, you know, decide to start investigating the authorship question before we knew who did it. Unless we used our secret Jedi mind powers to make all our sources blame Rockwell and his staff. When I’d looked at LRC in the past, I’d found the conception of libertarianism they were peddling unappetizing, but that’s about it; I find fights about who’s the Real Libertarian and who needs to be Purged generally stupid and tedious. I think some folks are projecting their own obsessions onto us.

Libertarian Omerta Maybe the most common beef I’m hearing from sane-seeming people is that we shouldn’t be talking about this stuff. It reflects badly on libertarianism, and Paul is still great all things considered especially compared with the wretched alternatives.

All other considerations aside, this is just premised on a repulsive conception of how libertarian journalists ought to operate—essentially as though “libertarian” nullifies “journalist” any time we’re faced with a choice between reporting facts and cheerleading for our tribe. It’s an argument with terrible pedigree, and reminds me more than a bit of an old essay in which Noam Chomsky argues scholars shouldn’t write about the Killing Fields in Cambodia, because fighting capitalism was more important than, you know, facts.

That said, a couple pragmatic points. First, Paul was not going to be the next president, or even the next Republican nominee, in any parallel universe remotely close to ours. We have not deep-sixed the Paul Administration. The movement behind Paul is a good thing to the extent it raises awareness about our ideas, and demonstrates that there really is a constituency for a candidate who talks about peace and small government. And the best thing that could happen from that perspective, I think, is for Paul to come clean and ensure that people don’t start thinking of “property rights,” like “states rights,” as some kind of bad-faith codeword for racism.

Second, do people think this story wouldn’t have come out if we hadn’t run it? Jamie Kirchick was on exactly the same trail we were, and so was John Tabin at the Spectator, and so, probably, were others. The question was whether we’d break it, dispelling the impression that libertarians are happy to wink at racism, or whether someone far more hostile to Paul would.

I think that covers the major bases. I don’t know that this will change anyone’s mind if they’re determined to think we’re secret statists acting in bad faith, but at least I’ve put it out there.

Tags: Self Promotion



58 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Julian Sanchez // Jan 23, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Y’know, I know you mean well, but my head is going to explode if I hear one more person lament all this awful “infighting” because god forbid we ran one investigative article. We followed up on a significant story about a prominent libertarian candidate we had been covering heavily and mostly positively. I would do it again exactly the same way without an instant’s hesitation. It is not “infighting” just because the upshot of the investigation happens to reflect badly on people who have been bitching and ranting about evil “Beltway Libertarians” nonstop for years while their targets largely maintained a polite silence.

  • 2 Less Antman // Jan 23, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Well, that wasn’t the only point I tried to make in my post. I did lead with a correction I hadn’t seen earlier and hit other subjects.

    I do want to make clear that I thought the earlier nastiness to which you referred was extremely unhelpful and inappropriate, but I’m not inclined to treat the behavior of others as a standard for my own. And the reason I offered for objecting to the investigative article had nothing whatsoever to do with “infighting,” and everything to do with considering the most productive use of one’s limited resources. I also offered a take on the issue of libertarianism being associated with racism, and how best to deal with it.

    But I can understand a bit of crankiness at this point.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jan 23, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Hm, maybe I am getting a bit cranky; sorry. I do still think it’s a justifiable use of resources. The Kirchick piece was at least a minor bombshell in libertarian circles, and my highly unscientific sample of libertarians I know suggested a lot of people had questions about the campaign’s rather minimal explanation, and found the question of authorship relevant. If this stuff had appeared in the John McCain Political Report, and then it came out that the author was still a top McCain adviser, it would be on the front page of the New York Times. This story isn’t getting that kind of traction because The New York Times doesn’t care about Ron Paul one way or another, but Reason readers do. They may not like the answers we found, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t news.

  • 4 Tim Starr // Jan 23, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Unfortunately, racism doesn’t necessarily doom political movements to failure. The South succeeded in reversing Reconstruction for about a century, from 1975 to 1965 or so. The most successful, longest-running terrorist movement in American history was the Ku Klux Klan.

  • 5 brendon // Jan 24, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    “Another thing that’s tedious about Kirchick’s article is its utter humorlessness. He dredges up what are mostly old wisecracks, then gasps in horror at them. How dare anyone say such a thing! Or even imagine it! And then the Reason crowd gasps along in horror with him.


    Talk about “moral panics” …”

    steve, this is fair — up to a point. Tastes may vary, but i think calling 1980s era new york ‘rapetown’ is funny, and calling barbara jordan a ‘half-educated race victimologist’ is fair-play. but saying that MLK ‘seduced underage girls and boys’ sounds more like a deranged allegation than a joke. and what about all the conspiratoid trilateral commission black helicopter nuttery? i mean, for god’s sakes, the newsletter was called the ron paul SURVIVAL report! doesn’t this play into the making-bombs-in-the-outhouse image most libertarians want to avoid?

  • 6 ISHMAel back // Feb 21, 2008 at 11:45 pm


  • 7 ISHMAel back // Feb 21, 2008 at 11:45 pm


  • 8 bad loans // Sep 2, 2008 at 5:03 pm

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