Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Discussion About Libertarians

My second son asked for a quick primer (pronounced “primmer” in that context, BTW) on dealing with a Ron Paul supporter. My oldest son, now a father, tells me what political opinions to have now – which is as it should be – but the second son is a filmmaker and less political. He seeks my opinion occasionally. He also lives in Texas, where conservative and liberal brands are not the same as in NH, and no one is gearing up to getting themselves informed for a primary. For the record, the third son does not ask my political opinion, though his girlfriend does, and the fourth son will just ask something out of the blue from time to time. I give them my opinion anyway.

In the following correspondence I do mention that libertarians and Ron Paul supporters are not fully overlapping groups. Some libertarians find fault with many of Paul’s positions, and some of his supporters are merely contrarians or anti-war, not libertarians. I state that at the outset, however, as some of my following comments treat them as identical. Please regard that as generalization, and perhaps sloppiness on my part.

Hey Pops,

So, late last night I got trapped into a 4 hour debate with my Ron Paul friend and one of HIS Ron Paul friends, both of whom knew more about current affairs than I did. It was a frustrating night - I couldn't leave because the Ron Paul guy was my ride home - and the low point was when another person pointed out to my Ron Paul friend that wasn't being gracious, and he said "that's because everything I'm saying is truth and everything he's saying is innacuracies!" He also pointed out that he "used to think like me" before he "figured out how things really are." So I'd REALLY like to have some more information to take this guy to town when he inevitably brings up Paul the next time I see him. Here are the points on which we differed. Can you help me find some of the factual flaws on these points? Simply disagreeing on logical grounds, or pointing out that even if true, the potential for disaster is raised much higher, seem to have no effect:
1. Bringing all the troops home immediately from around the world will almost certainly not cause any major political eruptions or outbreak of violence. In all likelihood, North Korea would not attack South Korea, Iraq's violence would decrease, and other countries would grow to like us better because we would not be interfering anymore. Not believing this shows that I'm buying the fearmongering that the neo-Cons are selling me. A slow, orderly withdrawal of troops is not intelligent, we need to bring them all home NOW. Even if political eruption did result and people started dying again, we could always just march back in. But, why should we? It's their civil wars, why should we help? We really can't do much, anyway, if we helped them set up a government, they'd just view it as an "American government" and rebel against it. The Iraqi sects need to fight for their own individual independence without us. Having American troops in other countries only antagonizes the world, and is the major reason that 9/11 happened.
2. American military intervention is always fueled by self-interest, particularly in regards to the seeking of oil. Doing good things - helping another country from killing their own citizens - in the name of self-interest is still misguided, because what good can we do We're bringing in guns and violence, we aren't bringing in "peace." However, viewing positive global improvement as a good thing and growth in human rights in these area as a mandate for our people is an un-American concept, we should just let everyone else stew in whatever trouble they're in because it's not our responsibility. Apparently the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq war are all pertinent to this discussion, but neither World War has any merit.
3. The CIA, the Department of Education, and the Department of Energy all have no merit and should be dropped immediately. Arguing that massive budget cuts or a re-tooling of their departments might be acceptable compromises is an unacceptable argument. All the Department of Education does is "make No Child Left Behind, which doesn't work, and create national standardized tests, which every agrees is a bad idea." We don't need the CIA because we have the FBI, and who knows why we'd need a Department of Energy in the first place.
4. Ron Paul is the only candidate advocating real change, which is what America needs. All the other candidates are exactly the same.
5. Ron Paul's view on the economy is not just better than everyone else, it's the only economic plan an intelligent person could support .Please, please help. These people have no concept of shades of grey.


My response: (There will be another post on the followup to this exchange, but for now, you’ll have to be satisfied with this.)
Good luck. You're right about the no shades of gray stuff.

Coincidentally - or perhaps not - I was up too late with Uncle Jonathan on his one night here last night, arguing politics for about half the conversation, and libertarianism came up frequently. There were other topics of course, and one quite sad, and I hope to get to talk to you about it soon.

With libertarians, you are often not arguing about issues, but with a type of thinking. There are equivalents on the left, of course, and certainly a type of believer in any system who tends to gravitate to that style. In the church, it is the type of believer who thinks that if a group of us can just get really, really, righteous, that God will change the world. It's sorta kinda true, but it attempts to reduce complicated events to simple formulae. It makes people feel like they have some control in a world out of control. "If we could just go back on the gold standard... if we could just stay out of all conflicts unless we are directly threatened...if we all just conserved energy..."

It's also not that different from a lot of leftist ideas - if we all just work together....if the workers could just own the means of production...if we just planned all the economy sensibly. Don't try telling that type of libertarian that they're just communists turned inside out, but if you can introduce that concept indirectly...

In the real world, all actions have risks and benefits, positive and negative consequences, some fairly predictable, some completely unforeseen. A thoroughgoing libertarian doesn't want this to be true. He wants something simpler to be true. You might use your Black Swan knowledge a bit on that. The uncomfortable reality of unpredictability is something of an antidote to oversimplification.

There are also many varieties of libertarian, and some notable ones on the web, like Glenn Reynolds and the guys at the Volokh Conspiracy, are not Ron Paul supporters. They see him as a somewhat cranky guy with some libertarian leanings, not a true libertarian. And libertarians can get into arguments about what constitutes a True Libertarian more than even the Conservatives, Progressives, and Greens can. You can sometimes buy time in arguments with these guys by saying that Ron Paul, or a particular idea, isn't the real libertarian deal.

Alternatively, you can take the tack that "Hell, even if we elect Ron Paul and 20 libertarian Senators we're not going to immediately pull all our troops back from all over the world, or change the economy overnight, or whatever, so let's talk about what we can really do right now to reduce the size of government rather than fantacising how cool it would be if we just closed down whole departments of the government. I tend to agree that we should shut down the CIA and the depts of Energy and Education, but it's not
going to happen, so what can we get behind now? You might turn him on to Porkbusters, which is a citizen-action group that hunts down useless items in the federal budget and harangues politicians with letters and publicity to get them stopped.

As to his assertions that North Korea wouldn't attack South Korea, how does he know? Usually these guys have some stock single reason why it wouldn't be in the Nork's interest to attack, and make their prediction on that basis. That's a pretty slender reed on which to base such a radical action. What if Ron Paul is wrong and our worldwide military isn't the reason that people hate us? Are we just going to say "oops, sorry we abandoned an ally, too bad so many of your people got killed?" It's good to engage in the libertarian's sort of contrarian thinking - "Hey maybe it's not making us safer, maybe these actions are the source of our risk!" But if you don't like how things are going, doing the opposite isn't any guarantee of success either.

That's just a start. But I think keeping in mind that you are not arguing with ideas so much as a personality type will help clarify things. You won't win the argument, but you'll reassure yourself that you're sane, and give someone else something to think about.


Dubbahdee said...

I often find that the best tack in these situations is simply to ask basic clarifying questions such as, "How do you know that's true?" or "That's an interesting point, but what evidence can you cite?" Another favorite is "Why do you think that?" You don't need to argue. Just give them a chance to spout. If you feel like listening carefully, you can usually pick up on some inconsistancies or errors. If you don't feel like listening, then just keep asking questions. They will think you are really smart, but you will still be able to keep your own counsel.

LASunsett said...

If it were not for Paul's irrational and unrealistic views on foreign policy, he might be worth a look. I think you are right to say he has a significant amount of support from anti-war types that care very little about his fiscal ideas.

One point I would make about the issue of removing our troops in a manner that Dr. Paul would like is simple. If we were to announce it and do so tomorrow, there most certainly would be numerous attacks on US forces as they pull out. These attacks would very likely be videotaped and used for propaganda purposes on such media entities like al Jazeera. "See how we defeated and drove the Great Satan's army of infidels from Muslim soil".

Erik said...

what good can we do We're bringing in guns and violence, we aren't bringing in "peace."

Thank goodness this isn't the response you get when you dial 911.

Der Hahn said...

Ron Paul is much close to a Pat Buchanan paleo-con than he is to a libertarian. I think this is what has a lot purer libertarians like Glenn and posters at Volkh's opposing him. In at least one debate he offered that we should end the war in Iraq in order to increase government spending on domestic programs.

Very often you find people spouting 'libertarian' ideas who simply want the government to stop doing something they disagree with but don't want to sound 'conservative'. Sound out their views on health care, and if they favor governement funded programs, point out that libertarians oppose these. You might be able to find other examples of inconsistencies in a similar vein.