Ron Paul’s appeal to young men

In Libby Copeland’s Slate article about Ron Paul’s appeal to young men, I say that this demographic group tends to be “interested in simpler, more abstract and pure philosophies.” I am sure I did say that, but I am not sure I like what I said.

  • I didn’t really have evidence from developmental psychology for my empirical claim that young men are drawn to simpler, more abstract, and purer philosophies.
  • I haven’t made a close enough study of Ron Paul’s positions to know whether he in fact represents a simple, abstract version of libertarianism.
  • I generally don’t like to make psychological generalizations about people who hold political views, especially if the generalizations are critical and the views are opposed to my own. That rhetorical style seems un-deliberative: it rejects a position as a character flaw instead of taking its reasons seriously.
  • I don’t necessarily think that libertarianism is simpler or more abstract than other political philosophies; that depends on the flavor of libertarian thought.

But I have observed all my life that Ayn Rand-style libertarianism appeals to a subset of young men. Thus Ron Paul’s 8,800 young voters in Iowa may not reflect a historical change or a growth of  libertarianism. Rather, a subculture that I remember vividly from the 1980s recently had an opportunity to make a splash in a low-turnout, multi-candidate election.

Also, to my very core, I am a moral pluralist, in the tradition of Isaiah Berlin. I believe that human foxes are more mature than human hedgehogs–that every situation requires a different response. Thus I am willing to say that some versions of libertarianism (just like some versions of liberalism and socialism) are more mature than others, the measure being how many valid but conflicting principles they can accommodate and how sensitive they are to context.

So one can become a libertarian because, like Hayek, one doubts that central planners can accumulate enough information to govern wisely; and because, like James C. Scott, one has observed horrible results when even idealistic leaders “see like a state”; and because, like Milton Friedman, one recognizes that human freedom is implicit in reciprocal exchange; and because, like Ronald Coase and many others, one believes that markets are maximally efficient, and efficiency yields human goods. One might look with real anger at cases like democratic India and Tanzania before they embraced market freedoms and draw the conclusion that liberalization is good for human flourishing.

But these are not the only valid or relevant insights. Even if states and planners can never see or know everything important, neither can markets. Even if freedom is implicit in exchanges, it does not merely lie there, for people are not only producers, traders, and consumers. Besides, even if freedom is infinitely precious, so is happiness, and that is more likely to come from belonging to a community than from having myriad choices. Even if markets are maximally productive, they also destroy people and nature.

So without sacrificing fundamental libertarian insights, one can develop a theory that encompasses a personal ethic of philanthropy, a positive stance toward communities and their norms, and policy proposals that direct their benefits at poor communities (such as government-funded vouchers for education, microfinance loans, or giving slum-dwellers land titles). And if these policy proposals don’t work out, one can adjust. In that case, a sophisticated, nuanced libertarianism emerges. Although it is not my view, I would never disparage its proponents’ personalities.

In contrast, there is a view that sees all obligations to assist or care for other people (other than honoring contracts) as burdens and threats to liberty. It opposes not only central planning but also ethical and emotional entanglements. To me, that is an immature theory, much as socialism is immature when it ignores the need for incentives and limits on power. I do not think that embracing the simplest version of libertarianism is typical of young people, but I do suspect that a certain type of young man who is hyper-confident about his own capacities and alienated by human entanglements is drawn to the simplest version. And I am willing to say that that is immature.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.