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Elegy for Peter McWilliams

Persuading people of the value of freedom can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Those of us who favor freedom are habitually painted as selfish when we demand liberty for ourselves, and (bizarrely) callous when we insist on it for others. So let us never forget Peter McWilliams, an author and advocate who had a talent for framing freedom in terms of compassion and aspiration.

I remember covering McWilliams’s death for Free-Market.Net in 2000 when he succumbed to AIDS and cancer — and to the denial to him by authorities, under threat of the loss of his mother’s home, of the medical marijuana that he was using to control the side-effects of his medication.

Now, a talented (but anonymous) singer-songwriter and curator of the online Peter McWilliams Museum has produced a video tribute to McWilliams that effectively captures the man’s spirit.

Outraged squawks over CPAC a good sign for libertarians

When you find yourself the target of a vigorous campaign of ostracism and marginalization, you can be pretty certain you’re getting under people’s skin.

Writing of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza insists that libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul was a “loser” at the event, despite coming in first in the presidential straw poll with 30% of the vote. Why? Because “his speech – heavy on talk of defunding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as odd pronouncements such as ‘Government should never be able to do anything you can’t do’ – displayed the limits of his reach within the GOP.”

But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who pulled 6% in the same poll was a “winner.” And there was no mention of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson — the other libertarian in the race — who tied Christie and came in first among second-choice picks.

Young Americans for Freedom, the once-lively conservative campus organization that has become a bit of a footnote, promptly expelled Paul, who served on the organization’s board for two decades. The group cited Paul’s long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy views, saying they “border on treason.” In this, YAF replayed ancient history, since the four-decades-past split between libertarian and conservative elements in YAF, which culminated at a meeting in St. Louis amidst violent recriminations over war and the draft, largely gave rise to the modern, independent libertarian movement.

Almost at the same moment, a talk radio/Fox New pundit accused “disrespectful libertarians” of “hijack[ing]” the CPAC poll. He added that “libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture.” And a Forbes columnist penned a borderline-incoherent piece denouncing Paul and libertarians (in fairness, all of his pieces seem to dance at the outer limits of rational thought).

It’s clear that most mainstream journalists are flat-out uncomfortable with libertarians and libertarian ideas. I think this stems as much from an ideological discomfort with criticism of state power as it does with lazy inertia — covering Team Red and Team Blue is easy; covering different shades of political opinion and a rising movement driven by ideas that fall outside the traditional mainstream and therefore require some actual thought is hard. This explains the eagerness of Cillizza and many of his colleagues to dismiss a political rockstar like Ron Paul, an emerging figure like Gary Johnson, and their apparently inexplicable appeal (without some actual effort that might lead to understanding) to enthusiastic supporters, many of them young. If there’s an actual political shift underway, some reporters are going to have to get off their asses and do some reporting; much simpler to write it all off as an aberration and hope for the best.

As for YAF and company … Many conservatives seem wedded to the idea that their movement is necessarily one of grouchy old white people who like to blow things up and hate on gays. I don’t understand the attraction of militarism and social intolerance, but then I never did — that’s why I’m not a conservative. As the political “right” (really free-marketeers and fans of limited government) shows a bit of life and the Republican Party recaptures the House of Representatives, authoritarian conservatives want to control the brand and push non-interventionists, anti-statists, the socially tolerant and civil libertarians to the fringes or out of the conversation altogether.

Well … Why not let them? That is, why not make explicit (again) the break between libertarians (and the libertarian-leaning) on the one hand, and the bigoted hawks on the other? Is there really that much to lose? After all, CPAC has become more libertarian in recent years, and welcomed gay groups this year, because that’s what the attendees want. The attendees pushing for this ideological shift are mainly young people driven by a desire for smaller government, individual liberty and peace. These “disrespectful” young people (have young people ever been anything else?) ticking off the murderous old homophobes are mostly supporters of Ron Paul — and now Gary Johnson — because those men speak their language.

If there was comparable energy among the intolerant warmongers, they wouldn’t be bitching that their meet-and-greet, which achieved record attendance this year, was hijacked.

But instead of being pushed away, how about doing the pushing? It’s time to marginalize the bigots and warmongers and celebrate the fact that momentum is, at least for the moment, with supporters of peace and freedom.

Where have all the liberaltarians gone?

On his blog Cato staffer Will Wilkinson writes that he’ll soon no longer … well … be a Cato staffer — and the same is true of his colleague Brink Lindsey. This is important because Lindsey and Wilkinson have been the two libertarians most closely associated with the “liberaltarian” project — the idea, spawned during the dark George W. Bush years, that libertarians should finally jettison the rather overripe alliance with the increasingly blood-and-iron-oriented political right and seek to build bridges with the left.

Without further details to go on, this has sparked much speculation that the Cato Institute is pushing Lindsey and Wilkinson out the door now that the Obama administration has proven itself just as pushy and sanguinary as its predecessor — and amidst hopes that the Tea Party movement means that the place to be is on the right, after all.

I have no special insight to offer here. What few contacts I had at Cato have largely eroded over the years, as I’ve drifted from professional concerns to professional irrelevance — and a greater focus on family matters. But I will say that I hope the mutterings are wrong; I’d hate to think that Cato is tossing people overboard because they’re too willing to broaden the search for allies.

That’s not to say that I support a formal “liberaltarian” strategy. It would be awfully ironic if an individualist, do-your-own-thing political movement were to try to evolve a formal strategy for anything, let alone for designating official friends and enemies. But I think it’s just good sense to look for allies where you can find them, without declaring whole sections of the political spectrum to be “off-limits” or “friendly” territory.

Frankly, political labels don’t really tell us much about whether people generally favor liberty or generally oppose liberty. If we’re discussing the left, it’s not enough to mention that the Obama administration is authoritarian, snoopy and war-mongering — we also need to mention the likes of Nat Hentoff and Harvey Silverglate, and the great good they’ve done for the cause of freedom. As for the right … perhaps the Tea Party movement does represent a revival of a right-wing interest in personal freedom and limited government, but did I mention eight hideous years of George W. Bush?

Basically, we shouldn’t be blinded by labels because they obscure more than they reveal. “Liberal,” “conservative,” “left” and “right” have come to cover such a wide range of views (and a multitude of sins, along with some virtues) that they don’t tell us very much at all. We need to look for friends where we can find them, using our own natural affinities, the language and interests of those we’re approaching, and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. Lindsey and Wilkinson are probably best suited for outreach to the left, Lew Rockwell and company are certainly more comfortable with the right, and the rest of us should do whatever seems right and opportune.

Libertarians never should have allowed themselves to be associated as a movement with “the right” and we shouldn’t make the same mistake with “the left.” But we should all be willing to treat anybody with an interest in expanding liberty, if only in one area, as a potential ally.