Is Ron Paul the savior of libertarians? That’s what many are claiming about the Texas Republican who ran on the Libertarian ticket for President in 1988. Andrew Sullivan, who styles himself a classical liberal, has been trumpeting Paul ever since the GOP primary debate in South Carolina last month in which Paul went toe-to-toe with Rudy Giuliani over the cause of 9/11. “Ron Paul, for all his faults, is fresh air. We need more of it,” Sullivan wrote last month. In first quarter fundraising in New Hampshire and Montana, Paul finished second among the GOP candidates. Paul seems to be the libertarian dream candidate.
Paul markets himself as an ideologically pure libertarian—a capital “L” libertarian of the sort that people who refuse to carry driver’s licenses or pay federal income taxes can admire. So committed to a strict interpretation of the constitution, he’s something of a caricature in a Congress full of big-spenders, earning the title “Dr. No” for voting against each and every federal spending bill. He supports unfettered free trade and a non-interventionist foreign policy. He supports the abolition of a variety of cabinet-level federal agencies. But, in actuality, Paul is a selective libertarian. On the issue of gay rights—a cause that intellectually consistent libertarians ought to support – Paul is no better than his socially conservative primary opponents like Sam Brownback or Tom Tancredo.
In the June 5th Republican primary debate in New Hampshire, a member of the audience asked the candidates if they supported lifting the military’s ban on open homosexuals serving in the military. After all, our allies Great Britain and Israel allow gays to serve openly. The disastrous policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which has led to the expulsion of thousands of gay soldiers (not to mention about 60 sorely needed Arab linguists), is not only discriminatory but weakens the country’s national defense. From a libertarian perspective, any policy that treats two individuals unequally, as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” does, is in the wrong.
The response from Paul was quite stunning: “I think the current policy is a decent policy,” he said. Why? “If there is homosexual behavior in the military that is disruptive, it should be dealt with,” Paul continued. No one can argue with this contention, after all, the Uniform Code of Military Conduct bans sexual relations between service members, of either sex. Paul recognized this fact and continued his answer by qualifying: “But if there’s heterosexual sexual behavior that is disruptive, it should be dealt with. So it isn’t the issue of homosexuality, it’s the concept and the understanding of individual rights. If we understood that, we would not be dealing with this very important problem.”
But “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is an issue of homosexuality, a painfully obvious one at that. It would be nice, as Paul himself expressed, if people in this country viewed gays as individuals rather than as one monolithic group (and, in some sense, it would be nice if gay activists did the same), but gays are discriminated against as a class of people. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” does not even discriminate against gay sexual conduct, it discriminates against gay individuals who identify themselves as such. A gay male soldier who merely mentions a boyfriend back home could face discharge from the service. This is a double standard and yet another example of how gays are not equal before the law.
Following the debate, I approached Paul in the CNN “Spin Room” to question him about his stance on gay issues. As the regulations now stand, any soldier, straight or gay, is punished for sexual behavior with a fellow soldier on the job. “So why the inconsistency in treatment towards gay and straight soldiers?” I asked. Betraying an “ick factor” mentality towards gays, Paul immediately responded to my query by invoking prurience, stating that sexual conduct of any sort should be punished. But Paul could not offer me a coherent answer as to why gays would be more susceptible to engaging in illegal sexual conduct than straights, and thus ought be barred from serving openly.
I also asked Paul about his view towards civil marriage equality for gay couples. Paul told me that he does not support any government benefits for married couples (“I’m in favor of getting rid of special benefits for heterosexuals,”) no doubt a principled, albeit radical, libertarian perspective. But government benefits for married couples are not going to go away, just as the Department of Education is not going to go away, at least not anytime soon.
Paul’s support for eradicating whole federal departments is an intellectually consistent libertarian position that does not harm a specific group of people. However, withholding support for gay civil equality by making the good the enemy of the impossibly perfect, on the other hand, is intellectually dishonest at best, and cynically homophobic at worst. “Well, that’s what I argue for,” Paul told me when I mentioned the slim chances of eradicating government benefits for married couples.
Amidst Paul’s hand wringing and double standards, however, there was a silver lining in his views on homosexuality. In his response to the question on gays in the military, Paul elaborated his support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” by saying “the problem that we have with dealing with this subject is we see people as groups, as they belong to certain groups and that they derive their rights as belonging to groups. We don’t get our rights because we’re gays or women or minorities. We get our rights from our creator as individuals. So every individual should be treated the same way.”
This was a far more enlightened view towards gays than anything the other Republican candidates have expressed, and Paul’s emphasis on individualism is something that gay rights groups — with their bias towards collectivism — would do well to adopt.
But as long as the powers that be recognize gay people as a group and discriminate against them as such, Ron Paul’s selective libertarianism is looking more and more like a cop-out.
James Kirchick is Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic and a columnist for Window Media, the largest gay newspaper chain in North America.