Two prominent libertarian authors, Walter Block and Brian Doherty, have just published books about the same important subject: Ron Paul.
Liberty thought it would be a good idea to ask each author to review the other. No one knew how this would turn out — but here are the results. —Stephen Cox
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Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, by Brian Doherty. HarperCollins, 2012, 294 pages.
Reviewed by Walter E. Block
This is a magnificent book. It is riveting, hard to put down, informative. I experienced much of the Ron Paul phenomenon myself, up close and personal, yet I learned a great deal from Doherty’s explication. In another life, he must have been a safari guide to the deepest jungles, or an inspired travel guide to foreign lands, or a gifted sociologist. He takes us on a trip through the libertarian movement as brought to us by Dr. Paul as no one else has been able to do.
If you are a Ron Paul fan, or are interested in his foray into Republican and Libertarian politics, or even hate the man and want to be informed about him, this is the book to get. Its main drawback is that it was released on May 15, which means that Doherty must have finished writing it early in the year (he covers the Iowa caucus in its last few pages); but so much has happened since then, and without this author to put all these recent occurrences together for us, it just isn’t the same. This means that if Ron Paul becomes the next president of the US and appoints me czar of anything, I shall order Doherty to write a sequel to this important book of his.
Our author takes us on a historical tour of Ron Pauliana from his early days, to his medical career, to his beginnings in politics, his struggles as the Dr. No congressman, and his three campaigns for the presidency — one for the Libertarian Party, and two for the Republicans. But this book is far more than a biography. One of its many strengths is Doherty’s incisive knowledge of the libertarian movement in all its esoterica.
Others are his numerous vignettes of the people who have given of themselves, lost jobs and alienated friends and family members, in their support of Paul. Doherty also offers candid assessments of Ron Paul himself; we get not only the palpable love that Doherty feels for Paul, but also some of Paul's warts; e.g., he refuses to take lessons from professional speakers, he keeps his religious faith to himself, and he almost absolutely refuses to tailor his message to his audience (of course without violating his principles — what kind of a politician is that?) — things I didn’t fully appreciate even though I, too, am something of an intimate of Paul.
Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he described the dramatic Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11.
Doherty is not a professional economist. Yet his insights into the gold standard, budgets, the deficit, the debt, the fallacies of Keynesianism, the Austrian business cycle theory, the Fed, inflation, the Ponzi scheme of Social Security, the difficulties with socialized medicine, and much more — are clear and true. He is a journalist, not a libertarian theorist, and he is also insightful in his treatment of the niceties of legalizing drugs, the distinction between crony and real capitalism, the strengths and weaknesses of various “movement” organizations and leaders, "voluntaryism," anarcho-capitalism, and a host of other often complicated issues.
The dramatic highlight for me in this book was our author’s depiction of the Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11. I witnessed this myself, firsthand. And I read what was said about it, in the aftermath. Yet Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he once again described this dramatic event. Doherty is nothing if not a magnificent storyteller, and this gift of his pervades the book.
This is a strange review for me to write, for at roughly the same time that his book about Paul was released, so was mine. Doherty and I agreed to review each others’ books, and this is my contribution to the agreement. Although Doherty and I share a love for Ron Paul, our books are very different. I don’t interview anyone; Doherty's book is chock-full of interviews. In contrast to Doherty's, mine shares no personal experiences with Paul and Paulians. Mine is not at all historical. I do not give any tour of the libertarian movement, as he does. Instead, my book is in part an attempt to garner publicity for Paul. I wrote articles that later became chapters in the book about whom he might pick for Vice President and whom for Supreme Court, not so much because I thought there was a clear and present need for such speculations, but more as an attempt to promote his quest for the presidency. In the book, I feature groups such as Jews for Ron Paul, to combat charges that he was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. I offer a few “Open Letters to Ron Paul,” where I have the temerity to offer him advice on, among other things, how best to deal with interviewers who simply will not allow him to speak.
Another part of my book features my sometimes, I admit it, pretty vicious attacks on people who “done wrong” to Ron Paul. These chapters are not so much aimed at liberals or conservatives, although I do take on a few of them. I can (sort of) forgive them their trespasses. What do they know about anything important after all? No, my ire was aroused to the boiling point by unwarranted criticisms emanating from libertarians, several with impeccable credentials in this philosophy. They, it seems to me, should have known better.
Let me close this review with two very minor criticisms of the Doherty book. For one thing, he (along with practically everyone else) characterizes the war of 1861 in the US as a “Civil War.” But ’twas not a civil war. That term pertains to the case in which one party wishes to take over the entire country at the expense of its opponent. The wars in Spain in 1936 and in Russia in 1917 were true civil wars. While the North in 1861 did indeed wish to rule the entire nation, the South did not. It only wished to secede. So a more accurate characterization would be, the War to Prevent Southern Secession, or the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.
Second, Doherty (p. 254) claims that what enraged Ayn Rand about the publication in the Freeman of Milton Friedman and George Stigler’s article, “Roofs or Ceilings” was that Friedman “was willing to grant the good intentions of his intellectual adversaries.” No, she was angry at Friedman and Stigler because of “a paragraph on page 10, which seems to suggest the authors agree with the goal of equalizing income.” Rand (very properly in my own view) called them “the two reds” (Snow, 2012). In the view of Skousen, 1998: “Ayn Rand labeled the pamphlet ‘collectivist propaganda’ and ‘the most pernicious thing ever issued by an avowedly conservative organization’ because the economists favored lifting rent controls on practical, humanitarian grounds, not in defense of ‘the inalienable right of landlords and property owners.’” Miss Rand objected to Friedman-Stigler on both of the grounds just stated, and I concur with her on each.
But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise magnificent book. I loved reading it, and so will you, if you have even the slightest interest in Ron Paul and liberty.
Skousen, Mark. 1998. “Vienna and Chicago: A Tale of Two Schools.”
Snow, Nicholas. 2011. “Making Sense of the Controversy.” February 22;
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Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty, by Walter Block. Ishi Press International, 2012, 392 pages)
Reviewed by Brian Doherty
Libertarian economist Walter Block really, really likes Ron Paul, and thinks Paul ought to be (and thought when he wrote this book that he would be) the next president of the United States. As the title indicates, Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty is a book of express, and strongly worded, advocacy. Block grants at one point that, well, libertarians can maintain their cred as true friends of liberty merely by not stabbing Paul in the back. But his general tone sells the message that anything other than pure adoration and belief in Paul’s eventual victory qualifies as such stabbing, and he writes that he sees support for Paul as “a sort of litmus test for libertarianism.” Anyone who does not share and express Block’s own thoughts and feelings regarding Ron Paul with precisely the same, or nearly the same, strength and commitment seems to be, in Block’s view, an objective enemy of libertarianism, and generally “despicable” (a favorite Block word for people or articles he thinks are anti-Paul).
Block’s new book is a collection of his articles and blog posts, most of which appeared at the website LewRockwell.com, and were written mostly over the course of Paul’s 2011–12 campaign. As Block writes in the book’s introduction, “Each and every last one of these chapters is an attempt . . . to expand and expound upon his [Paul's] views, to publicize them, to promote his candidacy, to defend it against attacks from within and without the libertarian movement.”
Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans by vocation, and by avocation the “Jewish mother” of what he sometimes calls the Austro-libertarian movement, the hardcore pushers of a Rothbardian plumbline of Austrian economics and anarchistic libertarianism. Here, this Jewish mother’s mission is to tell libertarians, and the world, that they need to push for Paul. Although Paul is not 100% by Block’s own standards — even Block admits the non-anarchist Congressman Paul is only a 97, and further admits to disagreeing with Paul on immigration and abortion — Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever. Block believes that “the Texas congressman has acquainted more people with libertarianism, and converted them to this philosophy, then all of the other [libertarian thought leaders] put together.”
Block is well placed to judge these matters regarding the libertarian movement. He’s a grandmaster of modern libertarianism himself, fighting in the trenches of academic and popular writings on Austrian and libertarian issues for over four decades, since he was converted to Austrian economics at Murray Rothbard’s feet. He’s the author of the libertarian classic Defending the Undefendable, which rigorously argues for the legitimacy of such professions as the blackmailer, ticket scalper, slumlord, scab, and employer of child labor, professions which disgust many but which Block points out aggress against no one and provide real economic value and should not be interfered with by the state. That book’s purpose is not to be shocking, per se, but to be rigorously intelligent in identifying the legal and moral meanings of the modern libertarian project, and Block performs the purpose brilliantly. As F.A. Hayek, not nearly as hardcore as Block himself, said of the book: “Some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it. A real understanding of economics demands that one disabuses oneself of many dear prejudices and illusions. Popular fallacies in economics frequently express themselves in unfounded prejudices against other occupations, and in showing the falsity of these stereotypes Block is doing a real service, although he will not make himself more popular with the majority."
Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever.
Block tries to write, here as in all his popular writings, with a light hand. His version of lightness, though, often manifests itself as a very New Yorker-ish (not the magazine — a stereotypical New Yorker) heavy sarcasm, with bursts of manic silliness. But his point is serious, even when made with bludgeoning irony. The book contains defenses and explanation of Paul’s stances on discrimination law, environmental protection, the dangers of the Federal Reserve, and ending the drug war, among other issues. Block advises Paul, from afar, about how to conduct himself during debates, while wisely allowing that, given Paul’s tremendous success, he’s obviously already doing most things right: “It is unlikely that [his success] is in spite of his presentation style.” Block also indulges in some Paul fannish fun, such as skylarking about possible Supreme Court nominees or vice presidential picks for the congressman.
Since this book collects pretty much everything Block has written in the past four years that mentions Paul at all, it is a bit repetitive, and it sometimes drifts a bit into more general libertarian controversies, such as Block’s daring defense of accepting money and jobs from the government. Block believes that as long as you stand against statist policies, “the more money you take from the coffers of the state, the better libertarian you are.”
The book also contains Block debating or attacking other libertarians for falling short of Paulist standards; instances, he believes, are Randy Barnett’s pro-Iraq War stance, and Wendy McElroy’s disdain for any major-party political leader for the libertarian cause. Block often provides line-by-line eviscerations of other people’s writings that he found mistaken or insufficiently respectful to Paul, whether from libertarian or nonlibertarian sources. (Block regards one of my Reason colleagues expressing on TV the opinion that there was no way Paul would win the presidency — and with a look on her face that he found objectionable, to boot — as a firable offence. He regards an organization that would not do such firing as unworthy of the libertarian label or libertarian support. Reason, of course,did not fire her.)
Block may be read by some as too hero-worshipping of Paul, and unrealistically optimistic about his chances. (Block, for example, seems to think the probability of Paul’s victory can be calculated merely by assuming that every single GOP candidate has the exact same odds of winning.) But Block is objective enough to admit that despite his admittedly great success as a proselytizer for the cause, Paul is “not a leading theoretician, not a leading economist . . . not a leading intellectual” of the movement. So what is he? I think Block would agree with my assessment, as author of my own book about Paul and someone who has followed his career with interest and support since 1988, that Paul is a staunch student and fan of Mises and Rothbard who has learned and can transmit their lessons well, who found himself in the position — ironically through a major-party run for president — of selling radically anti-political libertarian ideas with greater efficiency and success than anyone else has managed for a very long while. Block is correct in thinking that Paul has been uniquely successful at his task, and most interestingly by finding a huge mass of normal Americans who never thought of themselves as libertarians before, or as anything specifically political at all.
Understanding what Paul did and said since 2007 ought to be of great interest to libertarians or students of libertarianism, or just students of American politics, and Block gathers a useful collection of information and arguments about the Paul movement as it happened, touching on many of the controversies that surrounded Paul, both within and without libertarianism. If one is a Paul fan seeking a grab-bag of commentary and explanations that is unabashedly pro-Paul — something difficult to find in the modern media environment — then he or she will at least have fun with this book, and likely learn a lot about some of the more complicated issues Block addresses, such as strict property-right libertarian environmentalism, and how to figure out, amid the maddening empirical complications of modern foreign policy issues, who is and who is not an initial aggressor, as opposed to simply a retaliator.
Readers not already 100% sold on Paul are likely to feel Block’s suspicion and even contempt radiating at them. But 10, 20, or 30 years from now, when people look back on what the Paul movement may have meant for American libertarianism, this book will be a valuable document of the excitement and manic energy that Paul’s presence inspired in many a libertarian, old and new.