Ron and Rand Paul: Beyond Fusionism

The cover image for this discussion series includes a picture of Rand Paul, who one could argue stands as the strongest point of evidence in favor of fusionism. He and more his father have been very successful working within the GOP to spread libertarian idea. However I would argue that Ron and Rand are executing a strategy beyond fusionism.

Fusionism has been both a philosophical and practical alliance of libertarians with conservatives presenting a united front in opposition to the challenge of socialism. Frank S. Meyer and William F. Buckley argued that freedom and virtue are not only compatible but both necessary for the functioning of a free society. While they argued for the mutual benefits to all parties involved, the alliance has been detrimental to libertarians through an overemphasis on market issues as opposed to social issues and an over reliance of libertarians on conservative institutions. The institutional problem is most clearly seen on the youth level where until very recently (with the rise of Ron Paul) libertarian students relied on conservative organizations such as the Leadership Institute and Young Americas Foundation for support, thus limiting the scope of their activism to conservative free-market issues.

A recent example of fusionism was Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ proposed truce between libertarians and conservatives on social issues. He argued that the market and the debt are critical issues, and that as advocates of free markets “we’re going to need to unify all kinds of people, and we’re going—freedom is going—to need every friend it can get.”

Another example up until recently would be the Charles Koch Foundation’s focus on economic freedom. Until an immigration forum a few weeks ago, many affiliates under the Koch umbrella focused their attention narrowly on the area of economic freedom, such as their educational project of that name. While the project is valuable in its narrow scope, it is an example of libertarians avoiding social issues to work with conservatives on market issues.

There is nothing wrong with an organization or individual advocating narrowly for economic freedom in and of itself. It is important for people to leverage their comparative advantage and use customized messages to reach out to different groups. More power to them. However, it becomes problematic when it is the primary or only strategy for the libertarian movement. An overemphasis on markets ties libertarianism to conservatism in the public eye. Fusionism also creates a problem of institutional inertia where think tanks and grassroots organizations just focus on markets. There is an opportunity cost problem here. The narrow focus of these organizations and reliance on conservative donors limits professional libertarians’ ability to work with the left or even talk about social issues.

So what do these limitations of fusionism have to do with Ron and Rand Paul? The difference between what they are doing and traditional fusionism lies in their promotion of a broad libertarian message as opposed to just areas where they agree with conservatives. In practice what we have seen with fusionism is conservatives setting the terms and libertarians going along with it, with libertarians prioritizing markets over social issues. There have been libertarians working on social issues such as the Cato Institute’s work on the drug war, but these are the exception. Our movement is dominated by free market organizations: I am a young professional libertarian in DC, and a majority of my libertarian peers work at organizations that focus exclusively on market issues.

This is where Ron Paul was a game changer. He was not afraid to stand up to conservatives on social issues and foreign policy. He became famous for challenging Rudy Giuliani on the issue of Blowback during the 2008 presidential debates. He gained legions of young followers by consistently championing libertarian issues like the drug war, civil liberties, and privacy. He proved that libertarian issues beyond markets are popular, that we do not have to narrow our focus to markets or kowtow to conservatives.

As I alluded to earlier, his principled libertarian campaigns of 2008 and 2012 have sparked the student movement for liberty. He was able to leverage the soap box of a political campaign to spread libertarian ideas. While he lacked in legislative victories, he is a prime example of a Hayekian second hand dealer in ideas. As Brian Doherty chronicled in his recent book Ron Paul’s rEVOLution, tens of thousands of students showed up to Paul’s 2012 campus rallies while Mitt Romney’s crowds were counted in the hundreds. Just a few years ago you could count the number of openly libertarian student groups in the tens. Now the Students For Liberty global network is over 900 strong. Ron Paul was not the only cause of this growth, but he was definitely the spark and inspiration.

Now Rand Paul has picked up that mantle. From his filibuster against executive power and drone strikes to calls for immigration reform and a restrained foreign policy, Rand Paul is pushing the envelope on issues beyond markets. This is the key difference. He is telling conservatives that if they want to remain relevant they need to become more libertarian, not the other way around.

Now conservatives have taken note. They have realized that Americans are more libertarian on social issues than ever before. Shifting demographics and the GOP failure in the 2012 elections make it imperative that conservatives change their strategy. This past year’s CPAC schedule had numerous sessions on how to re-brand and market conservatism to young people. But it is not just about a messaging campaign. The ideas matter, and that is what the Pauls understand. It is because they have advocated libertarian ideas across the spectrum that they have the youthful momentum that the GOP desperately needs.

Now is not the time to back track and hide under the conservative umbrella. We libertarians are winning on issues such as marriage equality and the drug war. Libertarians were out in front on these issues well before either major party, but now both are coming to understand the need to modernize on these issues. We should not just be celebrating these issues but leading the charge on them. We need more libertarian organizations working on social issues and building coalitions with the left. We should learn from the success of Ron and Rand Paul, but not just by working within the GOP but with Democrats, independents, and everyone across the spectrum. We are uniquely positioned to reach out to the left, right, and center with our message of personal and economic freedom. Where under fusionism libertarians have taken marching orders from conservatives, Ron and Rand have flipped the script and shown us that we can set the agenda. A libertarian agenda.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The State of the Debate by Jacqueline Otto

    Jacqueline Otto emphasizes that libertarians and conservatives share the goal of a more market-oriented economic system. That system can be ours, she argues, but only if we work together. As a result, she criticizes what she calls “the practice of keeping separate encampments.” She stresses the individualist and voluntary character of the Christian faith, which she sees as a proper complement to a market order. She warns that should we fail to emphasize the morality of capitalism, those on the religious left will be happy to dismantle it for us.

Response Essays

  • An Unequal Treaty by Jeremy Kolassa

    Jeremy Kolassa argues that fusion with traditional American conservatism has failed. The divide on social issues is simply too deep. Even in economics, conservatives have tended to be pro-business rather than pro-market. When voters see special favors for corporations being touted as free-market solutions, they lose interest in markets as a policy. That makes market advocates’ jobs so much harder. The unequal treaty needs to end, and libertarians need to assert an independent political identity.

  • The Death of Fusionism by Clark Ruper

    Clark Ruper reviews the history of fusionism, including the growth of independent libertarian institutions that don’t have to depend on the conservative movement anymore. Young people nowadays aren’t moving left, he argues. They are simply moving away from conservatism. The fusionist project is dead, and conservatives killed it.

  • Avoiding Confusionism: Liberty and Civil Society by Jordan Ballor

    Jordan Ballor argues that the libertarian exaltation of political liberty is dangerous: By privileging the power of the state, this worldview both gives the state too much importance and also undervalues the independent institutions of civil society. In reality, these institutions are bulwarks against the state. They represent the happy medium between atomistic individualism and Rousseauan collectivism. He ends with a plea for Burkean conservatism as the best way of constraining the statist/collectivist impulse.

The Conversation