One of the most amazing aspects of Ron Paul's twin presidential campaigns was the way they brought together people who, on the surface, attached themselves to many different political labels. I met wonderful people who identified as conservative, liberal, libertarian, anarchist, anarcho-capitalist, the occasional Objectivist, Constitutionalist, as well as others. But while identifying themselves by these labels, they held as their overriding value the ideal of liberty, an ideal that wasn't to be sacrificed at the altar of party politics or watered down or compromised for the sake of expediency. The way Ron Paul's supporters worked side by side, I believe, is evidence that the devotion to the ideal of liberty transcends all the various political labels that these individuals held before. His supporters understood the way in which labels can be perverted to signify their opposite, and therefore put less weight in what they called themselves than what they stood for.
For many, "conservative" has meant "to conserve liberty" or "to conserve the American heritage of liberty," especially among supporters of Ron Paul. The pre-Buckley Old Right that raged against the New Deal and US entry into the World Wars were in this sense "conservative." The same moniker, though, has been claimed by the myriad big government Republicans, who spout off about "traditional values" but care nothing for the principles of liberty when they block the path of what they deem appropriate government programs. That section of the political/predatory class that just happens to identify as Republican claims "conservatism" with no notion as to what it means for many ordinary Americans. Those that equate conservatism with liberty are thrown under the bus when Republican Progressives highjack the label, and rightly point out that, if a Mitt Romney or a George Bush is "conservative" then the term itself ceases to have meaning. The same goes with any political label: If it can be twisted to mean anything, what use is it? It is important to point out what has generally been meant by which label, but the tug-of-war can only go on for so long before the political establishment completely unmoors the label from its pro-liberty wharf.
The term "liberal" was subjected to a similar hollowing-out in the mid- to late nineteenth century in Europe, and many began to claim the term for acts of government that were anything but liberal. The Liberals of the old school, what we now call Classical Liberals, were for liberty. They viewed the expansion and defense of liberty for the individual as the sole function of government. They understood that, by preserving and enhancing the liberty of the people, peace and prosperity would flourish in a way it never could via legislative decree. But newer generations of liberals became seduced by the quick and easy path of government intervention in the economy to address social ills. They became less concerned with government intervention as a danger to liberty, and all the while called themselves liberal. Classical Liberals such as Herbert Spencer pointed out that those advocating greater government involvement in the affairs of citizens were in no sense liberal, but rather reborn Tories. In The New Toryism, Spencer lamented the perversion of the meaning of the term Liberal from the belief that enhanced liberty brings prosperity to the belief that it is permissible to use government coercion to hasten the arrival of prosperity:
"But why do I enumerate facts so well known to all? Simply because, as intimated at the outset, it seems needful to remind everybody what Liberalism was in the past, that they may perceive its unlikeness to the so-called Liberalism of the present. It would be inexcusable to name these various measures for the purpose of pointing out the character common to them, were it not that in our day men have forgotten their common character. They do not remember that, in one or other way, all these truly Liberal changes diminished compulsory cooperation throughout social life and increased voluntary cooperation. They have forgotten that, in one direction or other, they diminished the range of governmental authority, and increased the area within which each citizen may act unchecked. They have lost sight of the truth that in past times Liberalism habitually stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion.
And now comes the inquiry—How is it that Liberals have lost sight of this? How is it that Liberalism, getting more and more into power, has grown more and more coercive in its legislation? How is it that, either directly through its own majorities or indirectly through aid given in such cases to the majorities of its opponents, Liberalism has to an increasing extent adopted the policy of dictating the actions of citizens, and, by consequence, diminishing the range throughout which their actions remain free? How are we to explain this spreading confusion of thought which has led it, in pursuit of what appears to be public good, to invert the method by which in earlier days it achieved public good?"
That public good was the by-product of an environment of liberty. Spencer grew more pessimistic as he watched the rapid withering of liberty and the growth of government coercion under the banner of Liberalism.
Friedrich Hayek even delved into debate over what to call advocates of expanded liberty. In his essay, "Why I Am Not a Conservative," Hayek rejected that label as unsuitable for the party of liberty, and instead offered as an alternative Old Whig. Unsurprisingly, this label has not caught fire among advocates of liberty.
Those who hold fast to the philosophy of liberty, and make attempts to advance this philosophy, will always be branded by their enemies with one name or another. Advocates of liberty, therefore, shouldn't spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to preserve one single label for their philosophy; the meaning of these labels will always be twisted by those to whom the philosophy of liberty is an alien concept. Their minds are closed to the idea that liberty will lead to prosperity; they are afraid of social change that they cannot control, and they will use the iron hand of the State to suppress or hobble it. The understanding that the protection and enlargement of the sphere of free association is the sole path to prosperity is a concept that many won't take the time to grasp, and the political class will be only too happy to exploit that unwillingness for their own gain.
There were many different aspects of Ron Paul's campaign that drew in his supporters: abolition of the central bank, an end to foreign intervention, an end to the Drug War, repeal of the endless piles of legislation that suffocate liberty and prosperity. But liberty, as a single, organic whole, encompassed Paul's campaigns and gave them the youthful energy and spirit that made them so successful. The Ron Paul Revolution really did feel as if liberty in our lifetimes was a realizable goal, and it brought together conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, people of every political persuasion who suddenly realized that they loved the idea of liberty regardless of what that idea is called.
Shane Smith is an accountant living in Norman, Oklahoma. He writes for Red Dirt Report. Liberty is his religion.