A strange thing is afoot in the little libertarian corner of the Republican presidential primary: a race to the left on immigration.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, until recently something of an immigration hawk — no amnesty, no birthright citizenship, no welfare benefits — has, as they say, evolved. Representative Paul was a tough critic of the Bush administration’s “comprehensive reform” (read: “surrender”) project; today, he is calling for amnesty in the form of “green cards with an asterisk.” That asterisk would merely prevent newly legalized green-card holders from collecting welfare benefits or receiving full legal citizenship until certain unspecified mandates had been satisfied. If anything, what Ron Paul is proposing now is as weak as anything contemplated by George W. Bush.
Prior to this change of heart, one of the key differences between Representative Paul and the general run of free-market immigration enthusiasts had been that his thinking on immigration was not exclusively economic, but cultural as well: “We cannot continue to ignore the cultural aspects of immigration,” he wrote. “We rightfully expect immigrants to show a sincere desire to become American citizens, speak English, and assimilate themselves culturally. . . . Today, however, some immigrants travel between countries frequently, enjoying the benefits of America but showing no desire to become Americans. Some even display hostility toward America and our ideals, joining the chorus of voices demanding that the United States become a multicultural society that rejects our own history. It is this cultural conflict that soon must be addressed, and the president’s amnesty proposal simply turns a blind eye to the problem.”
In his new book, Liberty Defined, Paul instead praises the “superior” work ethic of immigrants and cites anti-Hispanic prejudice as the source of immigration hawks’ energy, giving fits to former fans such as Tom Tancredo. His objections to multiculturalism seem to be waning.
What’s got into Ron Paul? The best guess is: Gary Johnson.
Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, has joined the Republican primary race, too, and he’s out to out-libertarian the libertarians’ poster boy.
Johnson is not claiming credit for Representative Paul’s new outlook. “Did he change his views?” he asks cooly. “Well, the thing about politics is that you end up changing the world a little bit when others recognize that what you’re saying is a good thing.”
In effect, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are in a race to the left in a Republican party — and a country — that is in an energetically restrictionist mood, especially when it comes to illegal immigrants. A Southwest Voter Research Institute poll found that 69 percent of Hispanics in Texas favor deploying additional federal forces to secure the border, and more than half support a national identification card; Pew found Democratic voters nearly evenly split on Arizona’s immigration reforms.
Johnson talks like a pragmatist but is at heart more of a libertarian purist. Like Ron Paul, he’s a vocal critic of U.S. military actions; unlike Ron Paul — and unlike most Republicans and most Americans — he favors almost no restriction on abortion. And unlike Mitch Daniels, he does not seem much interested in a truce on the social issues. “I think this is a corollary to what happened when I ran for governor of New Mexico: I understand that I am not going to appeal to that narrowly focused part of the Republican party that focuses on social issues. I didn’t get any of their votes in the primary in New Mexico, but I think I got all of their votes in the general election.”
Unlike Ron Paul 1.0, Johnson frames immigration — legal and illegal — as matter of pure calculation. “I’m completely pragmatic, and it’s a matter of commonsense cost-benefit analysis. What are we spending, and what are we getting? Immigration is a really good thing, the basis on which this country was founded. Yes, there are welfare services being provided that I don’t think should be provided, but these are issues that are relatively easily dealt with — rather than building a fence across 2,000 miles of border, or having the National Guard standing arm-in-arm across 2,000 miles of border.”
It is not as though there is a great deal at stake in the Ron Paul–Gary Johnson rivalry, and Johnson acknowledges as much. (Representative Paul did not return calls seeking his comment.) “People ask me, ‘Aren’t you just going to split the Ron Paul vote?’” Johnson says. “If I split on Paul’s 7 percent, this isn’t going anywhere. If it’s splitting 40 percent, that’s different. Forty percent is what it would take to win the primary.” And 40 percent is a world away for Johnson or for Paul. There’s a good reason for that: There are a lot of libertarian-leaning conservatives out there, but they wince at the puritanical tendencies exhibited by Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. Mitt Romney may not be the most credible partisan of liberty in the Republican party, but it is hard to imagine him questioning whether Americans should have fought the Civil War — hard to imagine him even entertaining the question — or talking about disbanding the CIA — “the CIA runs everything,” Paul says — accusing the agency of having pulled off “a coup” and acting as “a government unto themselves.”
Libertarianism especially runs into trouble when it runs up against borders. The purely economic-minded believe that the only problem with unrestricted immigration is the presence of the welfare state, but that view is in error: Human beings are economic actors, but they are not merely economic actors. A human life is not the sum of a man’s economic actions, and a nation is not its economy. Libertarianism offers some pretty good guidelines for running a national economy; as a model of international order in 2011, it is fantasy, and ideological folly. Russell Kirk made famous H. Stuart Hughes’s statement that conservatism, properly understood, isn’t an ideology but “the negation of ideology.” When it comes to immigration, the two libertarian standard-bearers in the Republican primary offer a reminder of why ideology sometimes needs negating.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.