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Asher Smith

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Why Does the Media Persist in Calling Ron Paul a Libertarian?

Posted: 01/02/12 04:00 PM ET

The Iowa Caucuses are Tuesday. "Still decidedly in the mix," according to Monday's New York Times, is "Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas."

But what exactly about Ron Paul merits the oft-repeated libertarian label? The answer certainly does not lie in his personal views, or his campaign's policy positions.

The Ron Paul phenomenon -- in some pre-Caucus polls, Paul still maintains a slim lead -- represents nothing new under the sun of American politics. Paul represents not a new libertarian age, but old-fashioned American federalism -- the belief that sovereign state governments should have free rein within their borders, free from pesky federal intervention and regulation. It hardly takes a Ph.D. in American history to realize that this has been tried before.

Paul supporters seem to be yearning for a return to a pre-Civil Rights Era federal system. Prominent Iowa Republican and Paul supporter Rev. Phillip Kayser explained to Talking Points Memo last week that Paul's vote in Congress in favor of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" did not staunch his enthusiasm for Paul. Rather, Kayser believes Paul's view of the Constitution would allow states more latitude in legislating issues of social policy. "Under a Ron Paul presidency," Kayser told TPM, "states would be freed up to not have political correctness imposed on them, but obviously some state would follow what's politically correct. What he's trying to do whether he agrees with the Constitution's position or not is restrict himself to the Constitution. That is something I very much appreciate."

Not imposing "political correctness" on the states, of course, is not new policy. It was standard practice for the first 188 years of American history. It did not work.

Yet on other social issues Paul's positions are not libertarian, but federalist. Paul does not want government out of individuals' private lives -- he merely wants the federal government out. For example, Paul twice opposed the George W. Bush-sponsored Federal Marriage Amendment, but he has supported legislation ensuring federal courts will not undermine any state laws regulating marriage.

From a libertarian perspective, Paul's logic is strained. In 2004, Paul dissented from celebrations of the 40-year anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "The federal government," explained Paul, "has no legitimate authority to infringe on the rights of private property owners to use their property as they please and to form (or not form) contracts with terms mutually agreeable to all parties. The rights of all private property owners, even those whose actions decent people find abhorrent, must be respected if we are to maintain a free society."

But why, if Paul is opposed to federal regulations necessary to curb "actions decent people find abhorrent," is he comfortable with permitting states to infringe on fundamental rights? There is no inherent reason why actions by state governments should occupy a more sacred plane than do actions by the federal government.

There is no reason, that is, if one applies a libertarian lens. Seen through the old fashioned prism of states rights, Paul's positions are entirely coherent. But while "states rights" has become a suspect rationale for current day political preferences, proclaiming oneself a "libertarian" is laden with none of the odium of previous centuries of failed policies. So the fiction continues. One wonders, however, why journalists covering the Republican campaign feel obligated to go along with it.