Ryan Holiday Doesn't Care About Ron Paul


A couple of weeks ago, Joshua Snyder had an article on LRC entitled “Ron Paul’s Long Tail." In it, he argued that “Ron Paul is the one candidate able to unite the diverse elements in the Long Tail. His supporters range from strippers to evangelicals, from gun-toters to peaceniks, and yet his message is as mainstream as the Constitution." Snyder argued that “Ron Paul’s Long Tail will propel him to victory."

“Wishful thinking,” writes Ryan Holiday several days later, in a piece entitled “Why I don’t Care About Ron Paul and Why He Has Nothing to Do with the Long Tail," “but completely incorrect. The idealism here is admirable and yet the epitome of what causes most movements to fail. It’s too ‘inspired’ to talk about strategy, or to look at facts, or to win with the help of reality – they’d rather die in spite of it. And it’s just total misinterpretation of the Long Tail. Because of this, not matter (sic) how much money he wins, Ron Paul is doomed to fail.”

To his credit, Holiday points out that the Electoral College is no Amazon.com. “The internet has empowered your voices," he argues, “but the system still disenfranchises your votes.” And he is right. But the reasoning by which he travels from this important distinction to arrive at the conclusion that a Ron Paul presidency is “impossible” is seriously flawed.

Holiday is absolutely right in claiming that the electoral system is not the kind of “market” that serves the long tail, as he explains:

“Because of the district basis of the system, it is impossible for minor candidates to collect their small stakes in many communities into a significant voting block. Candidates win based on how many individual districts they can tally together, not how much overarching support they can garner. Third Parties exist as aggregates of minor factions spread throughout multiple constituencies but the electoral system doesn’t care about percentage of the whole, only percentage of the local. It is innately compartmentalized, tied to the part to the point where the whole doesn’t matter. Sound familiar? This is exactly what prevents a long tail economy from thriving in Borders or at a Tower Records."

Holiday then goes on to assert that because the electoral system is not an example of the Long Tail business model, Ron Paul cannot possibly win. I suppose this might be true if we accept that Ron Paul truly is a “Long Tail candidate” – that is, if the market for what he is offering is very small in each geographic locale but very large nationwide – however this is quite a substantial assumption to be making. Even Joshua Snyder was arguing that Ron Paul could unite diverse elements within the Long Tail – not that he represented an isolated commodity within the Long Tail. But regardless of what Joshua Snyder believes, I personally am not pinning my hopes of a Ron Paul victory on the idea that he is a “long-tail candidate." And the fact that the US presidential elections are not a “Long-Tail” serving market is simply not enough to prove that Ron Paul cannot win in those elections. Holiday bases his assertion that it is on the false premise that Ron Paul can only be a “Long-Tail candidate” which is the first problem with his argument.

The second flaw is one I run into frequently with those whose focus is on “strategy” rather than principles. It is a failure to understand the importance of principles. Not of the principles themselves, but of the notion of having them.

Mr. Holiday writes: “Ron Paul supporters should be leveraging the media coverage and ability to efficiently raise money not to buy votes, but to force change from the candidates who can win.”

(This is already happening, by the way – at least in lip-service terms – by virtue of Ron Paul’s supporters propelling him towards the Republican nomination. I’m not sure it could happen any other way.)

Ryan misses out on one important point: This is precisely what many libertarians have been trying to do for years: convince politicians that they should support liberty and smaller government. Maybe he hasn’t noticed that it has not worked very well.

The reason it hasn’t worked very well is that systems don’t generally reward those who aim to diminish the system. Our political system thrives by pitting groups against each other, robbing from some to give to others; restricting the freedoms of some for the benefit of others. With rare exception, those who succeed in the system are those who restrict freedom and increase spending. They may spout rhetoric about free markets and limited government, but they almost never follow through.

The real flaw in Mr. Holiday’s suggestion is that he doesn’t seem to recognize what a rare exception Dr. Paul is. The idea that we can simply “force” the other candidates to become defenders of liberty by dangling our votes in front of them misunderstands the nature of the game and of the players. Ron Paul has spent 30 years demonstrating that he is committed to liberty. When he says that he will do everything in his power to diminish the role of government in our lives, he means it, and those who support him trust him to do exactly that. The same cannot be said about any of the other candidates who are running. The very fact that Mr. Holiday believes their positions can be dictated by pressure from voters is proof that he already knows this.

Finally, Mr. Holiday says “Take the only victory that is possible … that means guiding the dynamic and opinion towards Libertarian policy as much as possible within the system. And then, maybe, you have a shot at changing the system; that is maybe, you can get rid of the Electoral College. Until then, it doesn’t matter. Your victory is literally impossible.”

Mr. Holiday’s hubris-laden claim that Ron Paul “cannot win” is based on the false premise that Ron Paul is necessarily a “long-tail candidate” and that victory requires the presidential elections to be a “long-tail market." He isn’t, and it doesn’t. Further, the idea that we can somehow guide the system towards libertarian policy with the assistance of policymakers who don’t believe in liberty is deeply misguided.

Personally, I’ll be voting for Ron Paul not because I think the odds favor him but because I believe he is the only person who has any intention of stripping back government. If he doesn’t win, are there other victories that can be had by the movement? Sure there are. But they aren’t likely to be at the voting booth.

December 3, 2007