Money talks - in ALL CAPS on the Internet

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Connor Mendenhall
columnist

On Nov. 5, maverick libertarian Ron Paul raised a staggering $4.2 million, shattering the one-day fundraising record for current Republican presidential candidates. Similar outpourings of support are often churned out by well-oiled political machines. But Ron Paul's ""money bomb"" is remarkable, since the contributions he received weren't solicited by his campaign - they were the result of a loosely-structured online donation drive unrelated to Ron Paul's official run.

Paul's contribution coup is a striking example of the strength of his grassroots support, especially on the Internet. It's also a powerful affirmation of the libertarian principles Paul promotes. The foundation of libertarian thought is the concept of spontaneous order - the belief that the actions of many self-interested individuals can create order without organization.

Paul supporters are well-known for enthusiastically crashing online polls, exhaustively blogging and leaving thousands of online comments in the wake of any article posted about him. But the donations prove that Ron Paul fans are willing to chip in cash - and their size suggests that he may have more support than anyone expected.

Paul himself is a principled advocate for individual liberty (except, of course, when it comes to abortion and immigration). He's also a savvy politician. Unlike minor candidates on the left (see Dodd, Gravel and Kucinich), he has avoided being marginalized by his own party - even despite his unorthodox views. Paul's supporters, however, are another story.

I have no doubt that the majority of Paul's supporters are rational, well-meaning people, but his online presence is so dominated by a faction of rude and aggressive blowhards - dealing mostly in logical fallacies, conspiracy theories and ALL CAPS - that it's hard to avoid them anywhere on the Internet. It's easy to get arrogant and angry when one sees the scope of government intervention in our daily lives, but many Ron Paul supporters overstep the boundaries of common courtesy with their zealotry.

In return for their incessantly annoying online behavior, they've earned the nickname ""Paultards"" across the Web.

For years, libertarian thinkers have been written off as wacky, government-hating kooks. And although Paul himself makes compelling intellectual arguments, his rude and kooky followers do little to dispel the myth - and that's too bad, because true classical liberalism is a philosophy steeped in reason and common sense.

As a moderate libertarian myself, I'm glad to see a candidate championing the merits of individual liberty and the perils of big government. But while Paul's campaign has called attention to libertarianism, so many of his supporters damage its credibility.

It's tough to determine exactly how popular Paul is. His fans regularly organize to vote in interactive polls, swamping them with calls, clicks and text messages until Paul is declared the winner. Their tenacity is an impressive sign of dedication - but it makes already unscientific polling even less credible, and has annoyed more than a few media outlets accusing the zealots of spamming polls and clogging comment systems.

However, Paulites have a point when they argue that they aren't reflected in traditional polls. Strong support from young people is ignored, since many don't own land-line phones, and the numbers are further downplayed, as many opinion polls for the Republicans survey voters in the 2004 election - far from a libertarian bunch.

A clearer answer about Ron Paul's candidacy comes from ignoring polls altogether. Although polls may be the best-known indicators of political success, they're far from the most accurate. Instead, the prices in prediction markets, where online traders swap contracts speculating on future events, are far better predictors of things like elections. More important, it's much harder to tamper with their results.

As of yesterday, a contract predicting a Ron Paul GOP nomination on Intrade, a popular online market, traded at $5.8, implying that the betting markets believe there's about a 5.8 percent chance Ron Paul will win the ticket. That's a far cry from Giuliani's hefty $43 contract, or Romney's $29.80 price - but it puts Paul in fourth place among Republicans, ahead of John McCain and tied with Fred Thompson. Further, save for a downturn this week, that price has been steadily rising since Paul entered the campaign.

That implies that Paul has a shot at a primary win - but the constant messianic affirmations that Paul is destined to be the next president are likely no more than the audacity of hope. His more deluded followers will no doubt cry foul when he loses, but although he may not have a shot at the presidency, the Ron Paul campaign will certainly influence politics in the same way Dean, Nader, Buchanan and Perot each have to varying degrees over the past two decades.

That's a good thing. Ron Paul is a bellwether candidate, who proves that the American people are ready to seriously consider the political alternatives of libertarianism. But if the aggressive, obnoxious ""Paultard"" faction doesn't take it easy, they could easily shout this opportunity for liberty's cause to death.

Connor Mendenhall, the opinions editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat, is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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