Saturday, January 07, 2012

What's the matter with Ron Paul?

First, what is right about Ron Paul? Of those running, he is the at least the second most interesting; Newt Gingrich – who I do not favor – is probably more so. But Paul’s being interesting is part of the reason that independents are so excited by him. It is the reason young people are so interested in him. He is more dedicated to the text of the Constitution as written than any other candidate. He is more dedicated to the idea of individual liberty than any other candidate. It would be hard to believe that a strong majority of people would not, at least in the abstract, view these positions positively. Even in 2008 he was getting the loudest cheers in debate audiences for saying things that made the experts cringe. Words like liberty and freedom, the Constitution and the founder’s vision resonate with many people.  

So, what is so wrong with him so that virtually every “expert” on tv says he is unelectable and his opponents go so far as to call him dangerous? On the other hand, when they start thinking about what it means, it scares them. That’s because the world has changed much more than the Constitution has and they don’t want to go back. Thinking about that leads to questions I’m not going into here very deeply (I predict a deep sigh of relief from any reader). They include – How have we moved away from the Constitution? Why did we move away – changing values, changing policies, something inherent in the Constitution? Is doing so dangerous to our liberty interests? Is it indicative of a rule by mob or an aristocracy? What should we do about it? 

The aforesaid are issues I have studied almost every day at least for two to three years and less consistently before. I personally find them really interesting and therefore I’m afraid you’ll have to bear with at least a short answer – The Constitution has never really worked in many details because no written document can by itself live up to that heady title. Life is too complicated and values change too quickly and are too diverse for any primary law such as a Constitution to keep up. In my own family I recognized that my mother encouraged me (and I suppose my siblings) to be an individual and then was disappointed in some ways when I did just that. That reaction is not a surprise with any parent, if you think about it. You want your kids to think for themselves, but you also really don’t want them to be that different from you. I raise this because I think our political system does the same thing. It – and predominantly the first (free speech and religion) and fourteenth amendment (prohibiting the states from violating due process and equal protection of the law) - allows each of us to be individuals. It is not surprising that in some ways each of us deviates in what we believe the law should be and what we can expect from it. This idea is rarely expressed and is not said or written about frequently near enough. People think in terms of being right in their beliefs and those who disagree with them wrong, rather than about having different interests and values which might lead to different conclusions. And a little thing like the Constitution should not get in the way. It can either be interpreted out of the way or ignored.  

All that brings me to the first thing wrong with Ron Paul – the Constitution scares the heck out of many people. They listen to him and they think – are we all supposed to walk around with a pocketful of gold coins and how do you pay for a movie with gold?  When the Constitution says congress may legislate to “coin” money – does it mean no paper? Believe it or not, this was a big issue that has been resolved with a yes. Right now, I do not want to discuss it in detail, just point out that most people are not applauding at this line, but thinking – “What? How would I pay my credit card bill? With a strong box filled with metal?” Ron Paul asks where the Constitution has allowed for many of the departments and laws we have. Where, for example, is the right to create an EPA? Nowhere, of course. But, though libertarians and many conservatives like this idea, most people are very fond of clean air and water and would be horrified if they found out that industry will no longer be regulated by the federal government. They do not want each state bordering the Mississippi to decide what chemical waste can be dumped into it. And, no, they do not trust the states or the people to make or enforce their own laws, if they even could. You can decide this is wrong thinking, but I seriously doubt most people would agree with you. For example, the American Lung Association released a survey about a year ago conducted by one Democratic and one Republican polling firm that showed a very strong majority were in favor of the EPA and enforcement (even increased enforcement) of the Clean Air Act. A similar result this past summer was found with respect to voters in Appalachia with respect to the Clean Water Act. Most people see the environment as a national (if not international) issue. This is different, of course, from things like the department of education or housing, whose power I think most citizens would be happy to return to the states. 

Ron Paul’s second problem is other libertarians. Libertarians are a diverse group, in some ways, more so than any other large political group. Some are rich, others poor. Some are religious and some atheists. And so on. As for myself, I claim to be only a moderate independent (don’t hate me) who leans libertarian. By independent I mean that I am not for any political party, whose primary interest almost always seems to be their own power and my political beliefs do not tend to be very strongly in agreement by either party or ideology. By moderate I mean that I tend not to like or dislike or intuit politicians personal values based on their political predilections, although there are exceptions (Nazis, for example). By leans libertarian I mean that preserving or not limiting individual liberty should be the default position with respect to every law, and any inroad on it should be for a very good reason – the more important the liberty interest – say, free speech and privacy in your home as opposed to when you water your lawn – the better a reason it has to be to suppress it. The Bill of Rights is a good guide for what’s really important, but it is not exclusive. However, none of the above means that I do not believe in laws or regulations where they are not anti-competitive or create inequalities under the law, so long as they do not target people or groups as winners or losers and do not give everyone an opportunity (it's easier to say than to do). This is a deep subject – what legislation should be lawful or not – and a subject for a future day. 

Liberty, of course, is a little like truth. People have different ideas of what it means? We have a copy of a speech Lincoln gave during the Civil War (so, not my spelling) –

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny.
That’s one reason I never call myself a “libertarian,” but say I lean that way. It is just that hard to define. Another reason is personal to me – I just don’t like to join groups. But, a third reason I don’t like to call myself a libertarian is that I’ve watched some gatherings of Libertarians and a good number of them scare me a little. Some a lot. There is sometimes a thin line between those who call themselves libertarians and people who call themselves anarchists or nihilists and I, and I think most Americans, don’t want anything to do with that. It is not a secret that having some type of ordered society increases your liberty. One Supreme Court Justice put it this way –  

The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.” 

I actually do not like that particular justice’s opinion in the case for which he wrote his dissent, but I do agree with his larger point. The libertarianism that attracts me does not rule out order and certainly not all regulations. Americans do not want to be overregulated, but they also do not want lead paint on their children’s toys or a bank to open its doors without sufficient assets.  They do want to know the tires they buy meet a safe standard and that their doctor had to pass a stringent test. Whether the federal government or the state should regulate something is too long a discussion for this article. And whether pure libertarians like it or not, almost no one has a problem with required seat belts or smoke free restaurants anymore. 

A third thing wrong with Ron Paul is that while our own personal notions of what  freedom or liberty means is easy for each of us to know, the ramifications of libertarianism immersed in a complicated culture and constitutional system is not so easy to learn as one might think. I read Thoreau and De Tocqueville when young, been re-reading Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and his other works for about a quarter century, increasingly the last few years, and other authors. When I read Spinoza or Kant or Locke or Hume, which I do sporadically, but not comprehensively, one of the two issues I’m most interested in is their perspective on liberty. All of them were to some degree inspirations for our system of freedom. I’m still learning and still occasionally changing my mind. In fact, I only added the “lean libertarian” to independent moderate a few years ago when it finally dawned on me that this was the closest I would probably come to describing what I have probably always been to some degree, especially as an adult. 

Libertarianism simply has not been defined for people the way liberalism or conservatism has been defined for most voters who have minimal or even moderate interest in political theory. When people don’t understand something, they tend to fear the things they don’t grasp. When they hear that everyone should be free to choose who they contract with and how they use their own property, they expect or fear a return to Jim Crow. Paul has acknowledged he has a problem expressing these sentiments well and wishes he could do better. Because of this, he seems to spend a lot of time explaining what he doesn’t believe or want, and when he doesn’t, it is easy for the public to believe in the worst version of him. I have visited his campaign website and he really doesn’t try at all to increase interest or explain libertarianism very well. Maybe you can’t do that during a political campaign because you will scare people away. 

Sometimes, when Paul does explain things right, he just makes it worse, because when you run for president, you do not do so in an abstract vacuum, but in a culture with its own myths, legends and, particularly, fears. In one of the debates, discussing the possible death of a theoretical person who chose not to have health insurance, he explained that freedom was about taking risks that you want to take. Libertarians in the audience understood and cheered. I think most people cringed. It’s not 1930 anymore. There’s been well over a half century of varying degrees of the nanny state. We now fight wars half hoping and half expecting that no one will get killed except for some designated bad guys. Even the collateral damage that has always existed in war is now seen as totally unacceptable by many people, at least if it can in any way be avoided. Certainly Americans in their own country aren’t supposed to die when they can be saved by even extraordinary means – and even when their peril is their own fault. Maybe this is self destructive to a culture, but it is the culture now.

Essentially saying about someone - if he dies he dies - is honest, and that is another Paul strong point. But, let’s face it, honesty wins elections like nicotine cures cancer. When Walter Mondale said – “Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did," he was being honest too. Some partisan might use a loaded word like “stupid” for it also, but if that’s true of Mondale, it is true of Paul. Because he just doesn’t seem stupid by any stretch of the imagination it leads me to wonder if he cares. 

And that brings us to yet another Paul problem. Unlike all those other candidates going through bottle after bottle of Purex, smiling at people asking them rude or offensive questions, Paul seems above it all, suspicious of even conservative media and cantankerous if you cross a line with him. He doesn’t seem to want to ask people for their votes, but I expect it is because he would believe, as I would, that it was demeaning to them and to him. Yet, there can be no doubt that people like to be asked for their vote and there is an expectation that they will along with all the kowtowing that accompanies it. I’m glad he doesn’t do it, at least not much relative to other candidates, but there can be no doubt it hurts him. 

But, the last thing wrong with Ron Paul is obviously his foreign policy, which is his biggest problem. Sure, peace is a great idea and we are a country that can take a lot of aggression and deal it back when we need to in whatever measure we need. And, if you listen to him, he actually is not talking about curbing our defensive abilities, but our interventionist nature. Again, Ron Paul is much more like a founder here, in particular Adams, Jefferson and Madison. But, in my view – and this is yet one more subject there is not room to get into here – Jefferson and Madison’s foreign policies were ruinous for the most part, particularly with respect to Britain and France, the two most important powers in the world. Everything today is a topic for another day except Paul.  

Ironically, his biggest problem is the one he actually explains best and he ties it to our financial problems exceedingly well. It does make some sense except for one thing which I would like to present with loose analogies. Suppose you are playing checkers with a friend. Every once in a while when you take a piece of his off the board, he just puts it back on it. It is even a worse analogy if you imagine that he does it while you are not looking. Worse still, if, when he is losing, he upsets the board. And worst of all, while you are sitting down to play, he hits you over the head and takes the money in your pocket. No matter what your personal values or morality, no matter how much you stick to your principles or mind your own business, you are not going to have a good game of checkers and you certainly can’t win except by resorting to violence or coercion yourself.  

But that was a vague and general comparison. We do not see foreign affairs in general terms. We see them in terms of specific other countries and movements. We care about Iran, Russia and China. We care about Israel. While there is never unanimity in how Americans feel about foreign affairs, there is at least a general agreement about these countries. We want to deter the first, compete on a level playing field with the second and third and encourage and protect the fourth. Paul has counter arguments.  

Take Israel. He says that Israel wants not to have to rely on the United States; that we give more to Israel’s enemies collectively than we give to her and that we have never solved her problems but only increased our problems with other countries and groups by intervening. All that may be true, but does he not realize that our weighing in on Israel’s side has kept them from being involved in more violent attacks from their neighbors and perhaps has also protected her enemies from them?

With respect to Iran, he argues that there is no proof they are building a nuke, though he suspects they want one; that we were wrong about Iraq building a nuke and that we engaged in a long war because of it; and, that we intervened wrongfully in their country in the 1950s. But, others don’t care about that. The fact that Iran is developing a nuclear program in a way that might enable them to eventually have the bomb, that they are a nation openly hostile to us and the west that has alienated most of the countries of the world, and a totalitarian dedicated to religious tyranny.

With respect to al Qaeda though, Paul seems to not only go off the tracks, but to really hurt himself. He didn’t like bin Laden and isn’t shedding tears for him, but it is almost impossible for Americans who celebrated his death to understand someone wanting to be president who feels it was illegal. And while he may get more sympathy with respect to al Qaeda members who actually are Americans, most Americans don’t really care about that either, seeing in their acts enough aiding and abetting a terrorist group to be deemed a military target. You can argue these points legally and morally, but it is very hard to argue that they are not unpopular and almost incongruous for any Republican candidate, particularly as it is opposed to most Republican’s views and that his prospective opponent, Barack Obama, can crow about their deaths. Paul's view that they hate us because of what we have done clangs just as badly.

While my views on Iran and Israel are probably more mixed than most Americans, there can be no doubt that the overwhelming number of Americans, not to mention Republicans, would see his wanting to take financial support away from Israel as a deal breaker and his not vociferously calling Iran to account as crazy. I could actually see some Republicans voting for Obama rather than Paul and more than that staying home or voting for a third party.

Personally, I would vote for Paul and he is my favorite of the eight who originally made the debating stage, though I would prefer Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, if he had the slightest chance of even beating out Huntsman. I do not believe Paul, if we pretend he could be elected short of some existential American crisis while he was running, would accomplish most of his goals, because he could not get even a Republican controlled congress to go along with many of them. In fact, even winning as a Republican (and I think he would be clobbered for all the reasons I stated above), he would have to govern like an independent, and it is unknown how that can work very well at all. He would be relugated to governing by presidential order, vetoing bills, to sometimes having to suffer the indignity of having the congress override his veto and possibly even arousing Constitutional crises from time to time when he refuses to comply with what he sees as unconstitutional. But, that's okay with me. Just not almost everyone else.

It comes down to - he can't win. And, as my beloved and faithful readers know, I think Romney can.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .