For the first time in recent memory, there is actually a primary race that not only frequents the talk shows of cable news and the printing presses of newspapers, but also the lips of average Americans. This is not to say that, under normal circumstances, primaries are disregarded as purely second rate news, but the fact should be noted that this primary has not only made the news but shaped it as well, overshadowing events in the Middle East, the U.S. hitting its debt ceiling, President Obama’s recent speech at the border, the “Ryan Budget,” and even the flooding along the banks of the Mississippi River. Almost universally, any newsworthy event is followed by the question, “So how does [insert candidate’s name here] feel about this issue?”
Perhaps, the reason the Republican presidential primary has garnered so much attention is the massive groundswell of philosophy-oriented discussion that has overtaken the typical policy-oriented or party-oriented debates of past elections over the course of the past few years. The Tea Party Movement has served as a sort of philosophical “call to arms” for the American people to transfer their focus beyond what elected officials should do to why they should do it (at least when the various, individual Tea Party organizations consistently adhere to their three main principles: individual liberty, constitutionally limited government, and free markets). Furthermore, sweeping dissatisfaction with the policies of both President Bush and President Obama have initiated a nationwide manhunt for someone, anyone, that can do better. Unfortunately, this is more the result of Pragmatism than the dominant doctrines of the Tea Party Movement, even if the immediate goal of both — removing President Obama from office — is united.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats have offered comprehensive, constitutional, or ethical solutions to the nation’s problems: the Republicans sent troops and resources overseas in the name of nation building, and the Democrats are doing the same in the name of the U.N. and NATO; the Republicans doubled the national debt, and the Democrats responded by increasing it to ever greater heights; Republican, mixed-economy policies (combined with those of the entire last century) culminated in the 2008 financial collapse, and the Democrats’ only solution is more of what caused the meltdown in the first place – government controls. As a result, the Tea Party Movement and others have frantically been searching for a leader, someone to carry their standard forward into 2012. They are not looking for just any Republican — even Republicans that they assist getting elected are not immune from their criticism, as Speaker Boehner has recently found out. Instead, they want a candidate with the correct principles, not one that identifies himself by the “R” or “D” suffixing his name.
Enter Congressman Ron Paul.
Paul employed constitutionalist* arguments long before they entered the mainstream political conversation, and he is sometimes credited (not entirely inaccurately, either) as being the intellectual grandfather of the entire Tea Party Movement. After emerging from the remnants of his 2008 presidential bid, a chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty (a student-led activist group specifically endorsed by Congressman Paul) at New York State University hosted a “Tea Party protest” to express opposition to their state’s proposed tax increases and massive levels of spending. The trend caught on, spread, and stuck. However, its connection to Congressman Paul has been lost in the process.
After twenty-five years in the House of Representatives, Congressman Paul continues to be the most visibly consistent legislator, or even politician in general, in modern history and is one of the few with any demonstrable respect for individual liberty or the U.S. Constitution. His word is as good as gold, a trait that is nearly unheard of today. Why, then, are his principles just now gaining any attention?
Up until now, the majority of political discussions were about the differences in Republican and Democratic Party platforms – the views of individual Congressmen went largely unnoticed. Quite often, he broke ranks with his own party (or both parties), voting against the USA Patriot Act in 2001, against the Iraq War Resolution in 2003, and against the 2008 TARP bill. In the political climate of the last decade, his voice was little more than white noise when compared to the Bush-Kerry/Republican-Democrat dichotomies of political ideologies, and pundits jokingly referred to him as the “crazy uncle of the Republican Party” (a term still used today, but as a statement of his marginalization, not his policy stances). It was not until these false dichotomies fell apart after the 2008 election and the similarities between the two major parties were brought into full focus that he gained any significant attention at all.
Hated by social conservatives, neo-conservatives, and liberals alike, his positions have found their appropriate home in the new philosophical movements for liberty. It is odd that he has such a broad spectrum of opposition, since his positions are simply the more consistent application of their principles that align with individual rights. Unfortunately, Congressman Paul alternates between defending these stances from a code of ethics based in metaphysical reality, as he should (see “The ‘Y-Axis’ and the Future of American Politics“), and from a pragmatic perspective. I, however, critique those same stances from the perspective of an objective ethics of self-interest and individual rights. Congressman Paul may be one of the most consistent lawmaker where rational liberty is concerned, but he is not entirely consistent nor without his faults.
Returning to his opposition, his economic policies are as laissez-faire, free-market as can be expected from any politician at this point in time — I say this recognizing that there are an extremely limited number of people arguing for a total divorce of the government from the economy, but that should be the ultimate goal. He is staunchly opposed to the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, government entitlement programs, government subsidies to businesses, government controls of business, affirmative action in education or the workplace, or any other interference in the economy beyond the original constitutional taxes (excises, tariffs, etc.). While liberals rail that such controls are necessary, that Keynes “proves” it, that our economy is “too globalized” to let it operate on its own (all of which are false), many of the same rightly claim that the government has no business controlling voluntary, individual action in one’s own life that does not violate the rights of others, lest the law interfere with man’s pursuit of happiness. If the latter is true, how then can the left justify the government controlling voluntary, individual action in the economy that does not violate the rights of others in the pursuit of one’s own happiness and, indeed, one’s life? I am sure they have an answer, and I am sure that it is some cleverly crafted rationalization that tries to evade its own contradictory nature and to obscure the lack of integrity in the arguer that makes it, but it is neither existentially true nor ethically acceptable (though the two are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive). Integrity is the consistent application of one’s principles in every aspect of one’s life, and the liberal opponents of Congressman Paul’s economic policies lack even a pretense of it.
Admittedly, Congressman Paul and his supporters have a misguided sense of the problems in our economic sphere. Many of his supporters hold to some misguided “anti-coporativist” positions when it comes to the economy, meaning that they believe that economic power is just as big a threat to individual liberty as political power. As it is, economic power and government power are usually linked in our mixed economic system, but under a properly free system of government, economic power ought to be revered, not feared. Fortunately, Congressman Paul’s economic positions frequently present the right conclusion (eliminating the government from the economy) for the wrong premises (“corporate power must be broken” rather than “government force is unethical”).
Sadly, possessing the wrong principles is by no means a safeguard against the wrong conclusions. Indeed, many of his followers still shout for government restrictions on genetically modified crops and livestock, and even Paul himself shares Einsenhower’s baseless fear of a “military-industrial complex,” leading him to his own irrational conclusions about war. Such errors are dangerous, and ought to be corrected by a more rational philosophic substructure — a substructure which Paul, like most libertarians, lacks.
Now, let us move forward to the reasons that social conservatives dislike him. While Congressman Paul is staunchly pro-life (claiming abortion is an impermissible use of force), in favor of traditional marriage, in favor of unrestricted gun rights, and in favor of totally removing the government from homeschool and private school education (which ought to be enough to earn the support of any social conservative), he is also an advocate of eliminating federal regulation of drugs and stem cell research. While the social conservatives are usually the first to say that the government should not infringe on their right to property, they permit government force to control the use of one’s own body, the most personal of all property. His views on marriage notwithstanding – a viewpoint that he readily acknowledges would have no place in the federal sphere of politics – Congressman Paul’s social views are consistent with the idea that it is the government’s job to remove force from human relationships, not to initiate force. Additionally, even if the social conservatives are unwilling to accept his views from an ethical standpoint, they should still do so from a legal standpoint, noting that the States, not the federal government, have the legal authority (though certainly not the moral right) to control drugs and other behavior they may find disagreeable (again, a symptom of Congressman Paul’s lack of a philosophic basis for his political ideals).
The last major area of politics is foreign policy and national defense, an area most roundly attacked by the neoconservatives, but also drawing very rational and concerned criticism for capitalists. According to Congressman Paul, he supports a policy of universal “non-interventionism” and claims that the U.S. should withdraw itself militarily from international affairs except when attacked. Additionally, he is in favor of cuts in the defense budget, of ending international aid to allies and enemies alike, of repealing the War Powers Resolution of 1973, of closing Guantanamo Bay, and of abolishing the recent TSA security measures. Here, Congressman Paul’s positions are muddied and unclear in their philosophical premises, so distinguishing those that are correct and those that are incorrect requires careful scrutiny.
Without expending too much mental effort, the neoconservative doctrine of nation-building, spreading democracy through force, and a no-holds-barred foreign policy of militaristic intervention is philosophically incorrect. It does not serve the best interests of the nation with regards to the government’s only true function – protecting the rights of those under its jurisdiction – by gallivanting across the globe, interfering where American military presence would only make matters worse. (The existence of Guantanamo Bay prison for foreign combatants is of ambiguous ethical, and constitutional, status and would require further research before I could argue what should become of it. For now, assume that the ethical, legal, and rational reasons for keeping it open or closing it should be questioned further by both sides.)
On the other side of the coin, the unquestioned non-interventionist policy offered by Congressman Paul is equally ill-advised. Intervention into a war in which an ally was attacked, for example, could serve the self-interests of the U.S. as opposed to doing nothing; permitting the growth of a violent enemy is rarely in the self-interests of the U.S. Or, in the case that a nation provides support and shelter to transnational enemies, then militaristic intervention may again be justified, but it all rests on the idea of rational self-interest: if we invade, what is our goal? Is it justified? How are we to achieve it? Can it be achieved? What is the cost? Is it worth it? What are the consequences of doing nothing? Are they worth it to our self-interest? All of these questions and more must be answered if any type of intervention should be taken seriously, diplomatic or otherwise (the failure of President Obama to ask these questions when pressuring Mubarak from Egypt or when using U.S. resources in Libya only exemplifies that bipartisanship of these problems).
This is where Congressman Paul’s foreign policy draws rational criticism. His positions on the unnecessarily large size of our military budget, on foreign aid that does not serve our best interests, on returning the constitutional power to declare war to Congress, and on abolishing the TSA screenings are correct in respect to individual rights and the self-interests of the U.S. (the TSA violates both economic rights of airlines to determine their own security measures – and consequently to be sued for not having appropriate security measures should something occur – and the right to the privacy of one’s own body, again, the most personal of all property). However, his concept of where a nation gets its sovereignty is derived from the false idea that democracy is the hallmark of a legitimate government – it is not. Instead, a government deserves sovereignty in the world stage if it grants individual sovereignty to its own citizens. No nation, or any other group, has any right that its individual members do not possess. Because unjust governments initiate force against its citizens, it is justified for free nations to intervene and retaliate against that initiated force, but it is not their duty, which is the stance of neoconservatives and the Leftists on more recent issues. The decision to or to not intervene is entirely dependent on whether or not it is worth it from the perspective of the individual free nations.
Additionally, Congressman Paul seems to be affected by the old pacifist doctrines of the pre-WWII intellectual sphere. Hosting dialogues with repeatedly belligerent and dangerous nations does not solve any problems, despite the Congressman’s idealistic notions to the contrary regarding Iran. Force must be met with force, not necessarily as a means of persuading other nations to agree with us, but as a means of dissuading them from attacking us or harming our interests abroad. (Congressman Paul is also criticized for his claims to cut the Pentagon’s budget, but seeing as the United States spends five times more on its military than China, its closest competitor, at least some reduction would be rationally justifiable in light of our looming debt crisis — not every dollar spent on defense is sacred, particularly when an expansive bureaucracy is involved).
Because of this lapse in Congressman Paul’s generally rational stances on issues, many conservatives or Tea Party members end up saying, “Well I like him on pretty much every other issue, but I don’t agree with his foreign policy. I don’t think I can vote for him.” This is likely due to the lasting resentment from the 2008 primary results (the cry, “No more compromise candidates!” is often heard at local Tea Parties or online Tea Party forums), but there seems to be some confusion about exactly what constitutes as an irrational compromise.
True, no man should ever act against his own self-interest, i.e., sacrificially, but man must be able to clearly identify his values before he can call a certain action a “sacrifice.” If a man forgoes a lesser value in order to attain a higher one, then it is not a sacrifice. If he gives up a higher value for a lesser one, then it is. So, returning to whether Congressman Paul’s foreign policy is reason enough not to vote for him, individuals must determine whether his position on foreign policy issues is more important, i.e., of greater value, than his positions on domestic policy issues that they would be giving up by voting for someone else (provided that the another candidate did not already have all the same domestic policies as Congressman Paul). Seeing that the United States faces no real, immediate military threats that would merit any militaristic intervention (as stated, even China only has one-fifth of the military budget of the U.S., and a nuclear Israel is well-equipped against any attacks from Iran), it seems unlikely that voting for him would be a “sacrifice” on this issue (particularly in the context of a choice between him and President Obama). Still, Congressman Paul has a long way to go if he is to win his party’s nomination.
First, he should take a lesson from his son, Senator Rand Paul. Unlike his father, Senator Paul is much more media-friendly – he can recognize his audience, respond appropriately to it, and market his ideas to group of people that may not be innately familiar with them. It is unfortunate that rhetoric plays an equal, if not greater role when compared to a candidate’s substance, but even here many people are beginning to echo the sentiments of a recent statement by Congressman Walsh that I overhead via an online radio show: “What the Republicans need to do is find a candidate who’s the opposite of the president. If he’s all style and no substance, give me all substance and no style.” If Congressman Paul is to gain ground, it is imperative that he use the media to his advantage. He has shown signs of doing this, but he continues to make media SNAFU’s, like stating that he would not have ordered the bin Laden raid without first conveying that he would have preferred to have bin Laden captured alive for interrogation and trial, or that he would have rather used Congress’s power to issue letters of marque and reprisal to capture bin Laden (not that these positions would have helped, as they are still remarkably irrational, excepting Paul’s desire to extract information from bin Laden). In this age of sound bites, perpetual errors like this can bring a candidate’s campaign to a very early and very rapid halt.
Second, Congressman Paul must take the moral high ground on all issues (ultimately, any candidate that wins the Republican primary will have to do this). He has it, and he needs to use it to his advantage. The only way any policy of statism can continue is if its advocates degenerate the debate from the philosophically abstract to the range-of-the-moment concrete, and it will be the task of Congressman Paul and others to prevent this from happening either at the primary level or in the general election. (For a full discussion on the topic, I again suggest reading Slade Mendenhall’s piece, “The ‘Y-Axis’ and the Future of American Politics.”)
The last goal of Congressman Paul’s campaign should be to give his ideas the appearance of popularity. I am not trying to suggest that they are not popular, but a major problem amongst Congressman Paul’s supporters is that they feel alone, isolated from mainstream political thought. They do not feel incentivized to work for his campaign, or even to vote for him, because they have the sense that no one else will and that his bid is a lost cause. I have been confronted by several members of the Tea Party that tell me, “I would really like Ron Paul to win the Republican nomination, but he can’t do it. There’s no reason to try.” Historically speaking, statements like that become self-fulfilling prophecies. In primary elections, studies in political psychology dictate that the victor is usually chosen from an assessment of, not one’s own opinion of the candidate, but of everyone else’s assumed opinions of him. Essentially, people do not vote for whom they think is right, but instead they vote for whom they think is popular. At this point, Mitt Romney can already be declared the winner if supporters and campaign managers cannot alter the perception of their desired candidates. So, again, Congressman Paul’s supporters at every level must withhold any cynicism that they may harbor and begin to present their support unabashedly and optimistically (though not naively so) if they want to have any chance at winning the Republican primary. The general election is usually determined by the popularity of the party in power (usually, but not necessarily depending on the competence of the challenger), but the Tea Party Movement and other philosophical movements like it could alter this, splitting from both parties if a proper candidate is not chosen.
I will leave both the full-blooded the supporters of Congressman Paul and those that support him simply because there is no one better, myself included, with a wise word of a caution: if you want your candidate to win his party’s nomination, do not go around saying that he cannot. Otherwise, you will be the reason that what you say becomes true.
*By “constitutionalist,” I mean, “adhering to the Constitution as the supreme legal authority in the United States;” unlike many other “constitutionalists,” Paul does not appeal to the Constitution as a moral authority when he appeals to it. See my essay “Our Imperfect Union” for a full discussion the flaws within our Constitution.