Ron Paul is a Threat to the Republic – Part 1

Ron Paul has been on a roll.  His tirades on the downfall of the American Republic are cited daily by a wide-range of Tea Partiers, conspiracy theorists, and other self-described “libertarians,” he won the recent CPAC straw poll, and he has been portrayed in numerous televised discussions as the tie that binds an otherwise incoherent libertarian/conservative coalition.  In other words, this darling of the Tea Party has successfully positioned himself amongst a sizable segment of the populace as the voice of wisdom and champion of liberty in opposition to the “corporatism” and tyranny of the Obama administration.

Interestingly enough, voices from the Left have continued to treat Paul with a certain reverence; a tepid tolerance as if he’s the pesky, know-it-all kid (i.e. marginalized politician) at a neighborhood picnic screaming to be heard by grown-ups (i.e. the Washington status quo) who are occupied with more important matters.  “We get that your hot dog is cold, but the goddamn dog just knocked over the grill…now go play in the sandbox with Kucinich and Sanders while we get this fixed!” After all, despite his obsession with Austrian economists and incessant ramblings on the Fed, he’s for legalized pot and against the war in Iraq.  “He might be a little off, but he means well…plus we’ve got Brian yelling over the fence at neighbors and Randy calling names! Little Ronnie’s the least of our worries!”

But Paul’s political sway has grown tremendously and the Left had better start responding to him as they would a serious opponent.  Fortunately, it isn’t hard to critique Paul’s positions: (i) his understanding of political theory is laughable, (ii) his views are extreme, and (iii) his arrogance is unwavering.

I

To begin, his politics are built on a deep-seated conflation of capitalism and democracy.  Taking his cues from Friedrich Hayek, Paul defines “True” Liberty and Freedom as the absence of governmental constraint on economic action and distinguishes this from mere political freedom (i.e. the right to participate in some sort of ‘public’ sphere) that characterizes popular thinking on the matter (see Hayek 1960: 11-14; Paul 1987: 13-15, 36-9).  This notion of Freedom, Paul and his supporters argue, marks the difference between a republic and a democracy.  A republic, in this narrative, sets sharp constitutional limits on state action in order to protect economic freedom, while a democracy is a system in which the majority could, in the name of political freedom, decide to set limits on economic liberties (i.e. regulate corporate activity, impose income taxes, subsidize certain industries, etc.) (Hayek ibid: 103-108; Paul ibid: 34-5).

Yet anyone who has read The Federalist Papers knows that this depiction isn’t accurate with regard to American republicanism. The difference between a republic and a democracy is qualitative, not quantitative; procedural, not substantive. While the meaning of republicanism has varied historically (see Plato, Cicero, etc.), the founders use it as synonymous with “representative democracy” and in contrast to “direct democracy” (see Federalist #39). A (direct) democracy is one where the majority of decisions are made directly by “the people,” while a republic (or representative democracy) is one where the people elect representatives who are then responsible for making most decisions. The extent to which government intervenes in each of these forms remains a matter of democratic voting (by the people in the former, and the representatives in the latter).

The libertarian conception of republicanism, however, leaves one with an angle of vision where the protection of absolute economic freedom is the sole reason for the state’s existence, and any incursion into this realm is tyrannical.  Foundational documents – The Declaration of Independence and Constitution – are read through their Austrian interpreters more so than through any serious encounter with the ideas of the actual “founders” – who, in many cases, advocated state-run welfare and progressive taxation, and expressed outrage over growing corporate power and the concentration of wealth in too few hands.

And yet the libertarian narrative, to paraphrase Karl Polanyi, is one where capitalism becomes the handmaiden of democracy rather than the other way around. Although “the founders” didn’t subscribe to any single ideology, it is difficult to square this reading with the radical democratic zeitgeist of the late 18th century.

II

In fact, the introduction of the “neoliberal” ideology that Paul advances marked a sharp rupture with earlier forms of liberal thought. Hayek and Mises were no Smith and Ricardo (even less were they Jefferson, Adams, or Madison); this novelty is precisely what makes their ideas worth considering. The neoliberals attempted to extend the logic of “the market” to realms that had previously been governed by non-economic rationales (foreign policy, familial relations, education, etc.).  For this reason, Michel Foucault suggests that it might be more appropriate to refer to neoliberalism as sociological liberalism:

“Government must not form a counterpoint or a screen…between society and economic processes. It has to intervene on society as such, in its fabric and depth. Basically, it has to intervene on society so that competitive mechanisms can play a regulatory role at every moment and every point in society and by intervening in this way its objective will become possible, that is to say, a general regulation of society by the market” (2008: 145).

Yet, rather than appealing to neoliberal ideas based on reason and logic (e.g. they will bring economic gain, they will make a certain sector more efficient, etc.), Paul proclaims them to emanate directly from his go-to secular Gods: the Founders and Constitution.  It is here where his feelings on democracy become crystal clear.  Where historical political struggles have differed from his liking –the sixteenth amendment, standard interpretations of the 14th amendment’s ‘equal protection’ clause, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, etc. – he, without a hint of irony, asserts that they are unconstitutional (ibid: 5, 17).

This tact also extends to contemporary debates, where Paul cloaks his extreme positions under the guise of constitutionalism:

“Today the lack of understanding and respect for voluntary contracts has totally confused the issue that in a free society an individual can own and control property and run his or her business as he or she chooses. The idea that the social do-gooder can legislate a system which forces industry to pay men and women by comparable worth standards boggles the mind and further destroys our competitiveness in a world economy….Employee Rights are said to be valid when employers pressure employees into sexual activity. Why don’t they quit once the harassment starts?…If force was clearly used, that is another story, but pressure and submission is hardly an example of a violation of one’s employment rights” (ibid: 17).

In subsequent pages, using identical reasoning, Paul articulates his opposition to government-funded AIDs research (ibid: 22-3), and to the forced racial integration of southern schools during the Civil Rights movement (ibid: 29). Under his logic, the health of the social contract is measured by the ease with which one can undertake economic transactions, and popular sovereignty (i.e. the idea that a democratic government is ultimately controlled by ‘the people’) is reduced to consumer sovereignty (i.e. the idea that ‘the people’ voice their preference through economic choices).  Anyone who disagrees with such positions is deemed to be an enemy of liberty, “the founders,” and the Republic.

The take home is that Paul is fundamentally agnostic with regard to the democratic process. He likes it when it results in libertarian policies, and deems it an affront to liberty when it results in policies he disagrees with. The rhetorical strategy that undergirds this theoretical one is to blame any and all political or economic problems on past government intervention: concentrated corporate power is the product of subsidization and corporatist collusion; corporate abuses are the fault of the SEC; failing schools and falling test grades are a product of aggressive teachers unions; the outsourcing of jobs is caused by environmental and labor regulations.  This is particularly ironic considering that each of these problems could just as easily be seen as rooted in the widespread institutionalization of neoliberal ideas that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s: the financial sector has been wildly deregulated; the SEC is grossly underfunded; the public education system is incredibly inequitable; and the outsourcing of jobs is rooted in economic policies emphasizing free-trade at all costs.

Paul’s preferred narrative – blaming government for everything – ignores both history and democratic process.  And yet, this one-size-fits-all rhetorical model works surprisingly well in a variety of issue-areas. Take health care, for instance. Obama and congressional Democrats devote a significant portion of election-season to promises of health care reform (many campaigning on a single-payer system). Obama and Democrats are elected and announce plans to introduce health care legislation. In the hopes of securing bipartisan support, the administration introduces – not a single payer system – but one with a more market-friendly “public option” (a significant concession).  Conservatives and Libertarians, including Paul, proclaim the proposed legislation unconstitutional, “socialist” or “fascist.”  (Forget that it bears a striking similarity to that proposed by Nixon, or that even Hayek himself conceded that government had some role to play in health care; Obamacare is evil!).  Public sentiment responds to these charges and support for the bill wanes. In an effort to appease industry interests and have some chance in hell of passing a bill, Democrats offer even more concessions. The final bill requires every American to get insurance without any sort of public option to hold down costs.  Paul proclaims it a gift to the insurance industry and denounces its failure. His alternative: privatization.

The model is clear: a strong, socially responsible policy is proposed; opposing political interests (including Paul) muck up the water with emotional appeals to constitutionality; public sentiment changes and policy-makers adapt the bill; it results in anemic legislation that fails to produce any social good; and then Paul points to these failed leftist policies and touts the need for privatization.

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~ by iamtomjoad on May 6, 2010.

One Response to “Ron Paul is a Threat to the Republic – Part 1”

  1. […] roughshod over historically marginalized citizens, in particular. Paul is okay with this. As I’ve previously noted, his 1987 book, Freedom Under Siege, voices his opposition to civil rights laws, measures […]

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