A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog


Thoughts on Ron Paul

posted by Gus diZerega

Ron Paul is an interesting presidential candidate, a frustrating mix of the very good with the very bad, arriving in the form of a man who actually seems to believe something and is willing to tell prospective voters things that do not simply reinforce their most mindless prejudices. Among significant Republican presidential candidates he is a minority of one.

On some issues Paul is far superior to Barack Obama, on others, Obama is far superior to Paul. And both are far superior to any other significant Republican presidential candidate, and most who are insignificant.

Pau regards himself as a libertarian, not a conservative.  These days conservatives believe mostly in whatever liberals oppose, and nothing more.  But libertarians actually believe in something on its own merits. My problem with them is they do not understand what they believe.

What are libertarians?

So what are libertarians?  I was regarded as a leading younger one in my 20s and perhaps early 30s before becoming increasingly disenchanted.  I have read all of their most canonical people, sometimes in great depth.  At the same time I am very far from being one nor have I been for decades.

Libertarians, the best of them, are fairly unique among people in politics in having a very firm moral foundation for their views.  It is a version – I would now say a very seriously truncated and deeply misunderstood version – of a principle most of us would immediately accept: peaceful people should never be aggressed against.

In a society increasingly nihilistic, where candidates either believe in nothing and so take whatever position is advantageous for the moment (Romney is the classic case, but hardly alone), or reflexively lie whenever convenient (the Republican stable as a whole), or is a relatively decent individual believing in nothing strongly enough to ever risk anything for it (Barack Obama) this is a breath of fresh air.

For readers of this blog, who presumably have strong personal ethical codes, this characteristic of Paul’s is most likely appealing. We like a man who has the strength of character to actually stand up for something.

To this fresh air we can add the fact that many of us agree strongly with libertarians on issues where the above politicians are bad or worse than bad.  In general libertarians are excellent defenders of liberty when it can be defended in atomistically individualist terms. That is why they are so good on issues involving war, civil liberties, and drugs.

But their image of what it is to be an individual is woefully myopic.  Their idea of an individual is of a being entirely enclosed and so not seriously affected by  circumstances, upbringing, or relationships.  The rich and the most desperately poor have equal freedom in all relevant senses so long as a “free market” exists. Individuals are a kind of atom where all that is important about them as moral beings  (and often in any other way) is intrinsic to them in isolation from everyone else.

Consequently, any issue that requires a more sensitive understanding of what individuals are will usually find libertarians on the wrong side , because they cannot understand how individuals can be anything but free or threatened with physical violence. That’s pretty much all there is underlying libertarian political and social thought.

For libertarians differences between people in an abstractly free society reflect the characteristics of the individual.  Nothing more. Patterns of differences shared by many reflect not on the society but on characteristics those individuals share in common, hence the interest in many libertarian individualists in things like the “Bell Curve” and supposed racial inferiorities.  They can then acknowledge the existence of serious differences without having to question their one sided model of what a person is. It’s too bad, but it is entirely the individual’s fault.

I think this is why libertarianism appeals to so many young people – it offers a simple theory that up to a point can be tweaked to cover every eventuality and  because it is so abstract, does not require much life experience to master.  As a person accumulates experience he or she will either move on to a richer sense of what it is to be a human being or will be increasingly tempted by theories of racial and genetic inferiority and superiority, as Paul may be, judging from his newsletters. Or one can simply choose not to think much about the implications of their beliefs.

Left, right, and libertarians

I think this is also why libertarians more easily ally with the ‘right’ than with the ‘left.’  It has nothing to do with the individual freedom they believe in, where even from their narrow conception of it, the current left is far far better than the right.  A libertarian saying otherwise is ignorant or delusional. The reason for so many tilting right is different.

The right accepts and glories in seeing people in relations of superiority and inferiority and free people always generate inequality. Therefore there seems to be a harmony between the right’s love of hierarchy and individual freedom defined narrowly enough. Bad differences are simply the result of innate differences between people or will in time be ameliorated by the “magic of the market.”  We don’t need government or we don’t need it much.

The left emphasizes, sometimes to excess, the social side of our individuality.  This is just that dimension libertarians refuse to admit has any moral significance.  The left is more sensitive to relationships as constitutive of individuals, and so the quality of those relationships is important for determining the freedom of individuals. Against all evidence, for libertarians these interests always lead to despotism, but only because they define oppression as anything other than the “free market.”

Given that libertarians have decided, rather bizarrely, that the US is close enough to their “free market” vision that most differences between Americans are deserved, they easily coexist with the right because they don’t have to think much about the implications of the inequalities they see around themselves. They start with a vision of equal freedom and end endorsing the reality of something quite different, (so long, at least, as you can get stoned). And while right wingers are fanatically against getting stoned (or other people getting stoned), a great many still support them at the polls when one of their own is not running.

Libertarians and nature

In  my view from any coherent Pagan perspective, the libertarian failure to appreciate the social dimension of being an individual leads to another serious shortcoming: their virtual hatred of any environmental issue that cannot be settled by creating property rights to be bought and sold.  Libertarians have done very interesting work on environmental issues where that approach can be applied, but in my view they get positively irrational when they cannot.  I will tell a story to illustrate my point.

I received an award from a largely libertarian oriented organization some time back for my work in emergent order theory, work I still do.  Afterwards I was a guest at a meeting of the Mt. Pelerin Society, which was founded by Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek, and other classical liberal scholars after the Second World War, when the Soviet Union seemed to be riding high and even small ‘d’ democrats thought we might be able to plan our economy.

By the time I attended the organization seemed mostly a group of wealthy benefactors with a thin veneer of classical liberal knowledge and Republican politics.  I ended up at lunch at a table dominated by libertarians involved in environmental issues.  They spent much of the time attacking the long deceased Rachel Carson as guilty of “genocide” for opposing the over use of DDT. It was surreal at many levels.

Afterwards I wondered why they hated Carson so much.  I decided it was because in Silent Spring she brought home to many Americans that they were not hermetically sealed off from nature, that we were immersed in it and our boundaries were permeable. DDT got into our bodies.  The more permeable a boundary the less of value the atomistic individualist model becomes. As a consequence they hate Carson the way a Fundamentalist hates Darwin- if she is right, they are wrong, therefore she cannot be right.

And so, on balance, libertarians are deeply hostile to any sensibility that emphasizes our connections with the world, or that it cannot simply be regarded as a storehouse of resources best transformed by human creativity.

Consequently libertarians will on balance be deeply hostile to a Pagan sensibility towards nature – or if they are not they will live in two worlds, one involving atomistic human individuals, the other involving the world they love, and not think too much about the tensions between these perspectives.

So when I look at Ron Paul, I see a bizarre mix of what I really like and what I really detest, and when I look at Barack Obama I see a relatively decent man who stands for nothing very strongly, or has yet to demonstrate that he does.  Obama has done some things I really like and some I really really detest.  So who to vote for in this hypothetical election?

Should Paul get the nomination, which is hard to imagine, I might well vote for him because as president he can do more on the issues where I agree with him, (war and defense, and  the ‘war’ on drugs)  and be severely hobbled by Congress and the courts on the issues where I disagree ( social legislation and the environment). Based on his record so far, Obama on the other hand is guaranteed to disappoint on the big issues other perhaps than Supreme Court appointments, but not as badly as the other Republicans. That is why he definitely has my vote should Paul not get the nod.

 



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Jaundicedi

posted January 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm


A very thoughtful critique that addresses my own mixed feelings about Dr. Paul better than I could.
I have one area where I would take exception with you though. If elected I think it quite likely that Dr. Paul would be able to destroy Medicare and Social Security if the Republicans pick up even a couple of Senate seats.While President Obama has shown almost no evidence of having a spine on social issues, he is still more likely to veto such changes.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 2, 2012 at 5:52 pm


He might, but I doubt it.

I think it likely that a hypothetical Paul victory – VERY hypothetical since I doubt he will get the nomination and he is not favored by the oligarchs other maybe than the Kochs – would be due to his receiving a great many liberal votes due to war issues. These people would not vote for Republican senators and congresscritters because they are rabidly pro-war on balance.

A Paul win would likely be accompanied by a Democratic surge in the House because all liberals who voted for Paul would likely make very sure they voted Democratic everywhere else and certainly need not mean a Republican Senate. His victory would rely on far more than Republicans and that infinitesimal number of libertarians who don’t vote Republican but would vote for Paul.



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Mozie

posted January 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm


Not all Libertarians agree with all parts of the platform, just like all Democrats don’t agree with all parts of its party platform, same for the Republicans, same for the Greens, etc, etc.

Many of us regular Joes and Janes who have discovered Libertarian philosophy and explored the Libertarian party platform do understand that we are not an island of one. We know that every part of our modern products and conveniences have been touched by many hands (and machines). We know that we cannot make it alone.

So I do object to letting the free market (setting aside the question of how free it actually is in current practice) regulate goods and services with strong effects on our environment. My basis being an (apparently) conflicting libertarian value–the right to my private property. Let us take your DDT example. Pesticides, once applied, travel through the air and water, and end up dispersed everywhere. There is simply no way to keep the stuff confined to the property of those who choose to use them. This, in the long run takes away my right to have a pesticide free land, and ultimately my body. This shortens the length and reduces the quality of my life. By the time it is discovered by the general public that these chemicals cause more harm than good, the far-reaching environmental damage has already been done. The profits have been made before we ever have the chance to ban or boycott. I get it, I really do.

Yes, this a, “but we’re not all like that!” kind of post. It is, and here I am speaking up.

I, too, plan to vote for Dr. Paul should he win the Republican nomination, and for the reason you so elequently stated, “…as president he can do more on the issues where I agree with him, (war and defense, and the ‘war’ on drugs) and be severely hobbled by Congress and the courts on the issues where I disagree ( social legislation and the environment).”

Thank you for a very thoughtful post.

p.s. I am looking forward to reading Silent Spring, I recently found a used copy and it’s in the queue.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm


Thank you Mozie. Yes, you get it. My argument at this point is that we are then led to a more sophisticated version of what an individual is and what coercion is. This does not mean we have to like/support the current system, not by a long shot, but it does mean we need institutions able to make the kinds of decisions that would need to be made to prevent DDT’s damage and so on.

It also would be needed to determine just what rights should go with what property. For example, I own my pen and when I had a cat I owned my cat. But while few of us would say I have no right to cut up my pen, most of us would say I have no right to cut up my living cat. Property is a bundle of rights that change from one thing to the other. So I prefer to think of property as a bundle of possible voluntary relationships I can enter in with others regarding it. Sell it, rent it, lease it, sell shares in it, etc. We need some outfit that can make these decisions so we all have common rules. So there is a social aspect even to private property.

All these things get complicated of course, but I’m just trying to explore here why Paul is so good on some things and so bad on others.



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El

posted January 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm


The biggest problem with Libertarianism for me is from a magickal point of view. They don’t grok “We The People.” They don’t understand that our government, unique among all I think, is not a separate entity apart from us — WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT — THE GOVERNMENT IS US. But this flies in the face of their prejudice against the collective. I think perhaps their worship of the goddess Ayn Rand, blinds them to reasoning like this. The other big thing for me is their stand on the environment. I have heard many Libertarians say that for the government to own property (like the National Parks) is a terrible waste of resources, and that if in power they would privatize our National Parks and Forests, selling them off to the highest bidder, to do with as they please. Hello Redwood National Desert.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 3, 2012 at 12:27 am


I was writing this piece primarily as a theorist looking at the what libertarianism is from a philosophical perspective and at the big issues of war and peace. However, remarks by Makarios reminded me that matters affecting human beings, or life in general, are not just philosophical. They also engage our sense of decency, our basic humanity. There I have to say, Ron Paul flunks. Badly.

For details see http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/09/15/1017176/-Ron-Paul-did-let-him-die

Here are the major points:

My post on how Kent Snyder, his campaign manager, died of complications from pneumonia and was uninsured because of pre-existing conditions, and so left his family $400,000 in debt has disappeared. I am sure it is likely somewhere in this second rate filing system on Beliefnet, but here is the nub: He raised millions for multimillionaire Paul, and made him a national figure. Libertarians managed to raise $40,000 to help his family, generous souls that they are. Paul certainly sacrificed very little for the man who made him a national figure.

Sociopath perhaps? Or just profoundly selfish?



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Joe Haydu

posted January 3, 2012 at 5:30 am


I realize that you are addressing Libertarians in the sense of the Libertarian party (a Randian bastarization of Locke), but what is your take on left libertarians (i.e. Otsuka’s view of Locke)? It seems like the view of natural resources as common property would counterbalance some of the tendancies caused by the atomic individual viewpoint.



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Elizabeth

posted January 3, 2012 at 9:38 am


Wow. I never thought I’d consider voting against Obama, but now I am. Thanks for the interesting perspective. You make several excellent points.



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Apuleius Platonicus

posted January 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm


On the one hand, Paul makes the “left” look bad because he is the only major candidate who is able to reach a broad audience with a message that is anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, and for defending individual liberties against the encroaches of the security state — things that are supposedly championed by the left.

But Gus does a really good job of pointing out the Big Problem with Paul’s brand of libertarianism: that it is deeply anti-social. And it is fitting that a Pagan political analyst should be able to both see this problem and articulate it so well, for, as T. Thorn Coyle once put it so nicely “our religion is connection”.

My personal view is that this perversely anti-social view of “individualism” makes Ron Paul ideologically just as bad as or even worse than Obama & Co. This is even more true when one considers the fact that on specific issues of “liberty”, such as abortion, gay rights, and even Civil Rights itself, Paul is, at best, very unreliable.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm


Joe-
I haven’t read Otsuka, but Locke’s reasoning can certainly be interpreted in far better ways than right libertarians do. And with far better results.

That said, his derivation of rights (we are given them by God vis a vis one another does not take us very far regarding the more-than-human world. This is a persistent problem in Western moral thinking and has led to the ridiculous arguments of Singer and Regan that predators violate the rights of right-holding animals, who approach it exactly backwards.

I think I solved the problem of reserving a rational case for human rights AND recognizing the intrinsic value of nature in my article “Deep Ecology and Liberalism.” You can download it at this site! Go to http://blog.beliefnet.com/apagansblog/ecology.html and then scroll down to the article and click on it. It’s a PDF.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm


I like your analysis Apulieius, and it is a pleasure to say so given the times we have locked horns in the past.



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Joel Monka

posted January 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm


The reason Rachel Carson is accused of genocide is that DDT wasn’t regulated or restricted to safe usage, it was banned outright. Prior to this, it had been the most common insecticide used in the third world for mosquito control, and there was a HUGE increase in deaths from malaria and other mosquito born diseases after the ban. However, the blame cannot be laid at Carson’s feet; it was not she who called for an outright ban, but politicians who found that a nuanced plan didn’t fit election ad sound bites.



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Lowkey

posted January 3, 2012 at 5:28 pm


This is a really nice article on the failings of libertarianism. You managed to put into words the problems that I saw with it.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm


Thank you!



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Joe Haydu

posted January 4, 2012 at 5:59 am


Gus,
Thanks for the link. I’m behind a work firewall right now, but I’ll be sure to check it out. I agree that Locke’s view of rights as a divine gift is flawed (I would argue that rights are material properties of a given species, and as such can be tested and objectively identified), but given the era he was writing in, it seems like a small flaw all things considered.
Otsuka interprets Locke as requiring that one leave enough for others to have an opportunity for well-being that is at least as good as the opportunity for well-being that one obtained in using or appropriating natural resources. Individuals who leave less than this are required to pay the full competitive value of their excess share to those deprived of their fair share. This view still fails to account for the value society provides to individuals, but it does at least counter the ridiculous notion that individual liberty allows one to claim complete dominion over whatever they can.



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Gus diZerega

posted January 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm


Joe-
Otsuka is describing the “Lockean proviso” which traditional market advocates (and Locke) got around by claiming developed land was more productive than undeveloped and for libertarians, the market then made everyone richer than if it did not exist. A lot rests on what ‘productive’ means and Locke never really inquired into the finer points of his own system. Right libertarians never do either. I suspect Otsuka has the better interpretation in terms of logic.

That said, it still sees land as a resource to be used. But land is not just a resource, although it is certainly useful. The best semi-analogy is friendship. Friends are certainly useful, but if you relate to someone only because they are useful, you are not a friend.

Even in secular thought there is interesting work being done that goes beyond the view land is a resource. See work on Biophilia by E. O. Wilson as well as the volume of essays on it edited by Stephe Kellert.



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