Ron Paul redux: An incoherence of libertarianism

[Builds on previous Ron Paul blog here. (Link corrected.)]


Ron Paul argues that foreign “interventions” by the state, including ostensibly non-military ones like food-drops, are not only (a) ethically wrong—for one, they are coercive, violate “rights,” on multiple levels (if nothing else, on the American taxpayer)—but (b) they bear bad consequences for us and for the nations in whose affairs we “intervene,” or are just lame and inefficient at achieving stated goals.

The duality in his argument—his “principled” and “consequentialist” moods—shares the incoherence of libertarian and rights-based reasoning everywhere: This can be seen by asking, Just how do the two components relate? Either what is wrong just happens to lead to bad effects—in which case, it is most grand and sustained coincidence in human history—or there is some real mechanism at work within the social world which makes the wrong efforts work so poorly. If there is such a mechanism, Paul has not specified it, nor has any libertarian in the corpus of classical liberal writings from Locke to Krauthammer. Reasonable adults will assume that the “bad effects” argument is just a rationalization for the rights-based argument: “Yes, it is morally dead wrong to violate property rights (etc.) by foreign intervention and would remain so if heaven fell blazing to earth as a result of maintaining this principle; but hey, whew, gratefully, it so happens that respecting these rights is the best way to effect a pleasant world. If it weren’t, though, we’d still have to respect them.” How is one to believe such a counterintuitive thing?

Things are further complicated by Paul’s view that individuals and other non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) may “intervene” where the state should not. This includes private militias and assassins for quasi-military actions and private aid organizations for humanitarian relief. Again, for Paul, these actions are not only not wrong—they don’t violate rights—but they are more effective and less messy than state actions. But why in principle should this be the case? What property do state actions always possess, and actions by “lower” entities always lack, that accounts for their differential success? (And if there is none, how to be sure that the connection should hold in the future?)

For NGO’s are not in principle less coercive institutions than nation-states. This is why they need boards of directors and votes. Decisions are made against the will of some members. Supporters send in money before it is fully determined what will be funded with it—perhaps something the senders won’t like. Of course, Paul can argue that people freely join and fund these organizations and can leave if they want—but I may as well argue that people freely stay in the U.S. and pay taxes to the state and could leave if they want. Indeed, coercion is a necessary dimension of all human activity; every action burns up resources others could use and creates new facts which limit options for other activities.

This connects with Paul’s weird fetishism about national borders, undergirding his political isolationism. For example, he wishes to drop out of the UN and other international organizations on the grounds they “transfer power from our government to unelected foreign elites…threaten[ing] our independence as a nation.” First, again, it isn’t clear why “entangling alliances” and agreements of compromise must always be avoided on practical grounds by nation-states, while “lower” entities like individuals may do this at their own profit—as when people get married, contract for jobs, or, like Paul, join Congress. Second, this approach assumes a false dichotomy between self-determination and determination by others. We chose membership in the UN (and indeed, put considerable pressure on other states to join us). Like choosing to diet, or practice monogomy, the limitation to freedom here is a self-limitation. UN partnership is necessarily a “threat to our independence” only if every—that is, only if the very concept of—self-limitation is always a “threat.”

Also, why the privileging of the nation-state among political entities? Political “bodies” exist along a continuum scaling from the individual to the family, community, municipality, state, on up through the international. I may as well complain that the membership of Paul’s home state, Texas, in the U.S. federation “threatens its independence as a state.” Actually, Paul often makes arguments of this type, as when he invokes states’ rights (his phrase) on environmental regulation: As in, “The people of Texas do not need federal regulators determining our air standards.” Again, it is always possible that states just happen to always be better than nations at determining policy than nations—but why? And as far as “rights” to determine this, I may as well say the people of Austin don’t need “the people of Texas…setting their air standards.” The same type of confusion with “rights” is seen in Paul’s refusal to support divestment in Darfur, Sudan (H.R. 180) because it would represent undue coercion of American businesses (“forcing divestment on unwilling parties”). Again, for Paul there is no problem with the businesses themselves “forcing” a specific schedule and wage package on “unwilling workers,” indeed with all of the ways in which the nation-state already imposes upon American businesses which Paul does not object to.

In short, rights-based politics like Paul’s concentrate on who may act, prior to what constitutes a good action. This is not only counterintuitive but could never be acted upon consistently. This is compounded by the lack of any method of adjudicating the “rights” of various necessarily interactive political entities. This incoherence leads logically to a place where any kind of action whatsoever is licensed, as other—as yet unarticulated—political ends require: If we want to protect the personal property of individual Texans in a given case, we can cite their right to it. If we want to protect the business property of Texas capitalists in another case, we can cite their right to that, even though the activities this licenses may violate property rights of individual Texans—say, impinging on the quality of that column of air ascending from their property.¹


¹ Of course, some conceptions of rights allow for talk of sacrificing certain rights for other, stronger concerns. These conceptions make room for the feeling that we sometimes can’t implement a right because it would cause great suffering, or because it conflicts with some other right. But there is no evidence that Ron Paul subscribes to such a conception. He certainly never appeals to such a “trade-off” when making arguments (and he makes them often) about which entity has what right or what “freedom” to act in what way. He speaks as though it is just self-evident that Texans “have the right to” make environmental policy, and not the Federal government nor each Texan business in isolation. At other times, he presents it as self-evident that businesses “have a right to” do certain things, whatever ordinary Texans think about it; or that the Federal government “has the right to” do certain things, whatever Texan businesses, or, say, Lichtenstein, think about it. Certain of these actions affect—that is, coerce—these other bodies; thus, on a consistent view, trade-offs are being made. But Paul either (a) doesn’t believe trade-offs are at issue—i.e., he is inconsistent—or he (b) supposes that such a critical, linchpin element to the “theory” as the specifics of adjudicating all these conflicting rights is just understood. The latter assumption (b) is simply unwarranted, and it is so implausible that Paul could believe it that (a) is almost certainly the case.


3 responses to “Ron Paul redux: An incoherence of libertarianism

  1. This is one of the lamest pieces I’ve seen in a long long time. You are accusing a politician of not being philosophically consistent. You must be kidding.

    Could you name one politician now, or in the last 2,000 years, who did have a consistent philosophy? Of course you can’t. It doesn’t pay to be consistent in politics.

  2. A couple of points here:

    (1) Let’s not trivialize charges of “inconsistency.” Indeed, what I’ve said before of morals (see the “Larry Craig flap” post 10-11-07) holds too of factual claims—i.e., that every false claim amounts to some kind of inconsistency, insofar as people claim correctness for their views (i.e., to claim, or seek, correctness while being incorrect is inconsistent). So if we can’t criticize people for inconsistency, we can’t criticize anyone for anything, ever–including, as you do, criticizing me for a bad post.

    (2) Surely some “inconsistencies” are more interesting and relevant, less trivial, than others. Saying, “it doesn’t bother to call a politician inconsistent because all politicians are inconsistent” is like saying that, since using profanity and molesting children are both errors, we can’t criticize a child molesting politician because “every politician makes errors.” The issue is how grave, how dangerous, etc. the inconsistency, or the error, is.

    (3) However, it isn’t clear—beyond the bare and admittedly pretty uninteresting sense of “inconsistency” in (1)—that I’m charging Paul with an inconsistency, anyhow. (Well, I do this in the “notes,” but that isn’t the main idea.) Rather, I’m charging an incoherence—his view doesn’t make sense, therefore couldn’t possibly be implemented. This is be infinitely more interesting than the politicians’ “inconsistencies” you must have in mind, e.g., sometimes speaking as though they support the war, and sometimes not. I don’t think Paul is especially given to “inconsistenc[ies]” of this type at all. I certainly haven’t charged it.

  3. Pingback: Another hit for the Ron Paul fans: A second incoherence of libertarianism « amerikanbeat

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