Category Archives: libertarianism

Another hit for the Ron Paul fans: A second incoherence of libertarianism

When libertarians[1] hype the “free market,” they aren’t saying we should maintain something we already have. They wish to free a market which is presently unfree. And what makes it unfree is, on the whole, government interference in and regulation of it.

Some arguments for this view are strictly moral: Persons have a “right” to dispose of their own property as they wish; it is wrong in principle to disrupt this. Such arguments aren’t much concerned with whether this principle creates a better world or solves any pressing human problems. And some libertarians stop with these arguments.

But other libertarians—those this essay will address—are more “consequentialist” in mood. They argue that keeping the state out of the economy will yield a host of broadly beneficial effects.

At the core of this theory is the old story of “supply and demand” : When producers and consumers interact in an economy, it creates a certain quantity of supply and demand for any given product. This dynamic is expressed in the product’s price. High prices encourage more production from producers (and new producers to set up shop), but discourage consumption. When prices get too high, consumers will abandon the product for cheaper alternatives, signaling producers to lower the price. Lower prices will cause less fit producers to go out of business, unable to turn a profit, but will encourage consumers to buy again. The cycle continues until supply matches demand—“equilibrium” is achieved.

The government can only get in the way of this process. It is not a proper economic actor—that is, it is moved by impulses other than the supply and demand signals that drive producers and consumers. It can favor or hinder economic competitors without itself having to compete. It can act without fear of “market discipline”—going out of business if it makes a wrong move. Taxes, tariffs, price fixes, production incentives, quotas, buyouts, embargos, etc., affect supply and demand “artificially,” and throw off the whole tendency to equilibrium.

But if the state stays out of the game, a number of good things—collectively known as “market efficiency”—will happen: Economic growth and productivity will be enhanced, as producers sell all they make, maintain profits and have enough to keep reinvesting. As money itself is a product (lenders, financiers, are the suppliers of it), profits (returns) on investment will increase just like profits on any other product; and the “price” of money—expressed in interest rates—will remain low as with any other product. Investment will increase as the low price and high return increases demand. Since overproduction of goods is a cause of economic crisis—leading to production cutbacks and unemployment, and when too much money is lent, inflation—freeing the market will lend greater stability to economies.

This is also a theory of economic development. The market selects for the most productive investments, and there is no reason why any nation with resources, workers and consumers could not be the site of these. Governments of developing nations scare away investment by sanctioning labor unions, fixing prices and wages, and demanding rent and other concessions from foreign producers. When left to “move itself,” capital will flow as it will, and is just as likely to flow to these nations as anywhere else.

Critique of “consequentialist” libertarianism:

(1) The proportionality interpretation

So what to make of this story? First, there is more than one way to interpret libertarian claims about the economy. One is to say that market efficiency will increase in direct proportion to reduction of state intervention in the economy. That is, all things being equal, the more the state withdraws, the more we can expect of those benefits.

For anyone looking to test this claim, conveniently enough, the world has undergone some very libertarian-style changes in the last 35 years—under the organizing principle broadly known as neoliberalism[2]. These changes are popularly called “globalization.” State regulation of the economy has been rolled back on an international scale; import and export tariffs and price and wage controls have been repealed; enormous parcels of public property have been privatized. In wealthier countries, this movement has been instigated by business and financial blocs in response to the falling profit margins of the 1970’s. In turn, it has been forced on poorer countries through “Structural Adjustment Programs” (SAP’s) as a condition for getting loans. Cross-border capital flows have increased as a result.

Using the proportionality interpretation, has the libertarian promise been borne out? Below is a graphic from the Center for Popular Economics, illustrating global economic performance across three historical periods: (1) post-World War II, (2) the crisis period of the 1970’s, and lastly, (3) the period beginning in the 1980’s when neoliberal policies really “took off” and trade and foreign investment expanded dramatically. If “proportional” libertarianism is correct, the graphic should show a correspondence between lower state regulation and better economic performance; that is, economic indicators should be best in the third period.

A clear, overall pattern can be discerned: For all indicators, economic performance was best by far in the phase stretching from the postwar period through the early 1970’s. This period is referred to by historians as “the Golden Age of Capitalism” and is marked by none other than record degrees of state management of local economies. Performance dropped off—that is, the bad indicators got higher and the good ones got lower—with the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the early 1980’s.

To be more specific (this part may bore a little): World economic growth (GDP) slowed significantly in the early neoliberal period and has never returned to Golden-Age levels. Real interest rates in the richest countries more than doubled in the early neoliberal period, and remain much higher than in the Golden Age. Accordingly, capital investment[3] dropped off sharply in the mid-70’s (from 7.0-2.2%) and remains less than half of Golden-Age levels. OECD nations[4] saw the productivity of labor (the “returns” on labor investment per worker) fall in the 70’s and then further in the early neoliberal period; productivity rates remain roughly 1/3 as high as in the Golden Age.

Not everything is shown by the graphic, but the CEP article elaborates (with sources, here). Where there are regional exceptions to bad performance in the neoliberal period, they occur in East Asia, where high state management of economies held out as other developing regions scaled it back. For example, before they sunk into crisis, East Asian economies saw GDP growth in the 1990’s that outpaced even the post-war period. This misleadingly brings up the average for all regions in the first neoliberal phase; if you remove Asia from the stats, they show even poorer growth for the West, etc. Asia was the only region not to experience a serious slowdown in growth during this period.

Finally, financial instability has not improved with neoliberal policies. Crisis is truly endemic to the system, and appears if anything to be correlated with short-term influxes of capital. Inequality among countries has increased in the neoliberal period by any viable measure—consumption levels, income, per capita GDP, etc.—and at rates higher than in previous periods.

* * *

Clearly, what facts we have provide zero evidence for the claim: The freer the market, the better the economic indicators. If anything, the precise opposite is the case.

(II) The “someday” interpretation

(i) A fuzzy claim

But this still isn’t enough to refute libertarianism. For “free” is a relative concept; and perhaps the market is just not free enough. This suggests a second interpretation of libertarian claims: Perhaps with even less intervention, less regulation, the promised benefits will finally come to light.

But this “someday” interpretation is problematic. It is not so much that it is false as it is that we don’t know the conditions under which it could be shown to be true or false. We don’t know what “less” means, exactly. This makes the claim untestable; it is compatible with virtually any degree of management of the economy. That is, there is no point at which the libertarian could not say, “It doesn’t look good now, but give it time.” It becomes the classic irrefutable hypothesis.

Put another way: Just how much management is “less” management? Just any amount less than we have today? (We’ll reach that point next week; in five minutes, perhaps.) In truth, there is no way to define a “point” called “less” such that when we arrive at it, we can say: “Ah, yes, so this is what those libertarians told us to wait for; now, let’s check those indicators….”

(ii) A fatally incomplete claim, if not fuzzy

Let us assume what is doubtful, that some clear sense can be given to “less” intervention. Still, how does this “someday” interpretation fit into the CEP data?

Imagine a new graph stretching from postwar to “someday.” It would show that a whole lot of regulation (re. the Golden Age) is good, just a little regulation (neoliberal period) is bad, but then almost no regulation (the “someday” period) is very best of all.

What a strangely convoluted story!: It is as if I can run pretty well in very heavy boots, and very fast barefoot—but then terribly slow in regular shoes. Granted, strangely convoluted stories occur all the time—but they aren’t explained by a single causal mechanism, like “less state regulation.” If my theory is that removing weight from my feet makes me run more “efficiently”—i.e., the mechanism of weight-removal will cause faster running—how does this explain that regular shoes cause me to run slower than heavy boots? Something else must be brought into, must be added to, the theory to explain this “glitch.” (Maybe I am allergic to something in the regular shoes.) By itself, the theory doesn’t explain the data and is in fact cast doubt upon by it.

(Actually, it is worse for the libertarian. All he has is the data that heavy boots cause speed, and regular shoes cause plodding slowness. He only predicts that running barefoot will be fastest, on the basis that “less weight causes speed.” Clearly, this theory alone would never sustain the data, much less warrant the prediction.)

So: The rollback of state management alone might explain an economic development, but not why this development should have proceeded in such a contradictory, herky-jerky fashion. The libertarian must give us more here. He must explain why reducing state management should yield such bad indicators just to a point and then jump to good ones after.[5]

(III) The “all or nothing” interpretation

(i) A state is a natural intervener

The inability of libertarianism to render itself as a meaningful, refutable claim (or claims) is what I have termed its “second incoherence.” (The first, or one version of it, is articulated here.)

But there is a third and final interpretation of libertarianism that may sidestep that problem: Perhaps the idea is that we must achieve, not less freedom of the market, but total freedom. The economic indicators will improve when the state withdraws completely from market management.

This sounds promising. Indeed, “none” of something is often easier to pinpoint than “more” or “less” of it: I may not know precisely when I’ve had “half a meal,” but I certainly know when I’ve had no meal. This interpretation would at least preserve the libertarian against the “irrefutable hypothesis” charge. He could not be accused of padding his theory with the means for saying “wait, wait—it will still pan out,” every time a critic notes that the promised benefits have not arrived.

Or so it might seem. In truth, we don’t know what “no” state intervention means, any more than “less” intervention. For one, it is unclear how there could be a state without state intervention in the economy. If there is to be a government at all—and libertarians want one, if a small one—it must contract for some amount of goods and services. The state cannot produce everything it needs by itself.[6]

But contracting for goods and services requires the state to favor some private producers over others; it gives some an edge they haven’t earned on account of their own marketplace “fitness.” This carries the same old threat of disequilibrium and market distortions that keep those economic indicators from smiling.

Of course, the state can do more or less of this; but the point is that it is a case of more or less—not “all or nothing.” We are thrust back upon the “someday” interpretation of the theory, with all of its inadequacies.

(ii) Even a stateless market is never “free”

The point can be made from another angle: In presenting the libertarian case, we have focused on the peculiarities of the state, its uniqueness among economic actors. Its position in society allows it to “sit above” those natural, self-corrective market forces; it alone can “override” these to coerce the other actors to behave in “counter-market” ways, or favor one actor above the others when the market wouldn’t.

But to say that the state has unique means of acting in the market is not to say that all of the effects of this activity are unique. Granted, some of them probably are: The state can infuse one competitor with tons of capital, or buy up all of its products, without there being a corresponding consumer demand; or it can “bail out” a failed competitor without any other competitor being made stronger. It is difficult to imagine any other agency capable of generating these outcomes. So, to the extent the state curbs these kinds of activity—it is gone for good.

But consider another “effect” of state management: Virtually every form of state intervention in the market—no matter what else it may produce—hinders trade. This in itself is a problem for a market system. (Being free to trade is important, in practical terms, only so long people actually do trade. Conversely, even if the government backed out of the market completely, but nobody traded anything, the system would collapse and those “indicators” along with it.) The market needs trade, and lots of it: Real acts of exchange are the place where supply and demand are calibrated to one another, and where imbalances are corrected and re-corrected. When libertarians speak of the “long term” in which equilibrium is achieved, they are measuring not in years but in transactions.

But even if the state has unique ways of hindering trade, it is not unique in hindering trade. Clearly, all kinds of things hinder trade; there are untold social factors in the absence of which “more trade” would be going on: Good weather can inhibit trade in the sense that natural disasters often increase it. If a corporation segmented itself into its various departments, rendering the marketing, R & D, etc., units as new corporations forced to compete against one other and the rest, trade would be increased; even more so if each new corporation further segmented into two new ones of the same type—and so on. The necessary “integrity” of economic actors—the fact that they are not infinitely sub-divisible—hinders trade. (If nothing else, time hinders trade; because some trades will happen in the future, they can’t be happening, nor can have happened, now.)

In short: For libertarianism, the state must be curbed because it acts as a barrier to trade. (It does other bad things, but if all it did were this, libertarians would still oppose it.) So long as any quantity of “state hindrance of trade” remains, the libertarian can use it to dismiss those poor economic indicators (the “someday” interpretation). But by this logic, any quantity of “hindrance of trade” from any source can be used to dismiss them. And we can never eliminate everything which hinders trade. (We can’t stop good weather; nor make companies infinitely divisible.) There will always be hindrances; there can always be more trade.

We are thrust again upon the “someday” interpretation, left awaiting the indefinable “less,” the libertarian insulated against all counter-evidence to his claim. And this, even if the state ceases to be altogether.

Notes

[1] Everything in this post applies equally to “libertarian,” “neoliberal,” and “neoclassical” econcomics—to any view that the state hinders economic efficiency. I address libertarians directly as I intend this post as part of an ongoing polemic against Ron Paul(ism). I started this when his Presidential campaign was in swing and drawing a lot of positive attention, even from the left (previous posts here and here). None of this assumes the terms in quotes are synonyms; I focus on the common content.

[2] Libertarians would resist the “neoliberal” label. It is mostly applied to those who favor using Non-Governmental Organizations like WTO, IMF, etc., and international trade agreements like NAFTA, to erode states’ economic role and increase cross-border capital flows. Libertarians would view these entities as controlled by states or otherwise illegitimate interferers in market mechanisms. But the point is that the economic role of the state has diminished, and capital flows have increased, in the “neoliberal” era. To this extent the libertarian agenda has been advanced. The “tools” responsible for this (WTO, etc.) are immaterial to the argument.

[3] That is, “real” or productive capital investment—the kind that generates goods and services rather than being put to speculative purposes.

[4]  A large group of countries, including the US, formally committed to “free market” principles.

[5] Or, in fairness, he could critique the data. He could say, contrary to the CEP (and other) data, that the indicators aren’t worse, or capital flows haven’t increased, in the “neoliberal period.” (Or that state management of economies hasn’t been rolled back, i.e., there hasn’t been any “neoliberal period” at all.)

[6] This goes for ordinary goods (buildings, transport, office and sanitary supplies) but doubly for munitions, where simple supply and demand cannot dictate production: For security concerns, the state will contract for some military technologies in advance and forbid even the existence of competing suppliers. Can we conceive of a marketplace where several corporations build their own aircraft carriers and nuclear warheads and then compete for the state’s contract—knowing if they don’t get it, the whole effort will have been wasted? Will the state tolerate this swamping of the landscape with military info-tech and material? Won’t it “regulate” the plan-B sale of these items by the losers on the global marketplace? (Especially if the state is a small one.)

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Ron Paul: Not antiwar, not progressive (Not that it should matter if he were)

That Ron Paul’s campaign has emerged as a “progressive” option does not change the fact that the man, from a progressive view, has mostly reprehensible positions, and reprehensible (or incoherent, or tepid) reasons for holding his ostensibly un-reprehensible positions. Nor are these irrelevant.

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Ron Paul’s Flaky Antiwar Credentials:

The Votes on Iraq and “Afghanistan”

Not that Ron Paul is “antiwar” in any sense of the phrase activists should find interesting. Certainly, such a stance is not deducible from his congressional record.

Paul’s “Statement Opposing the use of Military Force against Iraq” complains that the vote ceded warmaking powers to the President rather than, properly, to Congress. This reflects that goofy, crude Constitutional fetishism of Paul’s which quibbles over where the “proper authority” for engaging some action technically rests rather than whether whatever is being authorized is actually a good idea. An “antiwar” legislator would oppose ceding warmaking authority to Bush not because it violates some point-of-order clause, but because, damn it, the guy might use it to start a war.

Paul also objects that the Iraq campaign was begun with no clear definition of what it would mean to win it. This reasoning is sympathetic and one can only wish Paul could be counted on to apply it. His antiwar supporters don’t much talk about his 2001 vote to authorize “Military Force Against [the 9/11] Terrorists” in what would become the War in Afghanistan. Like the Iraq resolution, this vote both ceded authority to the President to use “all necessary force”—against whomever he determines, at any later date, committed the 9/11 attacks or gave any kind of aid to those who did—and does not specify what it would mean to win such a campaign. Indeed, how could it?—as it names no targets nor the means to be used to target them. It does not even assume the President had yet made up his mind about who the enemy would be.

Paul regrets, “I voted for the authorization and…the funding, and yet it was completely misused…I was deceived…I didn’t vote to occupy and nation-build.” Paul speaks as though the vagueness of the resolution—that it never says the words “occupation” or “nation-build[ing]” or “regime change” or “war” as opposed to the swift and modest and localized police action he supposedly preferred—is somehow a defense for his voting for it. But its vagueness and wide-open applicability is precisely the problem. It could have been used to start a war or an occupation just because it says nothing to rule out those types of “military force.” You can’t “misuse” something whose use is never specified.

Unlike Paul, Rep. Barbara Lee had the sense and valor to vote against this resolution. Her defense of this decision reads just like (the better sections of) Paul’s 2006 Iraq “Statement”: “…I could not ignore that [the authorization] provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war…It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

This is precisely the thing Paul says he opposes in foreign policy, and he voted for it anyhow. Thus, if we believe him that his reasons for voting “No” in 2003 reflect long-standing principles, we must conclude that these are so flexible as to divest the word “principle” of all its normal meaning. (It isn’t as though his record is loyal to the rest of his stated values: His anti-tax, small government, free competition plank is belied by his heavy support for the same pork-barrel spending and corporate subsidies every other politician goes in for—including a weird coziness with the shrimp industry.)

Worse, by the time of Paul’s 2001 vote there was already so much evidence that Bush wanted the vote to “invade” and “occupy” Afghanistan (for starters) that blindness to this could only be willful. Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, Bush had fingered the Taliban regime as a terrorist “harborer” and recalled the American ambassadors and UN delegates from Afghanistan. Paul knew Iraq had been the administration’s leading official “terrorist state” and held a policy of “regime change” against it, as well as against all the other top official terror sponsors. In fact, Paul believed what the U.S. was already doing to this “terror state” via the no-fly zones was an “occupation.” How, then, might he have been unaware that an “occupation” and “regime change” was off the agenda for “terrorist” Afghanistan? Add to this that Paul had by now heard Bush promise “a long [military] campaign, a determined campaign in a lot of countries.” (He would soon define “a lot” as “more than sixty.”) Secretary of State Powell had reiterated that the war “isn’t going to be solved with a single counter-attack against one individual, it’s going to be a long term conflict.” Bush’s use of mushy “War on Terror” phrasing only underscored this open-ended aspect.

Other Considerations

Ron Paul’s foreign policy is always fundamentally informed by his America First-ism, with all the moral and logical implications this kind of thing ever carries. This is marked by his frequent use of the dismissive phrase “in a foreign land thousands of miles away” to describe whatever situation he is urging us to stay out of. In brief, it isn’t clear how selfishness at the national level should be any more defensible than selfishness as a quality of persons.

Paul has said he does not want to dismantle the global network of military bases, but simply stop making (as many) new ones. Historically speaking, if a dominant military force has a weapon—and bases, among other purposes, are just a complex species of military technology—it tends to use it. Just assuming there is a point to these bases at all, Paul is by no means “anti-interventionist.” And are those “permanent bases” in Iraq the exception, the only ones to be dismantled? Paul hasn’t said so. Will the insurgents stop attacking the bases if we tell them the war is over?; Or are we not to fight them back when attacked? But if we fight back, in what sense will the war have been ended?

None of this need matter, as even regular foreign “interventions” of any scale are perfectly justifiable on straight libertarian principles. Globalization has taken those domestic interests needing of protection from “force or fraud” by the “minimal state,” and flung them across national borders. Not only could most American wars be justified rhetorically as defense of these interests, each was, more or less explicitly, more or less about this in fact. Global capitalism did not emerge without the blunt hammer of military force, nor could it be maintained without it—any more than domestic capital would be safe for five minutes if the threat of protection—i.e., cops, mostly—were removed.

Paul’s resistance to foreign aid rubs against his anti-intervention prejudice. Recalling his fight with Giuliani in the Republican debates, he is quick to note the “blowback” effect whereby a meddling American foreign policy angers its victims to retaliate. But if “just leav[ing]” occupied lands in the Middle East is a necessary condition of remedying this effect, things have gone too far for it to be sufficient. The grievances feeding Islamist anger are widespread in the Muslim world and won’t be satisfied without massive reconstruction and reparations. (This is also required by international law, and human decency.) The dreaded “entanglements” are already in place. A Ron Paul presidency makes reparations unlikely, which makes Islamic terrorism against the U.S. more likely, along with continued “interventions” which in a Paul presidency would be justified for “national self-defense.”

Finally, there is Paul’s racist view, expressed in the debates, that “we don’t understand the irrationality of Middle East politics.” (He attributes this to Reagan, an intervention-aholic who invented the first War on Terror in Central America.) It isn’t clear how, on such a view, Paul could confidently subsitute diplomatic negotiation for force or aid to resolve conflicts in the region. By definition, irrational people can’t be reasoned with. (Further, one might ask, negotiate with what, if not force or aid?)

Capitalism Needs War, and Ron Paul Needs What Capitalism Needs

Finally, as president Ron Paul would do nothing to challenge the free-market policies that make wars inevitable—and even necessary: It is not just that a capitalist “ruling class,” in Marxist terms, desires conflicts to protect its interests; the capitalist system itself requires “interventions” for its smooth functioning.

The story, in simple and short, is two-part:

(a) There is an enormous—and under normal conditions, growing—amount of finance capital in search of investment outlets; capitalist profitability requires that all of this be invested, and the commodities this investment will produce be absorbed by a market at a price covering production costs plus a profit. This is a concern not only of local capitalists but of the nation-state whose health depends on the health of the same domestic economy. But the “home” markets of the big national producers provide neither a means for absorbing these commodities nor sufficient opportunities for investment of the free capital.

Acting as competitors on behalf of local capitals, nation-states seek these conditions abroad: New outlets for capital investment, creating new markets to absorb commodities. And to compensate for the residual that is not invested, or sold, they seek control over raw materials to make production cheaper—just as domestic capitals seek to lower the cost of labor inputs by cutting wages and benefits. However, the world is finite, and so are the opportunities for expansion, while the sums needing investment (ideally) keep growing. Conflicting global interests lead to actual conflict.

(b) Normal consumer goods are a two-fold problem for capitalists: They need, again, to be absorbed in a market, plus they “feed back” into the same productive process they came from as they mentally and physically sustain the workers who consume them to produce another day (and allows them to produce tomorrow’s new workers—their children); this maintains [the growth of] the whole productive “machine” and thus the whole pressure for reinvestment. So one way to offset the pressure for profitability is to find some product which does not need to be absorbed in markets, and which does not “feed back” into the productive process. Heavy arms production, funded through taxes and loans from the state, is one such product. Arms are simply destroyed in use or lay fallow. Of course, these must be employed in the field of battle often enough to justify the state’s expenditure. The arms economy of World War II saved the U.S. from the Great Depression where the New Deal (alone) could not. (War also simply destroys vast amounts of productive capital—factories, crops, etc.—for many local competitors at once, leading to the same effect.)

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Latest sign of the apocalypse

Ron Paul on Issues Beside the War

But it isn’t enough that Paul’s “progressive” followers establish his antiwar credentials. It is not enough even that these credentials be measured favorably against his less progressive views (which includes pretty much the rest of his politics). What Paul would do on non-war related matters must be weighed against what he could actually get away with doing—in a net sense, in a lasting way—on the antiwar front.

A President Paul would liquidate or outsource as much of the good and useful parts of government he could get away with—federal protection for abortion, civil rights legislation, labor regulations, campaign finance reforms, environmental legislation, and Social Security. In turn, he’ll secure tons of tax relief for the wealthiest wealthy. He would work to see Roe v. Wade repealed and has introduced bills to end the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the federal minimum wage, the most prominent and longstanding antitrust laws, federal environmental regulations including all federal regulations on fuel production, and all restrictions on individual or business campaign contributions. In 2006 he voted not to renew the Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregating schools and ending Jim Crow in the South, and he opposes the 1965 Voting Rights Act securing minority access to the polls. (In this vein, Paul even introduced a bill to deny student aid to any student who happens to be Iranian.) (See the voting record here.)

Most of what Presidents “do” has nothing to do with warmaking or peacemaking; and most of what Paul would do as to this majority is glaringly regressive. His record, combined with his meagre antiwar chops, suggest that the damage Paul would do by simply behaving during the presidential phase of his political career as he has behaved in its pre-presidential phase, is not at all clearly better than the best case scenario: A single president, initiating withdrawal from a single (phase of a single) conflict, somewhat earlier than it might have otherwise been initiated; leading to a massive, enduring backlash against “Ron Paulism” by the forces invested in “staying the course.”

Why Progressives Should Not Vote for Ron Paul, Whatever His Antiwar Credentials Look Like: A Sketch

More must be said about these “forces,” as it were, that “govern the governor.” A president, strictly speaking, no more just “makes” policy than those liberal reporters Bill O’Reilley harps upon “make” the news. Ron Paul would be subject to the same hard constraints Ralph Nader (or Karl Marx) would face as president. These constraints explain why those “neocons” Ron Paul says have hijacked our foreign policy haven’t been able to achieve, in eight years of supposed power, even close to their maximal program—attacking Iran and Saudi Arabia and imposing a royal Hashemite dynasty on Iraq. They also explain why historically, in terms of the issue of troop redeployment, a candidate’s word about what he will do is worth precisely nothing in assessing what he will actually do when elected.

These constraints are alternately describable as what Marxists call “material conditions,” or that social “ruling class” of capitalists in the role of responding to these conditions. One of many angles to this basic story is that: A “serious” president—that is, someone for whom the job is not performance art; someone who cares about not running the whole machine into the ground—is concerned about more than one issue, and looks beyond than one “moment” in his political life and the life of his Party. This requires compromise with other politicians and the monied forces that got him (and them) elected. Some of these forces will push for the foreign aid and military assistance which they have always pushed for. In face of these, a strict adherence to “principle” will marginalize Paul and ensure his replacement by someone they can work with. (These “principles” also ensure that Paul will never become President in the first place.)

But if Ron Paul offers no long-term solution to “War,” this still leaves the possibility of voting for Ron Paul as a short-term solution to this particular conflict. I suppose this is what Paul’s “progressive” supporters are up to. But even if he ended the Iraq war, this brings problems of its own, as does support for any “progressive” candidate that does nothing to challenge the (re. capitalist) power base of the major parties.

In short, the whole history of progressive movements shows that those which actually challenge the power base of these parties (and most don’t) have to work outside of them to avoid being co-opted by them (which would ultimately enhance these bases of power and make them harder to tackle the next try around). But successfully working outside of this system requires construction of an alternate social power base or risks being either destroyed by or absorbed back into the dominant one all the same. In this way, working for a progressive candidate (or a progressive movement—like the antiwar movement—which is attached to a candidate) minus the right conditions is always counterproductive in the longer term.

Understanding this dynamic is especially relevant on the eve of an election year and warrants a freestanding post, to arrive in the near.