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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ron Paul: The Lost Opportunity?

Ron Paul has done an immense amount of good in promoting the pro-freedom, anti-war, and anti-empire message. To be sure, it is not pure libertarianism. To get a sense of what he has accomplished, however, you should read Brian Doherty's cover story in the February Reason magazine. Here's a key part, describing an appearance in Iowa:
[I]t's all classic Ron Paul: Get rid of the income tax and replace it with nothing; find the money to support those dependent on Social Security and Medicare by shutting down the worldwide empire, while giving the young a path out of the programs; don't pass a draft; have a foreign policy of friendship and trade, not wars and subsidies. He attacks the drug war, condemning the idea of arresting people who have never harmed anyone else's person or property. He stresses [note well] the disproportionate and unfair treatment minorities get from drug law enforcement. One of his biggest applause lines, to my astonishment, involves getting rid of the Federal Reserve....

He wraps up the speech with three things he doesn't want to do that sum up the Ron Paul message First, "I don't want to run your life. We all have different values. I wouldn't know how to do it, I don't have the authority under the Constitution, and I don't have the moral right." Second: "I don't want to run the economy. People run the economy in a free society." And third: " I don't want to run the world.... We don't need to be imposing ourselves around the world."

Doherty goes on to note, "Paul does not mention abortion or immigration...."

(I am glad he stresses that the drug war is an atrocity, with members of minorities bearing the brunt. But even here there is ambiguity. Does he oppose only the federal drug war? Or would he oppose prohibition by the states too. He is not always clear. Often he says it's a state matter.)

I quote this at length because most of us have never heard Ron Paul's stump speech. It is clear to me that if you only see Ron Paul on cable news or in televised debates, you do not get the full picture of his campaign.

Having said this, there are obviously areas where Ron Paul does not take anything close to the libertarian position. Immigration is one example. (I'll leave aside the especially contentious abortion issue, except to say I disagree with Ron Paul.) My views on immigration are readily available on the web, so I won't rehash them here. It seems to me Ron Paul takes the position he does because of his attachment to national sovereignty, about which more below. Let me point out just one difficulty that his position creates for the rest of his pro-freedom philosophy. Ron Paul has promised to pardon everyone who has been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. In other words, he doesn't think one should be punished for breaking the drug laws. I assume he believes that legislation which violates the natural law of liberty is illegitimate. That's a proper libertarian position. Logically, he should also promise to pardon anyone who has violated the immigration laws because, like the drug laws, they are state restrictions on behavior that violates no one's person or property. Moreover, he has praised the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Ron Paul needs to reconcile this contradiction. To his credit, he opposes a national ID and a wall on the border. I presume he would oppose eminent domain to force property owners on the Texas-Mexican border to let a wall be built.

Ron Paul has taken other positions, or at least implied other positions, that conflict with his overall message. If you look at the issues list at his campaign website you will find no section on international trade. Trade is mentioned only in the section on "American Independence and Sovereignty." In that section you find the words "I like free trade," both in print and in a video, but that is all he says in favor of free trade. They are overshadowed by his Lou Dobbs-style remarks condemning the the multinational organizations that threaten "our independence as a nation." On the site and in the debates he never explicitly distinguishes free trade and its undeniable benefits from those organizations. He never praises imports and open markets or points out that exports are the price we pay for goods from abroad. He never embraces the international division of labor. The overall message is one of suspicion of engagement with foreigners. Nowhere do you get a sense that NAFTA and WTO are bad because they may stand in the way of total free trade. You certainly don't hear calls for a unilateral and unconditional repeal of all U.S. trade restrictions.

Ron Paul's position on trade is not helped by his alarm on the alleged NAFTA highway, which he describes as part of a government plan to dissolve the borders within North America. Suffice it say that there is no such plot. (See this.) It's great to oppose eminent domain, but it's damaging to hitch that cause to imagined blueprints for a super North American government. In other respects, however, dissolving the political borders would be a good thing because that would permit free trade and free movement.

Ron Paul is also doing a poor job of presenting the free-market position on medicine. His website has some generally good, if vague, statements, but how many people read them? When he's been asked about medical care on television, he sounds anything but libertarian. Mostly I've heard him say that if we weren't spending billions of dollars on the empire "we could take care of our people at home." That Dennis Kucinich's line. Maybe he means the money could be left in the taxpayers' pockets, but he never says that.

Look at the opportunity he's missing. He's a doctor! He should be pointing out that pervasive government regulation of medicine and insurance has virtually destroyed the medical marketplace. I've heard him say nothing to debunk the calls for a government-paid system, mandatory insurance, or the other unlibertarian positions the other candidates take.

He's missing another opportunity with energy. In response to the fascist central planning of energy proposed by the other GOP candidates, Ron Paul said ... nothing. There are great free-market lessons to be drawn. Why isn't he drawing them?

This reminds me a general point. Ron Paul's position on empire and the Fed are great. I'm glad he pounds away at them because they outrageously burden regular people. Moreover, he is right to point out that these issues affect many others. But he can go too far in doing that. The erosion of the dollar certainly is part of the explanation for why medical care and energy are more costly. But there are specific reasons as well, such as regulation. If all Ron Paul does is tie every issue back to empire and the Fed, people will think he knows nothing of other issues. They may even doubt his single-cause explanation for all the ills in the world.

I don't think I am nitpicking. Medical care, trade, and energy are issues people talk about. In the debate the other night, Mitt Romney promised to "protect every job in America." Where was Ron Paul? There is no reason not to clearly endorse free markets here. He should be channeling Henry Hazlitt. No one should mistake Ron Paul for Lou Dobbs or Pat Buchanan.

Ron Paul did not do well in what is regarded as the most libertarian state in the U.S., New Hampshire. That may signal the end of the campaign, although surprises could lie ahead, in Nevada possibly. If the campaign goes on, there is time to make adjustments so that the program is even more clearly pro-freedom. I don't fault him for his emphasis on constitutionalism. One cannot treat a presidential campaign as a seminar in the fundamentals of libertarianism. Ron Paul is using the Constitution as short hand for limiting government power. I have strong reservations about that approach, but I can understand it in an election appeal. It's for the rest of us to fill out the story for those newly interested in the libertarian philosophy.

I've left the newsletter scandal for last, and here things get difficult. I doubt that Ron Paul ever held the odious views expressed in those newsletters. No one has come forward to claim that Ron Paul has ever spoken that way. Those views are certainly not reflected in his platform. My hunch is that over the years he has put his confidence in the wrong people. He may have had a sense of what was going on, but did not want to know the details. This doesn't absolve him of responsibility, but it does mean that he is not to be put in the same category as the author(s) and anyone else who had a hand in putting out such garbage in his name.

That said, I wish Ron Paul would more fully explain what went on. When did he first learn of the offensive material and what did he do about it? Most important, are the people responsible still advising him? He wouldn't even have to name names to answer these questions.

I continue to think that Ron Paul's campaign can make a contribution to the cause of freedom. As I've written before, it helps if libertarians speak the language of the people around them. "Ron Paul" still means: End the war now and expand freedom by shrinking the government. Yet I remain concerned over the newsletter issue. This is not a matter of getting to the bottom of the episode or rendering judgment on Ron Paul. It's bigger than that. It's about protecting the libertarian philosophy and movement from association with bigotry. That is no small matter. Ron Paul has made himself a portal to libertarianism. His campaign has become a first contact with the movement for many people. It would be a disaster if just as people were discovering it they were given reason to associate it with racism and other bigotry. People make nonrational associations all the time. Most people don't have the time to systematically study the libertarian philosophy and its noble heritage. They will form impressions based on things that drift into their range of vision, not taking the time to go below the surface. Hopefully, the newcomers who hear about the newsletters and then hear Ron Paul's repudiation of the views expressed will believe him and not associate racism and anti-gay sentiment with libertarians. But we can't count on that. So the rest of us will have to find ways to explain that those views represent the opposite of libertarianism.

Ron Paul could help by giving a more complete explanation.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.


Anonymous said...

What did you think of him in the debate?

Anonymous said...

You keep us on tenterhooks. :-)

Sheldon Richman said...

This weekend, I hope.

Anonymous said...

It will be just a pile-on now. Everybody and his brother are kicking RP when he is down. It is apparently an emotional release for them. You might as well get your kicks in too I suppose. Ron Paul is being treated like the anti-Christ these days.

Anonymous said...

Sheldon, you have raised many excellent points, but I disagree with your comment: "On the site and in the debates he never explicitly distinguishes free trade and its undeniable benefits from those organizations." I have seen him do that a number of times.

While his performance in NH and the newsletter are very disconcerting, I must say that he has used these setbacks to ramp up his message and focus; he is a true lion of liberty.

Sheldon Richman said...

I haven't seen him make his free-trade position clear on television, but I am glad to hear you say he has done so. Has anyone seen this?

Anonymous said...



He has said numerous times that NAFTA and the WTO are government managed trade, not free trade. While I don't agree with interfence in trade by any government, I would prefer the Congress over the WTO. By extension, I would prefer the Articles of Confederation over the Constitution.

I do have to take issue with your North American Union comment. I agree that dissolving political borders is good but that's not what the NAU is about. (assuming it exists). The NAU is about centralizing government. As an anarcho-capitalist, surely you prefer (but not support) Europe before the European Union that Europe after.

Anonymous said...


Please correct me if I am misinformed. But isn't there a government in Brussells passing laws and isn't their now a single fiat currency for the countries of the European Union?

Sheldon Richman said...

According to the article I linked to, there is no planned NAU and the NAFTA highway is nothing exceptional. (Of course I oppose government roads and eminent domain.)

Ron Paul is wrong when he says the WTO violates US sovereignty. It can dictate nothing to the Congress. The most it can do is enact trade sanctions if Congress doesn't comply with a ruling. But even without WTO, other countries can enact (and have enacted) sanctions when they don't like U.S. trade policies. Sovereignty is an invidious and manufactured issue.

admin said...

I've heard him say that NAFTA and the like are managed trade as well. He also points out that we should be trading with nations like Iran, Cuba, etc just like we do with Vietnam. Of course he could be clearer.

He really did blow it on the medicine issue, epsecially by tying the military industrial complex to the problems in medicine. He needs to be more focused. However, I couldn't do better.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how you can say that WTO doesn't violate U.S. sovereignty when it can enact trade sanctions. When an international organization can punish another country, how can you say that?

Sovereignty may not be the be all and end all. But until a genuine free market arrives, I would rather that my own government (however poorly it represents me) makes the rules to which I am subject than a world-government type organization over which I have 0% control. Have you been following the Codex developments? Europe has basically lost access to most health supplements. If Big Pharma has its way, the U.S. will too. They couldn't get their way through the U.S. government though. To say that sovereignty is a manufactured issue is hyperbole.

Anonymous said...


You are correct. The U.S. Congress can ignore the WTO. But then why have it? Either it gives cover to the politicians to pass the buck or its part of a nascent world government. And no, I don't see anything conspiratorial about a world government. It's the logical extension of national government which is the logical extension of state government. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in Power and Market, the choices are either world government or anarchy.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Richman, It seems I can always count on you to translate the same jumbled thoughts that run through my own mind into coherence and eloquence.

I contend that Ron Paul's official campaign is undeniably the weakest part of this movement. I hesitate to say it, because I don't think I could do much better... but I can think of so many simple things Ron Paul could be doing that might bolster his support.

Simple oratory practice might even have been enough to give him the edge through the debates. He must be more aggressive, and not shy away from pointing out the absurdities in others' statements (like you mentioned about Romney's statement). He really pushes foreign policy in this fashion, but as far as being able to sway the rest of the Republican Party, he needs to bring the focus into HIS territory, economics. People are beginning to talk about it... and the unavoidable recession everyone sees coming would certainly gives it force.

I don't know though, I haven't spent the time to really organize my thoughts on campaign strategy... but as much as I hate to say it, I wish he'd spend a little time studying the way Reagan spoke (don't shoot me! I'm not promoting Reagan, only praising his oratory skills). Reagan had the power of the anecdote, and I believe that simplifies things for the simple-minded/lazy.

Oh well, just my two cents... maybe I'll try to put my thoughts into better words later.

Sheldon Richman said...

Anon, yes, there is an EU. That doesn't prove a NAU is in the works. Where's the evidence?

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether it exists or not. You would agree that if it were in the works, it would be a government enterpise and therefore unexceptable to libertarians. The point I was trying to make is that it wouldn't be shocking if there was one in the works. I will do some research on my own. I don't have much faith in Reason magazine.

Anonymous said...


I had several points to make, but as it turns out, Less Antman, on Liberty & Power, has just posted (9:29pm) comments with which I am in complete agreement. I hope you will meditate on them. In particular, I agreed with this comment, "[I]f my only friendships were with people who agreed with my moral code, I would be a very lonely man".

Let me just add that while we abhor racism, from what I can see, the newsletter quotes didn't advocate aggression/violence. The writings seemed to be from someone very angry and frustrated, who apparently felt the need to use scapegoats. I believe that forgiveness is a virtue, and hopefully the author had a good look at his/her heart and has since come out better for it. Yes, I'm an optimist.

But there is something else I would like to say. Back in the early '90s (on my journey towards libertarianism) I read Don Mcalvany's Intelligence Advisor (among other publications). In reading the RP newletter scans from the same time period, it sounds remarkably similar. In fact, to me, it sounds almost verbatim. I'm now wondering if the MIA copied word for word from the RP newsletter, or vice versa? The "LA riot" special issue, in particular, stands out to me.

Unfortunately, I threw out my old issues of MIA several years ago. Maybe a reader might be able to verify this?

I also now wonder if the various conservative/conspiracy publications at the time quoted extensively from each other? Possibly the same writers contributed to more than one publication? These possibilities might further complicate authorship.

Let me also verify that RP has indeed commented on regulated "free trade", as well as regulated medicine in some debates, as well as interviews. Again, I imagine it must be difficult to campaign, so getting all the points across, everytime, really would be unrealistic, in my opionion.

Richard G. (in Canada)

Anonymous said...

It all makes sense now.

Ron Paul is a double agent. He is a trojan horse sent by the establishment to infiltrate the libertarian movement and discredit it from the inside.

Now it can be told....

Anonymous said...

Ron Paul is a door for those favor freedom and limited government. I strongly object to his stance on immigration but I welcome his entry as a option to tweedle dee and tweedle dum of our current big government political parties. As Sheldon stated, I just hope that his anti-immigration and the bigotry in his newsletter does not seep into libertarian culture.

Sheldon Richman said...

Anon, here is my response to Les Antman on L&P:

I'm not sure this is responsive to my post, Les. I wrote, "This is not a matter of getting to the bottom of the episode or rendering judgment on Ron Paul. It's bigger than that. It's about protecting the libertarian philosophy and movement from association with bigotry." (Jeff, we don't really need to protect it from an association with coercion, do we?)

What's of interest is not whom Ron Paul hangs out with. It's that these friends apparently used his good name to plant a little time bomb in the middle of the libertarian movement. How could they have not known that it would explode some day? Now it has, and it not only has tainted his candidacy, it has also tainted the rest of us. I'd rather not have to explain to newcomers and the curious what ought to be self-evident, that libertarianism and bigotry do not go together. Thanks a lot, unnamed Ron Paul ghost-writer(s).

Sheldon Richman said...

I am glad to hear that Ron Paul has endorsed free trade. Obviously, I can't hear every statement he makes, but I have a feeling he is not ringingly declaring that imports are unconditionally good and that we ought to drop all our trade barriers at once regardless of what anyone else does. Now that would get him some attention and teach the people something worthwhile.

Dominik Hennig said...

I have to apologize for my bad English! I'm afraid, the Auburn-guys, not only the Paul-supporters and not even the majority of the Paulites, but a number of "paleos" could under certain conditions switch from a libertarian creed to a position that we call in German "nationalliberal" - the opposite of classical Liberalism à la Eugen Richter, which pointed out Ralph Raico (himself ironically an Auburn-guy) in his studies "Die Partei der Freheit"!

Anonymous said... your own admission RP has been good on the war...Yet McCain won the ANTIWAR vote in you want RP to try to educate people on the virtues of free trade?

Perhaps RP can lecture about Lysander Spooner at some American Legion Hall in SC....

Sheldon Richman said...

Stevec, I don't see your point. Free trade and the economy are current important issues.

Anonymous said...

Education is very important...but elections are NOT about educating people...Its about 30 second soundbites...."Gotcha" liners...memes and images...

Want to help RP...give him a one liner.....

I LIKE IKE worked in 52 and 56.

How many IQ points did that one take?

Anonymous said...

To correct a fallacy in the above argument (while allowing that the post is satirical), what Steve appears to see is the catchy "one-liner," not the years of hard work that serves as the foundation.

Just as people like to bitch and moan about doctor's fees (and I know, I know, the market in medicine is grossly distorted by State meddling), they are ignoring the years of education and interning that the doctor pays as dues before being able to charge the big bucks.

In much the same way, distilling the biography of Eisenhower to "I Like Ike" as the reason for his political success ignores the years he spent building his reputation.

As charismatic and accomplished as Ron Paul may be, in the public collective consciousness he is not Eisenhower.

Nicolas Martin said...

The best evidence is that Paul, at a minimum, knew that his newsletter was used to promulgate racist and anti-gay views as a way to gain support and raise money. It is not unlikely that he wrote at least some of the malignant material, but the difference is slight between having written it and having allowed it to be ghosted. The evidence is also solid that Paul lied at one time or another about his contribution to or knowledge of the contents of his newsletter.

I've given more than $800 to his campaign, but I no longer support Ron Paul.

Chris Baker said...

I have a definite theory on who did ghost write the material. I wrote this man asking him to come forward. I also recently learned that he has spent some time in the hospital.

I didn't find the comments all that bad. The head of the NAACP in Austin has even come out saying that Paul is not a racist.

One of the biggest critics of Doctor Paul is that idiot Eric Dondero. He has cultivated a very bad reputation here in Texas.

I don't expect any candidate to be perfect. Doctor Paul is still the only one we got.

I'm e-mailing you personally, Sheldon. Timothy Virkkala also had a good commentary on this controversy.

Chris Baker said...

With regard to Doctor Paul's stance on free trade, I think Doctor Paul
is generally a free trader. However, I do regard tariffs as less offensive than many other taxes we have today. Many of these "free trade agreements" simply create super-bureaucracies with no accountability whatsoever. These "free trade agreements" aren't free trade agreements.

The US Constitution, of course, was supposed to be a free-trade
agreement. Look at what it has become! It now stands for big fascism and big socialism.

Sheldon Richman said...

Actually, the Constitution was not really intended as a free-trade agreement. See my article here: