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Monday, December 24, 2007

Is Ron Paul Inconsistent on Earmarks?

My local newspaper ran an item about Ron Paul's answer to Tim Russert's asking him how he can seek money for his congressional district while attacking big government. (See AP story here.) I believe there is no inconsistency here. Ron Paul says he votes against spending programs that in his view exceed the authority specified in the Constitution. (I'm taking him at his word, problems of constitutional interpretation aside.) If so, can he in good faith add earmarks to spending bills that would benefit his constituents?

Yes, he can. There is a difference between making choices at the rules-selection level and making choices within rules you are stuck with. In other words, it's one thing to try to channel flood-insurance money to your district, but quite another to vote to create or renew the program.

As Ron Paul pointed out on "Meet the Press," the government taxes people, then ladles out the money to particular groups. If one group of potential recipients doesn't get a particular appropriation, another one will. The result of not seeking or taking the money is not a cut in taxes and spending. So, as Ron Paul asked, why shouldn't people try to get some of their money back? Is it unlibertarian to accept a tax "refund" or Social Security? Must one tear up the checks (leaving the money in the U.S. Treasury)?

The hidden premise behind the criticism of Ron Paul on this matter is that taxation and spending would be lessened or eliminated if one refused the largess. Does anyone really believe that? The state taxes and borrows all it believes it can get away with. So any money that doesn't go into, say, disaster relief is available for the military or something else. Ron Paul's refusal to play the earmark game would make no difference to the size of government or its burden on the American people.

Thus, as a congressman, Ron Paul does not contradict himself when he tries to get some of his constituents' money back for them -- as long as he also opposes the spending programs and votes against them when he gets the chance. The moment he votes for the federal disaster-relief program he is caught in a contradiction.

A similar principle applies to Ron Paul's answer about term limits. He told Tim Russert that one who favors mandatory term limits is not in any way obliged to impose terms limits unilaterally on himself. Again, it involves picking rules versus acting within a rules system. I don't like the designated-hitter rule, but if the rule is in effect and I am manager of a baseball team, my position on the rule does not oblige me to put my pitcher in the batting lineup. Similarly, because I think all congressmen should be term-limited, it doesn't follow that I think I alone should be term-limited. If only congressmen who believe in term limits are term-limited, the most statist congressmen will tend to become entrenched, which is the opposite of what term limits is intended to accomplish.

I concede that under the pressure of a television interview, where the host is trying to throw the candidate on the defensive, it may be hard to be persuasive on these issues. But that doesn't mean the response is wrong. It may mean that television is not the venue for a serious political discussion.

Finally, what does this have to do with anarchism? Not much, I concede. Maybe the state can be dismantled completely from the outside. I don't know. My musings here assume that there is nothing intrinsically immoral in trying to dismantle the state from within. My hunch is that it will take work on both the inside and outside. I say this while inclined toward the view that the heaviest work will occur on the outside.


Anonymous said...

Sheldon, just out of curiosity, would you apply the same reasoning to social security? In other words, if we have paid social security taxes for our entire working life, even though we oppose the social security system, are we justified in receiving social security benefits when we are eligible to?

Sheldon Richman said...

I don't see how you are aggressing against anyone by cashing the checks. It might be more unlibertarian to leave the cash in the federal treasury rather than homesteading it. Now if you lobby for higher taxes, that's another story.

Russell Hanneken said...

You make a reasonable argument. Still, in the case of earmarks, since Ron Paul styles himself a champion of the Constitution, shouldn't he take a stand in favor of the general welfare clause of Article I, section 8?

Sheldon Richman said...

But my argument is that playing within the rules as they are does not contradict efforts to have the programs abolished on grounds that they violate the general-welfare clause. As he told Russert, "I'm trying to change the system." He could have added, until it's changed, I'm helping my constituents get some of their stolen money back.

Russell Hanneken said...

That's true, but I think playing within the rules does contradict (or at least sits uneasily with) the image of himself that he's promoting. His web site says, "Dr. Paul never votes for legislation unless the proposed measure is expressly authorized by the Constitution."

Okay, fine, it may be technically true that Paul has never voted for earmarks. He merely inserts them in spending bills, with the reasonable expectation that they will become law.

Sheldon Richman said...

I agree that what he does indeed contradicts the spirit of what you quote here. All I argued is what he argued on Russert: that one can consistently use a rule to one's advantage while working to abolish the rule.

To change the subject a bit, Paul's website statement has another problem: from start and with the blessings of the founders, the Constitution was known to have delegated to Congress more than express powers. The idea of implied powers was accepted by Madison, et al. It's one of the things the Anti-federalists complained about.

Therein lies the fallacy of being a "strict" constitutionaist and one of the weaknesses at the heart of the Paul campaign.

Anonymous said...

"My musings here assume that there is nothing intrinsically immoral in trying to dismantle the state from within."

You justified this assumption in the post's preceding paragraph.

"If only congressmen who believe in term limits are term-limited, the most statist congressmen will tend to become entrenched, which is the opposite of what term limits is intended to accomplish."

Anonymous said...

The money one pays to Social Security at the point of the bayonet is not the same money one receives as a cut of the booty upon retirement.

One may pay into Social Security all one's life without guilt because it is ransom. That is the price one pays for living in society -- this society. The alternative is living outside of society -- good luck with that.

However -- and this is important -- the money one receives in retirement is STOLEN MONEY. It is dirty and perpetuates the evil of taxation, government and the State. The only morally defensible action is to refuse Social Security. Delude yourselves, but Social Security is thievery by the elderly from the working generations. It is a Ponzi scheme on the grandest of scales.

It is uncomfortable and difficult to accept these facts and try to live one's life, but it is incontrovertible. Deal with it.

Using force to eliminate force is insane.

Edward said...

That doesn't make any scene. If a thief steals money from you and then offers it back is it immoral to take it?

The money you get out of the system is the same you put in. Money is a indistinguishable good.

Anonymous said...


The money you receive from Social Security is NOT the same money taken from you by force during your working life. There is no trust fund. The money is already spent years before it is taken from you.

The money one receives in retirement from Social Security is stolen from current working people and is redistributed to retirees. It is not the money -- repeat NOT the money taken from you.

If the idea is to abolish criminal rackets like Social Security, it will not come about from perpetuating the racket by receiving stolen goods. Your argument is one of denial and is childish. You simply don't want to eschew the money, as dirty as it may be.

To illustrate your fallacy that money is an indistinguishable good, let me offer the following example.

A thief steals $100 from me. Remorseful, he donates it to cancer research. Miraculously, that $100 is the tipping point that leads to a cure. Millions of lives are saved. Was it moral for the thief to steal my money? The answer is no. The ends do not justify the means.

Money is a rather distinguishable good, depending on its source.

Forceful or fraudulent source = evil

Voluntary source = good


Now, where exactly do you stand again?