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Ron Paul interviewed by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West

Published by marco on

Ron Paul appeared on a recent Smiley and West show. He’s a bit slippery. He generally argues for absolute liberty and that the government’s role is to ensure liberty—in other words, the goal of the strict Libertarian that he always has been. If nothing else, he’s consistent. But he very quickly gets into trouble with issues that don’t work so well with a black-and-white political philosophy—in other words, almost any issue of consequence.

For example, the conversation turns to Hate-Crime legislation, an issue for which there is room for a lot of nuance.

Ron Paul started off strongly with the following statement:

“The other way you look at that, is that if there’s an identical crime committed, and one is perceived to be motivated for one reason versus another, why should one person get less punishment? […] It’s the act itself that should be judged; no one should get more punishment or less punishment because…”

This is the basic—and strong—argument against hate-crime legislation: it’s already illegal to beat the crap out of someone, so why make the punishment worse if you beat the crap out of a gay person because you hate gay people? The motive may be necessary in order to determine guilt, but it’s irrelevant for determining the severity of the punishment, no?

In the ivory-tower, theoretical world, the argument would end there.

In most systems of law, however, one of the reasons for exacting punishment is deterrence. History has shown that the deterrence against beating a man can more easily be overcome by intense prejudice. So the reasoning is that the punishment for a crime driven by prejudice should be more severe. We don’t want people beating each other, but we really don’t want people beating each other for morally abhorrent reasons like prejudice.

It’s not the soundest of reasoning, but people aren’t the most rational of creatures. So, while I don’t agree with the logic behind hate-crime legislation, I can agree that it fits snugly within the immanent legal framework in the U.S. That is, things we consider to be worse, we punish more severely. Dealing heroin is punished more severely than dealing marijuana and so forth. Even if the logic isn’t borne out by experience or historical data, it is, at least, consistent.

Dr. Cornel West agrees, pointing out that strict libertarianism will fail to protect the most vulnerable groups, leaving them to be preyed upon ad infinitum, which can’t be a situation than any humanist should abide. That is, the world is messy, humans are irrational and theoretical conceptions often break down, leading to needless suffering.

“I think Tavis is pushing you, though, in a wonderful way, that your night-watchman conception of government where the government is to protect property, the government is to procure security. What brother Tavis is saying, there are groups who (sic) are weak and vulnerable. Do you think that government should protect the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining? Because it’s clear that they’re weak and vulnerable in a corporatist system that you and I and Nader and Tavis are critical of. It seems you’ve got to thicken this notion of government’s role if you’re really concerned about the individual rights of people who have been treated as if they’re members of a group and cast as weak and vulnerable owing to racism.”

This is a well-stated objection to the pure libertarian principle: that the application of such has historically led to human suffering. And, that it has been historically applied lopsidedly to certain people—of certain groups, which is not fair. Until we can ensure a more equitable and consistent application of libertarian values, we should put in some non-libertarian checks—training wheels, as it were—to keep people on the straight and narrow.

Instead of responding to this well-stated and consistent argument about how to actually ensure liberty for all—rather than just stating it as a goal—Ron Paul responds as follows:

“But you have to look at which system so far has produced the greatest amount (sic) of jobs and the greatest amount of prosperity. We’ve generally followed what you’re talking about for many, many decades and now we have a situation where we have 22-24% unemployed, more among minorities, so that thing doesn’t work…”

Wait, now he’s making the economic argument? I thought he cared about liberty above all? Is he suggesting that you sometimes have to stop defending people’s liberty in order to give them a job? Or is he subtly trying to suggest that, in a capitalist society, without a job a person has no chance at obtaining liberty and freedom from subjugation? That seems a bit far-fetched—and, quite frankly, much more subtle than I imagine Mr. Paul to be or for him to expect his audience to be.

At any rate, it doesn’t address how the overtly libertarian society we’ve built tends to use a job as way of limiting a person’s freedom. I.e. keeping them chained to a job else they lose their entire societal standing, health insurance, etc. We’ve built a society where wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, so people end up not being able to afford health care. There are two paths from here: sink or swim (i.e. let people suffer and die if they can’t provide for their own care within the strict bounds of the market system), or provide a health-care system, which increases the size of the government.

It would be possible to avoid this if people were paid more in general, but that’s not happening either because the MARKET IS KING and the natural attractor[1] in this equation is a race to the bottom. But the libertarian system is designed to screw a lot of people over. It will always spiral in this direction.

Paul realized that the discussion in that direction was going to be a hard slog in which he couldn’t possible come out looking good.[2] He changed the conversation away from social and domestic issues and turns to military contracting and defense spending—where he rightly thinks that the government is much too large, in contrast to many other big-government opponents who only want to eliminate social programs. However, his call to get rid of this kind of spending directly contradicts the concern for jobs that he espoused not one minute earlier.

At any rate, he went on to say that,

“The whole purpose of a free society is to make sure that you and I have our rights to live our lives as we choose, how to spend our money as we choose, go to our church as we want, to make as much money as we want, but I just happen to have the firm conviction that that society will produce the greatest amount of wealth.”

That doesn’t sound like it has much to do with liberty or justice or fairness or any of the things that actually make life bearable for people. And it has an uncomfortable emphasis on money and church. It doesn’t sound like a plan for equitable distribution. It sounds much more like a dog-eat-dog prescription for life that mirrors quite accurately what the U.S. currently is. Looking at that summary statement, it’s a mystery what Ron Paul’s problem is with the current system: it’s the natural extrapolation of his core ideals. Especially the laser-like focus on making and spending money.

Cornell West riposted:

“I think we got to the center of this: I’m a deep democrat with libertarian sensibilities; you’re a deep libertarian with a little dose of democracy added on. I think we got to the core of this thing. I think we got some common ground, though.”

Ron Paul did not disagree.

[1] I mean this in the sense of a mathematical attractor (Wikipedia), in which an equation evolves over time to a stable set of points, unavoidable and very limited.

Paul was famously squeezed into such a corner when he said during a debate that basically someone without insurance would have to take responsibility for his own death, if need be.

“What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul responded, adding, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…”

That is, as the saying goes, the way the ball bounces. He’s be right if we were all still cavemen or if there just wasn’t a ridiculous amount of wealth and resources to go around. But there is. And he’s not.