15 November 2012

Ron Paul's American myth

Expect before long to see Rep. Ron Paul's "farewell address" to the House of Representatives, which he delivered today, become a best-selling book concisely summarizing his complaints against the state of the nation and his remedies for them. The big news headline taken from the speech is his lament that "the Constitution has failed" to check the immorality of the people. As has been his wont, Paul exits damning both major parties, condemning both "welfarism" and "warfarism" as insidious, authoritarian and ultimately violent tendencies. Neither party is sufficiently dedicated to freedom for his tastes, each privileging a limited idea of freedom while rejecting its full scope. "Why do some members defend free markets, but not civil liberties?" he asks, "Why do some members defend civil liberties but not free markets? Aren’t they the same?" Missing from either side is the "appetite for liberty" that inspired the American Revolution, an appetite he sees starting to revive after appearing "quite weak" during most of his time in Congress. Liberty he defines as "the principle that protects all personal, social and economic decisions necessary for maximum prosperity." Whatever makes wealth is good and must be protected; any disagreement is "authoritarian," driven by "envy," from the left, and "intolerance," from the right. Whatever the motive, the authoritarian impulse results in violence, first implicit in governmental coercion but eventually literal. If the people do not reform themselves before reforming government, Paul envisions a "corporatist" future tending toward fascism. The prerequisite for reform is a renunciation of coercion by both individuals and government. The left must renounce envy -- in effect, it must renounce itself,  -- and the right must renounce intolerance, which amounts virtually to the same thing. Only then will society resume creating wealth rather than fight over the dwindling savings from our prosperous past, and only then will the U.S. cease to be hated by the people of other countries and other faiths.

As he resumes private life, Dr. Paul can be dismissed to the extent that he denies a right to be kept alive as the basis of civilization. But it might be more useful to find the weak point in his argument before you hear it from too many other people. At first glance, the weakness of his position as expressed in the Farewell Address is its dependence on myth. The myth is that economic activity -- the creation of wealth -- takes place in a zone uniquely free from coercion. Paul proposes, or at least implies, a simplistic dichotomy: public sector = coercion; private sector = non-coercion. The ideal economy -- one that Paul appears to believe actually existed in the United States until the early 20th century -- is fueled entirely by free association; everyone played his or her role by pure individual choice. Everyone was doing what they wanted to do, on terms agreeable to everyone involved. The workers consented to every decision of their employers, even if only implicitly by not quitting. Stop me when it starts to sound absurd; actually I'll quit now.

Take my own implicit argument to a certain point and Paul or his followers will challenge its underlying premise. As far as I can tell, libertarians have never accepted the argument that someone compelled by economic necessity to do things he'd rather not do, on terms unfavorable to himself, isn't free. I presume that's because they don't make the distinction between "realm of necessity" and "realm of freedom" that many leftists do; they're aren't two different realms in their minds. The "realm of necessity" is the "realm of freedom" for them because freedom, in sociopolitical terms, is the ability to do what is necessary despite someone's desire to stop you. By this standard, you can't say you aren't free just because you have no choice but to die if you don't take the boss's offer. They'd deny that such a stark choice ever exists, but their main point would be that you can only say you aren't free if some other power -- a labor union goon squad, let's say -- can prevent you from taking the boss's offer.  Should it really come down to kowtowing to the boss or starving, you're free as long as you accept the prospect of starving. From this vantage, despite Paul's familiar scolding, envy isn't the problem. Once you decide that you must live, that the choice between submission to the boss and death is unacceptable, you become an authoritarian. You entitle yourself to coerce, to take from others to keep yourself alive instead of living with what the libertarian perceives as the rightful consequences of your decisions. Somehow, though, the people who built factories and put household production and traditional crafts out of business and dictated (before the dreadful intervention of coercive power) the hours and wages of labor coerced no one. It is unthinkable, if not outright heresy, to suggest that American prosperity was founded on coercion -- no to mention violence -- of any sort. If entrepreneurs were angels, as James Madison might say, the people and their government might not have to compel them to respect their workers, the consumers or the environment. But Ron Paul seems to believe that entrepreneurs are angels. Madison made his actual crack about angels as propaganda in favor of the Constitution that Ron Paul says has failed to protect his angels. This closing sophistry doesn't prove that the Constitution hasn't failed -- many more people than Ron Paul could argue otherwise -- but it might make you question whatever alternative the doctor has in mind. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It isn't the "making of wealth" that most of we on the left despise. It is who gets exploited, by whom and for what. That is to say, if all persons working at a corporation were also co-owners of the corporation, had a say in the direction of the corporation (ie, corporations were forced to be democratic), the overall effect would still be the creation of wealth, but the wealth would be shared, rather than doled out.

This would eliminate the need for unions as well as out-sourcing, etc.

It will not happen of course, because those at the top do not want to share when they already have the power to dole.