Ron Paul, Libertarianism, and the Freedom to Starve to Death
by Sherry Wolf
"Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum," goes the revamped aphorism. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul's surprising stature among a small but vocal layer of antiwar activists and leftist bloggers appears to bear this out.
At the October 27, 2007, antiwar protests in dozens of cities, noticeable contingents of supporters carried his campaign placards and circulated sign-up sheets. The Web site Antiwar.com features a weekly Ron Paul column. Some even dream of a Left-Right gadfly alliance for the 2008 ticket. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, liberal maverick and Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich told supporters in late November he was thinking of making Ron Paul his running mate if he were to get the nomination.
No doubt, the hawkish and calculating Hillary Rodham Clinton and flaccid murmurings of Barack Obama, in addition to the uninspiring state of the antiwar movement that backed a prowar candidate in 2004, help fuel the desperation many activists feel. But leftists must unequivocally reject the reactionary libertarianism of this longtime Texas congressman and 1988 Libertarian Party presidential candidate.
Ron Paul's own campaign Web site reads like the objectivist rantings of Ayn Rand, one of his theoretical mentors. As with the Atlas Shrugged author's other acolytes, neocon guru Milton Friedman and former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, Paul argues, "Liberty means free-market capitalism." He opposes "big government" and in the isolationist fashion of the nation's Pat Buchanans, he decries intervention in foreign nation's affairs and believes membership in the United Nations undermines U.S. sovereignty.
Naturally, it is not Ron Paul's paeans to the free market that some progressives find so appealing, but his unwavering opposition to the war in Iraq and consistent voting record against all funding for the war. His straightforward speaking style, refusal to accept the financial perks of office, and his repeated calls for repealing the Patriot Act distinguish him from the snakeoil salesmen who populate Congress. Paul is no power-hungry, poll-tested shyster.
Though Paul is unlikely to triumph in the primaries, it is worth taking stock not only of his actual positions, but more importantly the libertarian underpinnings that have wooed so many self-described leftists and progressives. Because at its core, the fetishism of individualism that underlies libertarianism leads to the denial of rights to the very people most radicals aim to champion -- workers, immigrants, Blacks, women, gays, and any group that lacks the economic power to impose their individual rights on others.
Ron Paul's Positions
A cursory look at Paul's positions, beyond his opposition to the war and the Patriot Act, would make any leftist cringe.
Put simply, he is a racist. Not the cross-burning, hood-wearing kind to be sure, but the flat Earth society brand that imagines a colorblind world where 500 years of colonial history and slavery are dismissed out of hand and institutional racism and policies under capitalism are imagined away. As his campaign Web site reads:
"The true antidote to racism is liberty. Liberty means having a limited, constitutional government devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than group claims. Liberty means free-market capitalism, which rewards individual achievement and competence -- not skin color, gender, or ethnicity."
Paul was more blunt writing in his independent political newsletter distributed to thousands of supporters in 1992. Citing statistics from a study that year produced by the National Center on Incarceration and Alternatives, Paul concluded: "Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal." Reporting on gang crime in Los Angeles, Paul commented: "If you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be."
His six-point immigration plan appears to have been cribbed from the gun-toting vigilante Minutemen at the border. "A nation without secure borders is no nation at all. It makes no sense to fight terrorists abroad when our own front door is left unlocked," reads his site. And he advocates cutting off all social services to undocumented immigrants, including hospitals, schools, clinics, and even roads (how would that work?).
Though he rants about his commitment to the Constitution, he introduced an amendment altering the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to anyone born in the United States, saying in a 2006 article: "Birthright citizenship, originating in the 14th amendment, has become a serious cultural and economic dilemma for our nation. . . . We must end the perverse incentives that encourage immigrants to come here illegally, including the anchor baby incentive."
Here we come up against the limits of libertarianism -- Paul wants a strong state to secure the borders, but he wants all social welfare expenditures eliminated for those within them.
Paul is quite vocal these days about his rank opposition to abortion -- "life begins at conception," he argues. He promotes a "states' rights" position on abortion -- that decades-old hobgoblin of civil rights opponents. And he has long opposed sexual harassment legislation, writing in his 1988 book Freedom Under Siege (available online), "Why don't they quit once the so-called harassment starts?" In keeping with his small government worldview, he goes on to argue against the government's right "to tell an airline it must hire unattractive women if it does not want to."
In that same book, written as the AIDS crisis was laying waste to the American gay male population prompting the rise of activist groups demanding research and drugs, Paul attacked AIDS sufferers as "victims of their own lifestyle." And in a statement that gives a glimpse of the ruling-class tyranny of individualism he asserts that AIDS victims demanding rushed drug trials were impinging on "the rights of insurance company owners."
Paul also opposes equal pay for equal work, a minimum wage, and, naturally, trade unions. In 2007, he voted against restricting employers' rights to interfere in union drives and against raising the federal minimum wage to $7.25. In 2001, he voted for zero-funding for OSHA's Ergonomics Rules, instead of the $4.5 billion. At least he's consistent.
Individualism versus Collectivism
There is a scene in Monty Python's satire Life of Brian where Brian, not wanting to be the messiah, calls out to the crowd: "You are all individuals." The crowd responds in unison: "We are all individuals."
Libertarians, using pseudo-iconoclastic logic, transform this comical send-up of religious conformity into their own secular dogma in which we are all just atomized beings. "Only an individual has rights," not groups such as workers, Blacks, gays, women, and minorities, Ron Paul argues. True, we are all individuals, but we didn't just bump into one another. Human beings by nature are social beings who live in a collective, a society. Under capitalism, society is broken down into classes in which some individuals -- bosses, for example -- wield considerably more power than others -- workers.
To advocate for society to be organized on the basis of strict individualism, as libertarians do, is to argue that everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants. Sounds nice in the abstract, perhaps. But what happens when the desires of one individual infringe on the desires of another? Libertarians like Paul don't shy away from the logical ramifications of their argument. "The dictatorial power of a majority," he argues, ought to be replaced by the unencumbered power of individuals -- in other words, the dictatorial power of a minority.
So if the chairman of Dow Chemical wants to flush his company's toxic effluence into rivers and streams, so be it. If General Motors wants to pay its employees starvation wages, that's their right, too. Right-wing libertarians often appear to not want to grapple with meddlesome things like economic and social power. As the bourgeois radical Abraham Lincoln observed of secessionist slaveowners, "That perfect liberty they sigh for" is "the liberty of making slaves of other people."
Too Much Government?
Unwavering hostility to government and its collection of taxes is another hallmark of libertarianism. Given the odious practices of governments under capitalism, their repugnant financial priorities, and bilking of the lower classes through taxation, it's hardly surprising that libertarians get a hearing.
But the conclusion that the problem is "big government" strips the content from the form. Can any working-class perspective seriously assert that we have too much government involvement in providing health care? Too much oversight of the environment, food production, and workplace safety? Would anyone seriously consider hopping a flight without the certainty of national, in fact international, air traffic control? Of course not. The problem doesn't lie with some abstract construct, "government," the problem is that the actual class dynamics of governments under capitalism amount to taxing workers and the poor in lieu of the rich and powerful corporations and spending those resources on wars, environmental devastation, and the enrichment of a tiny swath of society at the expense of the rest of us.
Ron Paul argues, "Government by majority rule has replaced strict protection of the individual from government abuse. Right of property ownership has been replaced with the forced redistribution of wealth and property. . . ." Few folks likely to be reading this article will agree that we actually live in a society where wealth and property are expropriated from the rich and given to workers and the poor. Even the corporate media admit that there has been a wholesale redistribution of wealth in the opposite direction. But Paul exposes here the class nature of libertarianism -- it is the provincial political outlook of the middle-class business owner obsessed with guarding his lot.
In fact, the libertarians' opposition to the government, or the state if you will, is less out of hostility to what the state actually does than who is running it. Perhaps this explains Paul's own clear contradiction when it comes to abortion, since his opposition to government intervention stops at a woman's uterus. But freedom for socialists has always been about more than the right to choose masters. Likewise, Paul appears to be for "small government" except when it comes to using its power to restrict immigration. His personal right to not have any undocumented immigrants in the U.S. seems to trump the right of free movement of individuals, but not capital, across borders.
Right-wing libertarians, quite simply, oppose the state only insofar as it infringes the right of property owners.
Some antiwar activists and leftists desperate to revitalize a flagging antiwar movement make appeals to the Left to form a Left-Right bloc with Ron Paul supporters. Even environmental activist and left-wing author Joshua Frank, who writes insightful and often scathing attacks on liberal Democrats' capitulations to reactionary policies, recently penned an article citing -- though not endorsing -- Paul's campaign in calling for leftist antiwar activists to reach out to form a sort of Left-Right antiwar alliance. He argues, "Whether we're beer swilling rednecks from Knoxville or mushroom eatin' hippies from Eugene, we need to come together"("Embracing a New Antiwar Movement," 4 December 2007).
Supporters of Ron Paul who show up to protests should have their reactionary conclusions challenged, not embraced. Those of his supporters who are wholly ignorant of his broader politics beyond the war should be educated about them. And those who advocate his noxious politics, should be attacked for their racism, immigrant bashing, and hostility to the values a genuine Left champions. The sort of Left-Right alliance Frank advocates is not only opportunistic, but is also a repellent to creating the multiracial working-class movement that is sorely needed if we are to end this war. What Arabs, Blacks, Latinos -- and antiracist whites, for that matter -- would ever join a movement that accommodates to this know-nothing brand of politics?
Discontent with the status quo and the drumbeat of electoralism is driving many activists and progressives to seek out political alternatives. But libertarianism is no radical political solution to inequality, violence, and misery. When the likes of Paul shout: "We need freedom to choose!" we need to ask, "Yes, but freedom for whom?" Because the freedom to starve to death is the most dubious freedom of all.
Sherry Wolf is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.