Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ron Paul

I haven't paid much attention to Ron Paul, being extremely put off by the kind of people I know who suddenly have taken him up as a religion. But I read this transcript of an interview, and it's enlightening.

I enjoy his spiel. I like his alertness to American history and his respect for the original structure of our government. I figured out what he and I have in common: A fondness for the early 19th century. But it seems to me he has a blind spot for something the Founders were keenly concerned about: The role of the irrational in public affairs, especially among a free people.

In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws, would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.

So wrote Madison. But Ron Paul seems unwilling to see us as anything but purely rational beings. When he tells Tim Russert that the Civil War was a mistake, that Lincoln was wrong to lead the nation to war, he's right, of course. The war made no sense. It destroyed the union to save it, and if your goal was to end slavery, it was the most destructive and illogical way to go about it.

But the nation at that time, North and South, was in the grip of irrational forces, of political positions so twisted as to be insane and which people clung to with manic intensity. And the popular views were as bad as those of the worst men in the leadership in both regions. The whole country was as nutty as a Paul Krugman column by the time Lincoln came along. Sanity, much less libertarian rationalism, was off the menu. Paul's idea of compensated emancipation, despite being in the interest of everyone, would not have worked. If you can't imagine emotionally aroused people vigorously advocating policies that directly conflict with their logical self-interest, none of American history makes much sense.

Paul also seems not to understand that to uncouple America from the world, and to restore it to the relative isolation of the past, would have terrible consequences for both the U.S. and the world. Again, the 19th century is over. His idea of getting rid of the income tax is intriguing. But when he gets around to how else the government should pay for itself, the first word out of his mouth is "tariff." Which is, of course, the correct constitutional answer.

But any acquaintance with 19th century U.S. economic history (and too few people have one) will tell you the tariff was a fertile field for political chicanery. All the deplorable effort that goes into pork and earmarks today was channeled into tariff debates then. Leaving aside the fact that the tariff had the tendency to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that it involved the federal government directly and intimately in the affairs and interests of corporations, the tariff was as furiously resented in its day as the income tax is today. It is an arguable (if not currently popular) case to say the tariff was a root cause of the Civil War.

There's some breathtaking far-sightedness in some of what Paul says. He can be almost Zen-like in his notion that doing nothing can be more productive of good outcomes than striving against the world. He compares Korea and Vietnam:

South Korea, they're begging and pleading to unify their country, and we get in their way. They want to build bridges and go back and forth. Vietnam, we left under the worst of circumstances. The country is unified. They have become Westernized. We trade with them. Their president comes here. And Korea, we stayed there and look at the mess. I mean, the problem still exists, and it's drained trillion dollars over these last, you know, 50 years.

Look at Vietnam today: Is it not rather close to what we wanted Vietnam to be when we first turned our attention to it in 1954? If we had just let Ho have his way then, wouldn't the country be likely to have reached the same outcome, by evolution, and spared tens of thousands of American lives? (I assume about the same number of Vietnamese who were liquidated by the communists would have been so in the alternate version of the story, but probably fewer would have died in U.S. bombings.)

It's possible he's right about that. But as it involves alternate histories, who can say? The thing it ignores is whether the overall U.S. policy of containment of communism, of which Vietnam was one ultimately failed aspect, did succeed and prevent the complete collapse of the West after World War II. Perhaps it is the reason Vietnam is our trading partner now, in a global capitalist economy, and why Vietnamese and Americans alike aren't languishing on miserable subsistence-level state-controlled collective farms.

And Paul also, again, overlooks the role of the irrational. Some things a philosopher or a Buddhist monk can leave alone. But a free people is unlikely to bear certain things without being roused to activity. The same arguments Paul makes could as well apply to 9/11. If we had done nothing afterward, it's very possible that infighting in the jihadist and Islamic world would have killed as many of our enemies -- or more -- than we've killed by our efforts.

But what U.S. leader could have done nothing and survived? Any more than Lincoln could have done nothing after Fort Sumter. And America's doing nothing would not have been seen as an act of forbearance or self-control anywhere else in the world. The retreat of America after the Beirut barracks bombing and the Mogadishu battle loomed as points of proof in the logic of Islamists that led to 9/11.

Ron Paul does have a program. The trouble is, you couldn't enact his program piecemeal. Every bit of it depends on every other bit. Paul seems to acknowledge this in some places, as when he talks about immigration and how his approach will only work if he also can dismantle the welfare state. Even a president as dominant as Lincoln or Reagan or FDR couldn't get a whole program into place in this government. It's highly unlikely a Ron Paul would do better.