Is Ron Paul Out of Date? No.
by Walter Block
Recently by Walter Block: Ron Paul as a Stooge for Adolph Hitler
There is a segment of the electorate that greets Congressman Paul's continual harking back to the Constitution, and to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, as follows: Sure, those were good ideas, then; but nowadays, things are far more complicated. We lived a relatively simple bucolic life as a nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We travelled by horse and buggy, at best. There was no television, no computers, no Al Qaeda, no cars, no weapons of mass destruction; there was far less poverty, crime, juvenile delinquency, divorce, etc. Dr. Paul's ideas are two centuries out of date. Nowadays, due to the complexity of modern society, his type of limited government free enterprise system simply cannot suffice. Congressman Paul should wake up to the fact that we are now in living the 21st century. An old fuddy-duddy who is continually looking back to the past cannot possibly be a good presidential candidate in 2012.
There is much wrong with this negative assessment of Ron Paul's limited government philosophy. I shall address these "he is out of date" criticisms under three headings: foreign policy, civil liberties and economics.
1. Foreign policy
In the early days of our nation, we were protected by not one, not two, not three but four oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. Even if we made mistakes, and engaged in "entangling alliances," and searched for "monsters to destroy" abroad, these bodies of water served as a buffer. Yes, the sailing ships could come get us, but that would take a long time; we could see them coming long before they got here.
Nowadays, modern technology has rendered the preventative function of these bodies of water pretty much inoperable. So, any mistakes we make are likely to be met with faster and more effective blowback, e.g., 9/11. If George Washington's advice to be non interventionists was right during his day, it is even more correct at present.
Similarly, if there were a "terra-ist" in, say, the year 1799 who had it in for us, whether for just or unjust reasons, he would come to our shores armed, only, with a sword, or a musket, or some such weapon. At worst, he could murder but a very few innocent Americans. Nowadays, this is simply not the case. It thus behooves us to be more cautious with our foreign policy in the modern era than ever we needed to be in the earlier epoch.
Terrorists do not put us in the cross hairs because we have rock music, mini-skirts and freedom. Many other countries that have not been attacked exhibit the first two; as for the third, the U.S. is no longer among the freest of nations. According to one source, we are only tenth, after these others: Hong Kong, in first, Singapore in second, New Zealand in third, Switzerland in fourth, Australia in fifth, Canada in sixth, Chile in seventh, the UK in eighth, and Mauritius in ninth. Rather, we have been recently targeted by murderous killers because of what we have done: we have been poking sticks in hornet's nests in every corner of the globe. Then, our mainstream media have registered shock and horror when some of these insects come back here and bite us. In contrast, in the early days of our republic we pretty much minded our own business, and did not have these horrid events befall us.
According to Dorothy Rabinowitz, Dr. Paul is "the best-known American propagandist for our enemies." Not at all. Dr. Paul, as a physician knows full well that he cannot cure any medical problem until he is clear as to its underlying cause. As a presidential candidate he is fully cognizant of the fact that he cannot stop an outbreak of attacks on our country and our people unless he fully understands their genesis. And, how can this be accomplished? For Ron Paul as doctor, this involves the stethoscope, the x-ray machine, the thermometer, blood pressure measurement devices, the cat-scan and the MRI. For Mr. President Paul, it requires, at least, listening to what they have to say when they explain why they have attacked us. It necessitates reading what the intelligence community of our country has to say about blowback. (See here for the reading list on these matters that Ron Paul utilized to instruct former New York City mayor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.)
2. Civil liberties
We did not have a drug war until the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Before that time, these drugs were a medical crisis, only. Afterwards, the medical challenges became exacerbated, and an entire new whole host of problems ensued. Black people are about 14% of our population, but account for some 63% of the prisoners in jail for drug crimes. Numerous deaths have been attributed to these vicious laws as well. Before and after alcohol prohibition this substance, too, was only a medical problem, best dealt with by doctors and groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. But during Prohibition, this drug, also, created havoc in our society, needless deaths due to fighting over territory, and poisonings due to "bathtub gin."
Yes, Ron Paul "wishes to turn back the clock" to a previous era here too. But earlier does not necessarily mean worse. Would anyone seriously like to turn the clock forward and reinstitute alcohol prohibition? Of course not. And, yet, anything that can be said in criticism of alcohol can probably be said, or worse, of narcotics. Both are dangerous substances; but more people die of the former than the latter. The prohibition of each of them leads to deaths. Libertarians oppose allowing children to have access to either of them, but if we cannot trust adults to make decisions about them, how can we justify giving them the right to vote?
In like manner, Congressman Paul opposes the Patriot Act and NDAA and SOPA because they trash the Constitution and violate our basic civil rights. Here, too, he prefers an earlier epoch to a later one, because he is not at all concerned with dates, but rather with rights.
Yes, our present day economy comprised of one third of a billion Americans, and billions of other people across the globe, is far more complicated than the one over which the founding fathers presided. But this is not an argument in favor of more regulations, it is an argument against them. For, the more complex is an economy, the more it needs to rely on the "magic of the market," not on central direction. If there is any case for a centrally planned economy, it applies not at present, but 300 years ago, when matters were far simpler, and thus socialistic planning could not, paradoxically, be quite as deleterious.
At the beginning of our Republic, some 98% of the people were farmers. They didn't need price signals as much as modern entrepreneurs do. They could pretty much judge the best way of engaging in human action based on tradition. Grandpa planted such and such, and so did dad, so the way was clear ahead for the present farmer. But in an epoch where automobiles supplant horses and buggies, computers take the place of typewriters and telephones, etc., when there are millions, maybe billions of prices, not merely a few tens of thousands, it is imperative that economic freedom and private property rights coordinate economic activity. Yes, the Jamestown colony almost died out due to socialism. I am not advocating any such system, for any time. But I do insist that the simpler an economy, paradoxically, the less harm that price controls and socialism can do.
In like manner, it is also paradoxical that if you must have governmental interferences with the economy, it will hurt fewer people, and less seriously, if this is confined to luxury goods. If price controls and central planning are imposed on diamonds, jewelry and Rolls Royces, users of these goods will be disaccommodated. But they will not perish. However, if these dirigisme initiatives apply to milk, bread, meat, apples, etc., many people will die, particularly the poor. Yet, it is the rare socialist-fascist who advocates a government take-over of luxury goods. Rather, these economic illiterates target things like housing (rent control) and food. They make a mistake akin to the one made by those who think that since our economy is now more complicated than ages ago, it needs more tender loving care by government, inc.
Let us conclude.
It is not at all the case that newer is necessarily better than older. Murray N. Rothbard has characterized this as the Whig fallacy. Yes, certainly, in some arenas, many of them, we have made great progress. Transportation, communication, medical practice, all readily come to mind in this regard. But it cannot be denied that in other areas, we have retrogressed. We no longer have the technology or the skills to manufacture Stradivarius quality violins. Although this is of course subjective, I and many others would argue that modern music is vastly inferior to that of Bach, Mozart and Handel. And so it is with our Founding Fathers (apart from slavery, of course). Their foreign policy was arguably better than that of Bush and Obama. Just because it is historical, does not render it fallacious, as critics of Ron Paul all too often "argue." Similarly, Congressman Ron Paul sees our drug policies pre-1914 as far more humane and beneficial than our present drug war. It will not suffice to prove him wrong to note that he is living in the past. No, these things have to be argued out on their merits. It is simply fallacious to maintain that since this policy was once tried and then rejected (with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914), it is inferior to present day practices. As far as economics is concerned, the move from Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard to the likes of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Ben Bernanke was one of retrogression, not progress. By going "forward," we have lost, not gained.
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective. His latest book is The Privatization of Roads and Highways.