The New Yorker vs. Ron Paul

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Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker on Ron Paul: A Critique

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Closing Hormuz

Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker wrote a particular ill-manned, nasty and ignorant dismissal of Ron Paul and his campaign for the Presidency of the U.S. (It is dated 1/9/12, but I first saw it this evening, on 1/3/12). I shall subject his vicious screed to a line by line, well, more often, paragraph by paragraph, criticism. I will do so emulating Henry Hazlitt's intensive response to Keynes' General Theory. Why should I spend so much time on such unimportant drivel as this, written by an author of no particular distinction? I'm not sure. It is by far not the worst of the smears about Congressman Paul. There are more objectionable pieces out there, far worse ones. Maybe it is because I am originally from New York City, and I used to regularly read the New Yorker. Maybe it is because, as I write, the returns are coming in from Iowa, and I don't have the capacity to pen anything original; it is far easier to react to an author than to blaze a new path. And, I just can't sit here, eyes glued to the results, as they slowly come in. (Wait a minute. I've got to go and check how Ron is doing. Ok, I'm back. Ron is still in first place, but he is hanging there by a thread.) I really don't know. All I'm aware of is that this New Yorker essay really stuck in my craw, and the only way I know how to alleviate these feelings of helplessness at the unfairness of it all is to write about it. That's my way of kicking butt. So, here goes. (My comments are in italics, following these marks <<.)

Comment Enemy of the State by Nicholas Lemann January 9, 2012

For the past six months or so, the Republican-primary electorate has had a polite, patient, reliable, steadily employed suitor chatting with Mom and Dad in the parlor, while a series of more exciting but less appropriate rivals have come knocking at the back door. Mitt Romney will probably win in the end, but each of his serially surging competitors enjoys more immediate access to some essential region of the Republican soul. Herman Cain is the tough, no-bullshit businessman, Rick Santorum the devout pro-lifer, Rick Perry the hypermasculine cowboy, Michele Bachmann the evangelical populist, Newt Gingrich the swashbuckling geostrategist.

<<So far so good. No real criticisms, yet. (But wait; Ron is now in second place! Oh, woe.) I didn't much like that crack about "Mitt Romney will probably win in the end," but I am nothing if not generous; so I'll not pounce, yet. But, I can't resist. Why, in 2012, still mention Cain? Did he not drop out of the race a while ago?

It seems fitting that the final surge should belong to Ron Paul, who speaks most directly to one of his party's deepest emotions: hostility to government. At seventy-six, Paul has aged perfectly into his personality. He's a white-haired, wide-eyed prophet — it's easy to imagine him in white robes, instead of a business suit — who must rail against the outrages he has witnessed. To a pinched, stressed, war-weary, declinist nation, he offers the clearest program of any of the candidates. Five federal departments gone in Year One. Ten per cent of the federal workforce laid off. Income tax abolished, along with the I.R.S. Regulations and social programs repealed. No more foreign wars; no more foreign aid; not even very much foreign policy.

<< Ron is not "hostile to government." He does not reject the state per se. He is not an anarchist. Rather, he rejects excessive government; out of control government; large government; un Constitutional government. Congressman Paul supports a limited role for government. That business of "Ten per cent of the federal workforce laid off" sounds as if it would increase unemployment. The very opposite is the case. (Oh, no! Ron has now fallen to third place. The horror! But, at least he is within a percentage point of the other two.) How can this be? It is due to the fact that we should only count a job as real "employment" when the worker actually creates goods and services that people want. Call that "positive employment." But, suppose, as Keynes famously mentioned, workers only dug holes and filled them up again, and at the end of the day we the people had no more toys and food than we had at the beginning. Call this "neutral employment."It doesn't reduce poverty, but it doesn't increase it either. Now consider the scenario where goods and services actually fall as a result of a given "job." That would be in our lexicography "negative employment." How could this be? Simple. The employment slot consists not of creating anything, nor of coming out even, but of preventing other people from working, or reducing their productivity. These are the kinds of government jobs Dr. Paul would eliminate. So, paradoxically, by doing so, we will have more real goods and services with fewer workers toiling away. That is not unemployment; that is an increase in productivity. Those workers who are fired will be able to find "positive employment," provided, of course, that we follow Austrian Business Cycle Theory, and allow the market to throw off the present depression; more about this below.

Especially to the self-selected group that comes to the Iowa Republican caucuses, Paul's positions are pulse quickening. If you are antitax, Paul has that sentiment nailed more than any other candidate. If you are antiwar, Paul is right there with you. If you fear for your personal freedoms, Paul has you covered. And if you want a sweeping philosophy, deeply grounded in fundamental texts (Hayek, von Mises, Rothbard), Paul is your man. Nobody has a better claim to be a protest candidate. He's the only one who has ever run for office from a third party. He's not about passing bills; he's about root-and-branch change. His popularity, even if it's temporary, demonstrates that all politics isn't necessarily local — that big ideas can exert a pull on voters, too.

<<Dr. Paul is not "antitax." He opposes the income tax, but would not eliminate all taxation. Nevertheless, this is a pretty good paragraph. I especially appreciate the author's mention of Rothbard. All too often mention in the mainstream media of the "fundamental texts" written by Austrian authors is limited to Mises and Hayek. I regard Rothbard as far more important in this context than Hayek, and, roughly equal to Mises.

Paul's baseline obsession is with currency: President Nixon's decision, forty years ago, to take the United States off the gold standard is what brought him into politics. His hatred of the Federal Reserve Board is related to a mistrust of currencies managed by governments. Underlying everything is, of course, a larger mistrust — the sense that in some hushed Washington conference room highly consequential arrangements are being made that will help a few privileged insiders and hurt ordinary Americans. Although Paul has spent most of his life directly benefitting from one or another federal payroll or program, starting when he served in the Air Force, he isn't just striking a pose when he describes government as the enemy of freedom. He means it.

<<Congressman Paul is not "obsessed" with the gold standard. He is concerned. He is pretty level-headed about this. If there is any "obsession" going on in the race for the presidency of the US in 2012, it is on the part of all the other candidates, and it has nothing to do with monetary policy. Rather, it concerns blowing up hundreds of thousands of innocent people abroad who are citizens of countries that have never attacked us, and are incapable of invading us, in any case. Another error: Nixon only closed the gold window for foreigners in 1971. FDR gets the blame for a far bigger step away from gold in 1933 when he prohibited the use of it for money on the part of U.S. citizens. Nor does the Congressman "hate" the Fed. Dr. Paul is not much of a hater. He sees this institution as a destabilizing force in the economy, leading from depression to inflation and back. Yes, of course, the good doctor "mistrusts … currencies managed by governments," and with very good reason. Nor can it be denied that these "arrangements …help a few privileged insiders and hurt ordinary Americans." Lemann sees Paul as "benefitting" from his military service. This is more than passing curious. Presumably, this New Yorker author, then, would interpret the non-service of all those chicken-hawk armchair generals running for the presidency as somehow more noble. They, at least, didn't "benefit" from their contribution to the army, navy, marines or air force. And, yes, the Texan certainly "means it" when he sees not "government," but rather out of control government, as the "enemy of freedom."

The other candidates ignored Paul until he looked like a serious threat, and then they began attacking him. He doesn't care whether Iran has nuclear weapons. He wouldn't have killed Osama bin Laden. He's the only Republican candidate who is not an ardent supporter of Israel. He suggests that the 9/11 attacks were comeuppance for our misguided interventionism, and doesn't think they justified a declaration of war. He has given at least silent assent to full-on paranoia and racism among his supporters. Gingrich has declared Paul's views to be "totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American."

<<It is a blatant and outright lie to say that Dr. Paul "doesn't care whether Iran has nuclear weapons." He cares very much. He opposes that situation. Why? Because such devices are necessarily invasive. They cannot be pinpointed at the guilty. Ron Paul stands against any country wielding them. But, he maintains that there is zero chance of Iran using this ordnance against our own country, and that therefore that situation is none of our business, a concept alien to the thoughts of our mainstream media. He would too have presided over the execution of bin Laden, if a court decreed that verdict (although he now opposes the death penalty as unfair to black people). He would want this murderer to be treated in roughly the same manner as were the high-ranking Nazis at the end of World War II; e.g., the Nuremberg trials. What is so bloody awful about treating bin Laden in that manner? By the way, the entire point of water-boarding and other such torture is to gain information. Why then was bin Laden summarily killed before he could speak about what he knew? Dr. Ron Paul most certainly is "an ardent supporter of Israel." He thinks that this can best be done, however, by respecting their sovereignty, not by treating them as a naughty child. He opposes giving massive amounts of foreign aid to all nations, certainly including the enemies of Israel, as well as the much lower rate of largesse bestowed on that country. This the Texas Congressman argues, will be to the relative benefit of the latter. By allowing Israel to attain her sovereignty and thus control over her own fate, she will be in a far better position to protect herself. Ron Paul doesn't only "suggest" that the "9/11 attacks were comeuppance for our misguided interventionism," he demonstrates the truth of this claim. I note that this New Yorker author contents himself by merely listing this litany of complaints, as if they were God's given truth. He doesn't bestir himself to defend these charges against the counter evidence that has been put forth. He acts as if there could not possibly be anything to be said in Dr. Paul's defense. This applies, too, to Lemann's correct statement that in Paul's view, the horrid events of 9/11 did not justify "a declaration of war." Against whom it might be asked? Should we have warred against Saudi Arabia, since 15 of the 19 terrorists responsible for this despicable act emanated from that country? One might as well declare war against New York State since Timothy McVeigh was born there. No, instead, statesman Paul favored the use of Letters of Marque and Reprisal, which would enable us to pinpoint our reaction on the guilty parties. But why utilize the Constitution, when instead we can inaugurate undeclared wars against innocent people, and use this sorry episode so as to export "democracy" at the point of a gun? I won't dignify yet another linkage of Dr. Paul and "racism" with a response, but I will say that "Gingrich" and "decent American" do not belong in the same sentence. (Uh, oh, it looks as if Ron will come in third in Iowa; I can just see tomorrow's media reports: "The Iowa caucuses u2018count' after all. Santorum and Romney were virtually tied. Gingrich and Perry took fourth and fifth.") Note: I have not placed "decent American" in the previous sentence.

Yet what is and isn't part of the mainstream is something that political campaigns determine. And the truth is that Paul's vision reveals — with candor and specificity — what the G.O.P.'s rhetorical hostility to government would mean if it were rigorously put into practice. A minimal state, without welfare provisions for the unemployed. A quarter of a million federal workers — as a first installment — joining those unemployed. Foreign policy and national defense reduced to a few ballistic-missile submarines. The civil-rights legislation of the nineteen-sixties repealed as so much unwarranted government intrusion. As for the financial crisis, Paul would have countenanced no regulation that might have prevented it, no government stabilization of the financial system after it happened, and no special help for working people hurt by it. This is where the logic of government-shrinking leads.

<<Unemployment insurance increases unemployment, and lengthens its duration. Whenever you subsidize anything, you get more of it. UI subsidizes unemployment. QED. National defense would not be "reduced." With President Paul at the helm, it would be increased, and vastly so. Instead of poking sticks in hornet's nests all over the world, and then wondering why some of them come back here to bite us — hint: it is not because of our freedoms — under a Paul administration our soldiers and sailors would come back to our shores to protect us. Think in terms of a gigantic and powerful Coast Guard, with of course, more "ballistic-missile submarines," if President Paul thought them necessary. He would have additional funds to do so, if soldiers were pulled out of not only Iraq and Afghanistan but from all over the world. What is the U.S. military doing in Germany and Japan for goodness sake? Did we not conclude wars with those two countries a while ago? Ron Paul fervently supports those aspects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended Jim Crow legislation with its government mandated discrimination. However, he opposes those elements that violated private property rights, another phrase seemingly not in the lexicon of sophisticated New Yorker writers. Dr. Paul opposes "… regulation that might have prevented … the financial crisis?" Why, u2018twas the Fed, and onerous regulations emanating from Fannie, Freddie, HUD, etc., that caused it in the first place. Congressman Paul is against "… government stabilization of the financial system after it happened?" That was precisely what FDR did in the 1930s, and that only increased the severity and duration of the Great Depression. It would appear that Obama is channeling this hero of his, and is emulating him to the greatest degree possible. In contrast, no one ever hears of the depression of 1921, when the "magic of the market" was allowed to bring back the economy after only a short disturbance. Our future president does not see the need for "…special help for working people?" The non-working people of this country don't need any "help" from the government. What they most need is to get this institution off their backs. The unemployment rate is so high because of the minimum wage law, out of control unions, and the fear of Obama-care in the offing. Employers are not adding to their payrolls, in part, because they don't know the full extent of their financial responsibilities for any new hires under new socialized medicine.

Even if Paul wins in Iowa, his campaign will almost surely falter; don't count on seeing him deliver a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention. Still, Paul's brief heyday will — like the Tea Party, itself a rather Pauline affair — have an effect, on both parties. For the Republicans, the question is whether Paul's enumeration of the minimal-state particulars will entrench the appeal of government-bashing or serve, instead, as a vaccine that protects the Party against taking politically disastrous stands in the future. Would a President Romney be able to operate under the rules that applied to Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes — as long as you say you're for limited government, you can expand government freely as the need arises — or would the lingering effect of Paul's campaign curtail his options?

<< If the powers that be within the Republican Party had their u2018druthers, Ron Paul would never get within a million miles of a podium at the Republican National Convention, or anywhere else for that matter. However, if they have any sense, they will smile and invite him to deliver a prime-time address there. Why? So as to decrease the likelihood that he will run as a third party candidate. So that at least some of his followers will vote for tweedle dum or tweedle dummer, the winner of the Republican primaries, if it is not him. But it is quite premature to assume that Dr. Paul's campaign will "falter." His money raising "bombs" will finance his continued run until November. His army of inspired followers will get many more chances to demonstrate their enthusiasm. Even if the media continues to ignore him (they had threatened to ignore the entire state of Iowa had he won their caucus election), a close third place finish there gives him plenty of momentum for New Hampshire. When Gingrich was the front runner, Ron Paul advertisements (remember "serial flip-flopper") brought down that worthy. The Paul campaign will now demonstrate that both Romney and Santorum are big-government, left-liberal, flip-flopping, chicken-hawk war-mongers.

For the Democrats, Paul presents a different problem. In politics, there's the small set of issues that draw public attention and then there's everything else — ninety-five per cent of what happens in Washington. When anti-government rhetoric meets big issues like war and economic disaster, it's usually good for the Democrats, because they can make the argument for action without being hypocritical. On the small issues, though, the triumph of anti-government rhetoric has been a real impediment for President Obama. It gives the Republicans a justification to oppose, by rote, every appointment and every expenditure, which helps make their belief in public-sector inefficiency self-fulfilling but otherwise doesn't do anybody much good.

<< "For the Democrats, Paul presents a … (gigantic) … problem." If and when he becomes the Republican standard bearer (take that, Hannity, Trump, Fox News, O'Reilly, Gingrich) he will roll right over Obama. I give Paul only a 50% chance to get that far, but a 90% chance of winning the presidency if he does. Why? Because Paul appeals to that "old right" Taft wing of the Republican Party that values peace and defense rather than offense. He will couple that with Independents and Democrats sick of all the wars, all the death. He will have a field-day exposing the gigantic gap between Obama's promises and his actual policies. He will garner the votes of people who oppose Obama's militarism, SOPA, NDAA, drug policies, unemployment, the list goes on and on. There are numerous pundits with impeccable leftist, progressive, and socialist (it is hard to keep up with these people, they keep changing their name so much) credentials, who are seriously supporting Ron Paul, or at least contemplating doing so. See especially here, but also here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Obama will be both out left-flanked and out right-flanked.

Right now, it must be tempting for Obama to let Ron Paul's moment play out as long as possible: it usefully draws attention to the less seemly aspects of Republican political culture. But silence doesn't solve the problem of day-to-day, full-bore Republican resistance. Obama would do well to take Paul's success as an opportunity to engage in a debate about fundamentals. He'll have an easier time governing in practice if he can defend governance in principle.

<<A debate? Without a teleprompter for Obama? Paul will make minced-meat out of him.

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.

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