Sometimes, to evaluate what you have lost or what you have achieved, you need to mentally put yourself in a time machine. That is, go back mentally to some time in the past and ask yourself how you think the world will be in the future — that is, now. Then compare what you "expected" with what is. If you take the experiment seriously and don’t "cheat" by kidding yourself about your incredible foresight, the results can be informative. I did this with two things recently, the state of civil liberties in the United States and the discussion of foreign policy. Both were informative. I invite you to enter your own time machine and consider both.
First, take civil liberties. Wait! Let me rephrase that in case any politicians are reading this. I don’t really mean "take" civil liberties; I mean "consider civil liberties." Go in the wayback machine to September 10, 2001 and ask yourself the following:
Do you think that in 2008, the federal government will have nationalized airport security? Will federal government agents insist that even little toddlers take off their shoes before getting on an airplane? Will the federal government tell you that you can’t take a bottle of wine or a 12-ounce container of shampoo on board?
Do you think that officials high up in the federal government will justify a form of torture called waterboarding? Will high federal government officials argue in favor of suspending habeas corpus, one of our most ancient liberties and the cornerstone of the others? Will Congress actually pass a law suspending habeas corpus for cases that do not involve "Cases of Rebellion or Invasion," the only situations in which they are allowed to do so under Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution?
How did you answer? My guess is that most of you put a fairly low probability on these things happening. Yet all of them happened.
Consider them one by one:
In the fall of 2001, the federal government nationalized airport security, turning it over to a new government agency, the Transportation Security Administration. As anyone who has traveled lately knows, the TSA does force parents to take off even their toddlers’ shoes and does prohibit you from taking on board any container that holds more than three ounces of liquid.
The federal government now regards waterboarding, in which water is poured down a prisoner’s throat so that he thinks he’s going to drown, as a perfectly acceptable method for extracting information from prisoners. In 2001, President Bush signed an executive order giving himself the power to suspend habeas corpus for non-U.S. citizens. In 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, in which it gave the President the power to suspend habeas corpus for aliens. The U.S. Senate explicitly voted down, by 51—48, a provision to preserve habeas corpus. There is some controversy over whether it gives the government the power to suspend habeas corpus for U.S. citizens, as well.
That’s the bad news. Now to the (mainly) good news. Put yourself in a the wayback machine and ask yourself these questions:
Do you think that there will be a candidate for president who consistently speaks out against the destructive idiocy of government intervention in other countries’ affairs and who keeps his dignity when attacked by some fairly juvenile opponents? Do you think that such a candidate will also oppose federal intervention in people’s lives that goes beyond what a strict reading of the U.S. Constitution allows? Do you think that such a candidate will also raise over $25 million in small contributions?
Do you think that this hypothetical candidate could be a 70+-year-old man who can generate enormous excitement among U.S. youth without pandering to them? Do you think that he’ll generate interest among these youth by talking about getting rid of the Federal Reserve Board? Do you think that this candidate can keep winning debates with his competitors, not just in your eyes, but in the eyes and ears of those who bother to vote online?
Do you think that this candidate will appear on the very-well-prepped Tim Russert’s "Meet the Press" and actually answer his questions without evasion? Will this cause Russert to jump from issue to issue quickly, which is what his guests usually try to do?
Do you think that this candidate will appear to be such a threat to the big-government consensus that even Fox News, until recently the only mainstream media voice in favor of smaller government (foreign policy aside), will try to marginalize him?
Do you think that, as a bonus, this candidate will take on Americans’ love affair with Abraham Lincoln, the man who suspended habeas corpus, prevented his political opponents from voting against him, and set the stage for the growth of a powerful central government? And, if he does, do you think he’ll score points by suggesting that there were other ways to end slavery besides getting into a war that killed over 600,000 Americans?
Will this candidate do well despite an incompetent campaign staff that forgets to tell voters that their candidate opposes an interventionist foreign policy?
My guess is that you put well below a 20-percent probability on any of these things happening. The one exception might be number four; more on that anon. Yet all of these did happen.
- In the various debates and in interviews, Ron Paul has consistently attacked the idea that the U.S. government should stick its nose into other people’s business. His first major challenge came in a May 15 debate, aired by Fox news. Competitor Rudy Giuliani asked Ron Paul to take back his claim that the 9/11 terrorists attacked us because of our government’s foreign policy rather than because of our freedom. Ron Paul refused to back down and, instead, elaborated on his claim. Interestingly, Paul scored another victory that has gone unremarked: after Paul backed up his claim by citing the CIA, and the other Republican candidates tried to pile on, Fox questioner Wendell Goler stopped them, saying, "I don’t think we’re going to solve this tonight, gentlemen." Think about that statement. That’s an amazing concession from Fox News, which, ever since 9/11, has pushed the idea that the terrorists hated us for our freedom and has never been open to the idea that we could get fewer such attacks by getting our government’s nose out of other countries’ business. After hearing one articulate man who won’t back down in the face of browbeating from the questioners and his fellow candidates, Goler is willing to concede that this is a tougher issue than Fox had said for the previous five-plus years.
And since that May 15 set-to, Paul has kept the same message, even using a chance to try to educate John McCain about the difference between advocacy of isolationism, which McCain accused him of, and advocacy of a non-interventionist foreign policy.
At the same time, Ron Paul has emphasized that the U.S. government needs to practice a relatively non-interventionist policy on its own citizens, restricting itself to the small list of enumerated powers given to it by the U.S. Constitution (here and here and here, to take three examples.)
Finally, with his strong showing in the fourth quarter of 2007, raising almost $20 million, and his continued showing this quarter, he has raised over $25 million.
- Ron Paul has generated enormous excitement among the country’s youth. If you want an idea why, check this article in The New Republic’s blog by Eve Fairbanks, who was totally charmed by the manners, decency, passion, and knowledge of the young Ron Paul volunteers she met in Iowa. On a micro level, I see it at the local Ron Paul meetup in Monterey.
In Ron Paul’s speech at the end of the New Hampshire primary, he noted with glee that he had received loud cheers at the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan when he advocated abolishing the Federal Reserve Board.
And, of course, much to Sean Hannity’s dismay, Ron Paul keeps winning in the online polling (and here) after the Republican debates. In fact, his winning has become so common that most of the media either don’t report it or take the notices down very quickly when they realize that he has won yet again.
- On December 23, 2007, Tim Russert interviewed Ron Paul on "Meet the Press." Russert’s typical strategy is to dig out quotes from the interviewee and try to make him squirm as he attempts to square these quotes with his current statements. That strategy works with the typical interviewee, typically a politician who shifts with the political winds. I’ve always wondered what would happen if a guest said, in response to a question calculated to embarrass, "Yes, I said that, and here’s why." On December 23, I found out. On the first issue, getting rid of the IRS, Russert’s strategy didn’t work. Paul agreed that yes, you can’t get rid of the $1-trillion-plus individual income tax without cutting spending. So Russert turned to foreign policy. He asked Paul what he would have the U.S. government do if North Korea invaded South Korea. Paul answered that he would not have the U.S. government do anything. Then Russert asked what the U.S. government should do if Iran invaded Israel. Paul answered that that’s like asking what should happen if Iran invades Mars. Paul pointed out that with 300 nuclear weapons, Israel was fully capable of defending itself. Russert’s rare excursion into winging it didn’t work and so he went back to digging up quotes.
Russert quoted a former Paul employee named Eric Dondero, who had said that Ron Paul’s first reaction on September 11, 2001 was to complain that this would lead to even bigger government. How would Ron Paul handle this dynamite, I asked myself. I think this was his finest moment in the whole interview. He admitted that he had said it and that he had been right: witness the USA PATRIOT Act and the other violations of civil liberties. Paul quoted Randolph Bourne’s famous line that "[w]ar is the health of the state." But, said, Paul, he had been too pessimistic. The traction he was getting by talking about getting our freedoms back made him realize, he said, that there’s still a strong pro-freedom movement in America.
Russert looked totally nonplussed. He couldn’t get Paul to evade, and Paul actually defended his keeping his head on 9/11, when most people about him were losing theirs. Russert seemed to want us to think that this person was heartless, not caring about 3,000 murder victims. But does anyone really think Ron Paul didn’t care about them? The same day that Ron Paul made his statement about the loss of freedom, President George W. Bush grinningly said that the 9/11 attacks gave us an "opportunity." Yet I don’t remember any reporter challenging him on that.