Monday, December 26, 2011

What Ron Paul's Libertarianism Really Means

Over the next few days, and for too many days afterward, especially if he wins the Iowa caucuses, you may hear a lot about Ron Paul's crazier views. You will probably learn more about the racism in his newsletters (newsletters he now disavows, but used to brag about), his belief that there is a secret U.N. conspiracy to take over the United States, and maybe even his statement that the U.S. shouldn't have intervened to stop the holocaust. What you might not hear about are his most fundamental libertarian views. They are less dramatic, but, in a way, they are far more important, and not just because they clearly disqualify him for the presidency; so do all those other bright-hot-embers of crazy. But start paying attention to his particular breed of libertarianism, known by some within his own movement as paleolibertrianism or paleoconservatism. Here's an example that jumps out at me. Listen to what Ron Paul says about education:

Here's where the rubber meets the road: In one way, he's correct. If we're talking about natural rights, education and healthcare do not qualify. Animals in the wild do not get any public education. The government does not need to provide education in order to be preserving the basic rights of life, liberty, and property that a government must defend in order to be legitimate. But rights should not be limited in that way. Rights can also be conferred upon individuals by a society because the society recognizes these are not only in the best interest of the individual (privileges) but also in the best interest of every other individual in the society. Rights, like language, are social constructs, and we are human beings. We do not need to limit ourselves to the same list of rights protected by chieftains in caves. We can choose to do better.

Paul's example is a perfect illustration of this faulty reasoning by paleolibertarians. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he seems to be saying one of two things. Either government intervention has driven the inflation in the cost of education which now makes medical school inaccessible for "poor" people (i.e. all but the wealthiest few), and if we just got government out, the price would return to the manageable $300 a semester Paul mentions. Or he recognizes that the cost would still stay out of reach for "poor" people (just about everybody), but that the notion that an IRS agent would take away your hard-earned cash is such an unbearable injustice that it must be done away with, no matter the consequences.

Now, I don't for a minute believe that the cost of medical school would ever return to $300 a semester (or even something similar but adjusted for standard inflation) just because the government stopped giving loans. Sure, medical schools might have to close their doors, but they couldn't prepare people to be real, modern doctors for a few thousand dollars. But even if that were possible in the long run, for a period of indeterminate time (perhaps a generation?) the 99% of us who don't have the quarter million dollars medical school costs on top of the 100k a private undergraduate education costs would simply not be able to become doctors.

So, imagine Ron Paul's America: the (horror of horrors) IRS would not be able to take your tax money and give it to some poor kid who would use it, in the form of subsidized loans, to go through college and medical school and become your doctor. Yea! You've saved some money, and you haven't participated in the historic evil known as taxation. How grand. But then, when you need some surgery, you go to your local hospital and find out that there simply aren't enough doctors to keep up with the workload. Uh-oh. This isn't pleasant. Still, you have all that extra tax money you saved. Go home and enjoy that while the tumor metastasizes. But when you finally get through the waiting list, guess what? The guy who will be performing the surgery on your brain? Well, he's just not as good as you would want him to be. You see, there were ten people who could have been better, but they didn't get the necessary education because there were no federally subsidized loans to get them through school. This guy, on the other hand, had multimillionaire parents who could pay the tuition out of pocket. So you get a neurosurgeon who, in a pre-Ron Paul world, would have been the tenth best in the hospital, and now he's cutting into your brain.

Education is not a natural right, and you don't have a natural right to a decent doctor, either. But if we have the right to self-government, then that means we have the right to make choices about what we want for our own society. And if that should include creating a meritocracy capable of producing the absolute best doctors we can so that when we need them we have access to the best of the best, then we have the right to make that country for ourselves. In Ron Paul's world, a certain kind of liberty was maximized for the man on the slab in the basement. He's dead young and unnecessarily, but he wasn't forced to give money to the IRS. That is not the world you and I want to live in (and die young in).

Ron Paul, despite his most incendiary beliefs, is doing our nation a service by forcing us to have a conversation about the amount of liberty we're willing to give up in order to improve our society. This is a vital debate to have, because there is always the danger that we can go to far, or go in the wrong direction, creating a police state in order to feel safe or a control economy in order to know we'll be provided for. We should talk about how to make the best possible decisions to maximize liberty while not creating a nightmare world; all liberty and no community. But don't let any paleolibertarian or paleoconservative fool you into believing this debate is simple black and white. Don't let them tell you what the government doesn't have the right to do.

This is a democracy, or at least it should be. As long as we still have power to influence our government, we get to decide how much we want it to intrude into our lives, and how much the benefits of that intrusion outweigh the inconvenience. Our government has the rights we give it, and no more. We have the right to choose the nature of our society. All rights, even the natural ones, are rights we've had to earn back from unjust governments. They are our social constructs.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that every child has a right to a free and appropriate education, regardless of their race, disabilities, home language, or citizenship. Ron Paul can disagree with the court. That's his right, too. What Ron Paul can't do is unilaterally decide what your rights are or the government's rights are. He can tell you what he thinks they should be (and I think he should have the right to say so). But remember, when he says something isn't a right, what he's really saying is that he doesn't think our society should have that thing in abundance. So if you, like me, are in the bottom 99%, he's really saying things like education and high quality medical care shouldn't be available to you. Once you know how to read through the veil of political philosophy, he really sounds more like this guy:

No healthcare for YOU!

No education for YOU!

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