Sunday, October 16, 2011

Debating with Ron Paul

No, I don't get the pleasure of debating Dr. Paul, but I do get to debate a few of his (always) avid supporters. Here are a few observations:
  • They assert that life would be better without the federal oversight, but they never provide any data to back up the contention. Their belief is based on a faith and hope, not data. This isn't unusual in politics, but Paul supporters tend to think of themselves as more intelligent, so pointing this out galls them.
  • Since they don't have an answer when you point out that their politics are based on faith, they don't come back with any answer. The conversation is over. They probably move on to someone who won't ask any hard questions.
  • There's a strong strain of nostalgia for times before the federal government got so large (either before the first federal income tax, before the New Deal, or before Teddy Roosevelt). I definitely have sympathy for this longing for a time when a brave person or family could go to the frontier and homestead without farming regulations, water regulations, estimated tax payments, housing standards, gun permits and waiting periods, etc. But getting rid of government won't bring back that period. We'd still be the more crowded country we are now.
Maybe this is the vision that draws such fierce support to Ron Paul--you wouldn't have various governments or other entities telling you what you have to do. You can drink raw milk. You can sell raw milk without being closed down. There's something good there. But how can we enable the good without opening the door to the ruinously bad?

Maybe you don't try to prevent the bad. You accept both the good and the bad that freedom and liberty bring. Maybe Ron Paul supporters shouldn't say it would be much better under these policies (more accurately, lack of policies), but it would be freer. That isn't the choice our society made before, but it's worth looking at our decisions again.

Coming to your street soon...

Update 10/19/11. Here's a highlight from the comments. Nick points out that that personal autonomy (ie., freedom) is the fundamental ideal for Paul. That prompted me to see him as a fundamentalist, which means he won't make decisions on a rationalist basis. He's also somewhat utopian, believing (or proclaiming) that a return to his view of constitutionalism will cure many of the problems in this country. In either case, he never acknowledges the possible drawbacks to his policies. Reality isn't allowed to impinge on his ideal world. It's really quite bizarre--how he'll call out the failures of others, but never think he or his firm beliefs could lead to any failures.


Nick said...

Aren't you going a little too easy on Ron Paul in the last paragraph? To begin with, the article in the link refers to three policies, prostitution, illegal drugs, and euthanasia, that are probably not ruinously bad. Prostitution and drugs are probably worsened by current legislation, e.g. because prostitution is illegal, prostitutes are particularly vulnerable (especially to violence) and there is no way to check them for STDs, etc. which gives superficial support to the libertarian position. However, no legislation is also horrible: not checking prostitutes for STDs is a bad policy.

Moreover, in the interview, after arguing we should cut back the military (which, given the obscene amount of money we spend on it is the only reasonable position), he also labels the departments of education, agriculture, and energy as inessential. If you are a libertarian who believes the government should only be used to protect people either from criminals or hostile armies, that is so. But that, as you suggest in your first point, is unrealistic. A government should be involved in more. For instance, in a democracy public education is vital to educate citizens and expose them to different idea and people (I tolerate, but generally do not approve of home schooling or private schools since most seem to be aimed only at indoctrination and are considerably less open-minded than the supposedly dogmatic public school system; sort of like how Republicans complain of a liberal media bias and then support Fox).

And that is not even getting into how new dangers, like global warming or multi-national corporations, require a larger government, or how the idea of independent, autonomous agents freely entering into every obligation is risible (e.g. you are morally obliged to take care of your parents when they are sick).

Finally, I suspect the historical point about settlers unencumbered by the government is false but will admit this is only a theory of mine. The reason state-rights were doomed in America is because we acquired territories that were governed by the Federal government (e.g. Northwest Ordinances). Thus the Federal government naturally increased in power and the primary loyalty of most men in the territories was to the United States and not to their newly-created individual state (as shown by the impressive prominence of westerners like Lincoln and Grant on the Union side).

And apologies for the long comment. I think of libertarianism as an extreme form of liberalism (as in Mill or Locke) and very much dislike it.

ModeratePoli said...

Like some of my other posts, I start writing about an issue and don't end up at the expected place. In this case, the expectation is that libertarianism doesn't hold up. But along the way, I might have found more of the heart of the argument--that we should have more freedom. I want to give that idea due consideration.

Ron Paul makes an interesting point about raw milk. Why should it be illegal, now and forever?

I don't really think this country wants to go the route Ron Paul suggests, but I wouldn't be surprised if a majority would like to see government bureaucracy and regulation undergo a major review with an eye to pare both back substantially. We would save on government expenses, and we might reverse some regulation that is of questionable value.

Nick said...

I'll admit I think the libertarian idea of freedom is illusory and deeply mistaken so I react poorly to even the hint of them (though to be fair, I also like them because they are clear, straightforward, and by being so mistaken can help point to a more accurate political theory; kind of like Peter Singer in moral philosophy).

As for excessive regulations, I think they generally seem excessive because we do not understand them. This site gives an interesting, and I presume accurate, account of the history of milk laws (and for the record, raw milk is obtainable; though raw milk cannot be shipped across state lines, overall it is done on a state-to-state basis; I grew up near a diary that sold raw milk, though I never really liked it). Milk laws are a reasonable way of ensuring that most cheap milk is safe milk. Obviously this was just an interview and perhaps Ron Paul knew about that but did not have the time to expand. Unfortunately, most people do not know about milk laws and their history, which makes those laws seem absurd, much like when Republicans mock scientific research by taking it out of context (e.g. shrimps on treadmills). And therefore reasonable laws (like milk ones) can seem onerous and pointless.

No doubt there are excessive regulations, and they should certainly be found and changed. Perhaps milk laws are such laws (though I doubt it). But I do not think libertarians qua libertarians will be able to distinguish excessive from reasonable laws because they have a mistaken idea of government and an ignorance of history.

(Also, I may have mentioned this on Ta-Nehisi's blog, but I mostly comment when I disagree with something since then I feel I have something to contribute other than "right on!")

(And an amusing article on underground milk culture in NYC. Certainly such things should be permissible, but they should also ensure that raw milk is at least the same price as pasteurized milk [unless it turns out to be very unhealthy as it once was])

ModeratePoli said...

I have a few more thoughts on libertarian ideals.

1. I should be able to make decisions that affect only me without getting permission from an overly concerned government. This ideal makes sense to me because it acknowledges my autonomy.

2. On the other hand, we know that there are many dangers that few people would choose, and we'd like to use our collection power to prevent them. This is also quite reasonable.

These ideals will come into conflict sometimes, but not that often. I don't know that I'd always choose one ideal as more important than the other, so the degree and likelihood of the danger are going to be big factors in my judgment. But I don't want to forget about freedom and autonomy, because I hold them them dear. I liked your links on the raw milk debate. They are good illustrations of the choices we have to make.

Nick said...

We probably differ more in emphasis than belief since I agree with both points, which are nicely stated. However, I do not think libertarians would agree with either one.

That they would disagree with the second point is obvious. They want a minimum state that will only prevent violent harm, hence Rand Paul's claim that the Civil Right Act was unjust.

However, they disagree with the first point because they have a different idea of autonomy. For them, autonomy is not just setting rules for oneself. It is also the only source of moral obligation. If someone does not agree to a rule than it is immoral to make them (by any means, though they unduly stress physical coercion) follow it. That is clearly false, as seen by the obligations one has to one's family members. Where we would like to balance autonomy with laws that prevent harm, etc. even if they violate some people's autonomy, they would like to only have autonomy.

Perhaps another way of showing the difference is one reason I think people should make decisions for themselves is because they know their situation better than anyone else. That, however, can be overridden by numerous considerations, most obviously if your decision will harm others though self-harm is another reason (e.g. seat-belt laws).

Libertarians believe autonomy is non-negotiable. It is a natural right. It cannot be overridden no matter what the consequences. To treat it as one value among many is to be greatly mistaken.

Admittedly, my view of libertarianism has been influenced by reading about Nozick and his view of libertarianism (Anarchy, State, and Utopia is on my to-read pile). But despite some libertarians claims to support state rights or a more Hayekian approach (at least in The Road to Serfdom) where individuals know best, I think the libertarian argument is fundamentally a moral one like what I outlined above.

And as a final aside, I do think government does more than just limit risks. Nations have projects, and currently scientific research is, or ought to be, one of them regardless of the immediate (or long-term) benefits. Not everyone supports money going to science, but I do not think that is an argument against the government funding it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with two of your three observations about the followers of Ron Paul. It certainly is an article of faith for them that unrestrained capitalism will result in a better life for everyone, rather than a conclusion based on actual historical and economic data. Their view is certainly based in an ahistorical nostalgia for a past that actually never existed. There were different sorts of regulations in the past, enforced different ways, and a lot of them were a whole lot more intrusive and less beneficial than what we've got today. Jim Crow laws are a prime example. Not to mention the social customs that had the strength of law and were enforced by public authorities. However, it has not been my experience that the "anarcho-capitalists" (maybe Ron Paul is not quite that extreme, but some of his staffers and many of his followers are) shut up and move on when challenged. My experience is that they get verbally abusive, accusing challengers of being stupid, "socialist" (they have no clue what socialism actually is), brainwashed by liberal media, and some other terms that ought not be repeated, even in a blog that permits occasional profanity.

ModeratePoli said...

@Nick, I agree with your point that libertarians hold autonomy as the fundamental value. I guess that makes them a type of fundamentalist, who are always a bit tricky to deal with.

I'm afraid your mentions of various texts are lost on me. It's not the type of reading matter I would choose or have ever read. All my knowledge of political science is gleaned from observation and research on the web. Certainly you should keep referring to the texts for yourself or other readers, but I'll miss the significance of them.

ModeratePoli said...

@Anon 4:49,
I don't argue in person with Ron Paul supporters, nor do I trade back and forth with them on comment thread. On my own Ron Paul posts, none have returned when challenged very specifically about environmental enforcement.

I did have one screamer who left a profanity-laden comment, so I deleted it, and the next one after that. It felt satisfying, having such godlike power, I must say.

I have some rules for myself--I'll listen to reason and to heartfelt messages, but not to diatribes or insults. I don't like to waste my time.

Anonymous said...


I happened to see Ron Paul this AM on CNBC and was shaking my head as he went from one logical fallacy to another to support his positions. Cart-before-the-horse is his go-to fallacy, blaming government bureacracies for creating the problems they were initiated to try to resolve.

Education in this country is "terrible" (paraphrasing) so we should eliminate the Dept. of Education!! Never mind that most of that bureaucracy is designed to police distribution and appropriate use of funds authorized by Congress. He doesn't seem to be concerned at all that the loss of the federal money would hamstring many school districts -- usually poorer ones -- leaving them even more unable to fulfill their mission.

So the "market-based" approach of Ron Paul and his followers would allow those schools and their children to fail. So what, right? We get to save the money. Until those kids without a decent education grow up and cost many times more to take care of either on welfare or in prisons. Oh yeah! Right! The problems don't go away by ignoring them.

THe same fallacy applies to his hatred of the billions we spent overseas. Of course, much of that is to avoid even worse problems like wars, infectious diseases, famine, and so forth. Again, the problems don't go away by eliminating the bureacracies designed to address those problems.

The stunning unseriousness of Ron Paul is disappointing in many ways. It's as if his intelligently questioning his own firmly held "beliefs" would lead to personal destruction of his whole world, so he doesn't bother. Anyone so totally convince of their own infallibility is not a good role model for political positions or discourse.

Ron Paul, and his followers, should aggressively cross-examine their own positions -- particularly in valuing community actions at nothing -- before they pat themselves on the back for supposedly high-minded positions.

Anonymous said...

"Education in this country is "terrible" (paraphrasing) so we should eliminate the Dept. of Education!! Never mind that most of that bureaucracy is designed to police distribution and appropriate use of funds authorized by Congress."

Do you work in education? I have for the past 11 years. Before Ron Paul talked about ending the DOA, teachers did. Strange? Not at all. Just look at how similar public schools are to public prisons. These are processing plants with an archaic industrial revolution model. The very nature of our current public school model funnels children away from creative analytic thinking and towards A,B,C, or D.
I could go on, but the point is that non of these departments should sit easy on their throne because of simplistic "ahistorical nostalgia". to many Americans, these Departments seem like Government funded monopolies. Can you blame them? Is it wrong to want to threaten them with being shut down due to their sub-par performance?

As for the author of this blog, I thank you for actually engaging the thoughts of RP supporters. I can't imagine a better soul to lead such debates. They should think about the real implications/risks of true freedom.

ModeratePoli said...

@anon 6:19 I'm glad you find this a good place to discuss your views, but I'm not a person who's going to lead discussions of Ron Paul's policies because I'm not a supporter and will never be a supporter.

Ron Paul has some good ideas, but he doesn't seem to know the difference between his good ideas and his horrible ideas. Case in point, anti-pollution enforcement as discussed in these comments.

A supporter who knows the positions well with their advantages and disadvantages needs to make that argument. Please feel free to do so here.

Anonymous said...

Because some people are taking Ron Paul's candidacy seriously, I thought it just "due diligence" to do a little digging into his positions as he enunciated them in the past--not 2 years ago, but 20years ago and more. It's not so easy, because his publications, including the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and Dr. Ron Paul's Freedom Report, turn out to be pretty hard to find. I don't like to depend upon other people's readings of such things. However, I find it troubling when authors whose political views span the spectrum from libertarian to conservative to Christian to liberal all point to statements that appeared under Paul's name that are overtly racist and generally dismissive of people who aren't white and male and libertarian.
Maybe Ron Paul has remade himself and no longer holds the views he enunciated in the past. But absent compelling evidence, we need to assume that his views are still the same, and all that has changed is the tenor of his language.

Anonymous said...

@ ModeratePoli from Anon 6:19

Of course, I'm not inferring that you are somehow "convertible" to Ron Paul's views. I simply see that you are at least using your brain to voice counterposing views. Some people are just contrarian asses that take advantage of the exuberance of his supporters for their own entertainment. They're as exhausting as their long winded label.

Giovanni said...

Have you made an honest attempt at discovering answers to your own questions?

'By increasing private property rights, libertarians would ensure a cleaner environment than we have now. Federal agencies like the EPA should be abolished. The free market offers quicker, more effective ways to clean the environment and more efficient and effective technologies.'

'Energy subsidies and regulation stifle innovation in both energy production and environmental protection. These illegitimate bureaucracies arbitrarily impose rules and regulations in order to solidify power. In doing so, they drive up costs and reduce technological innovation that benefits regular people.'
-Environment and Energy (

In a libertarian society, the law is focused on protecting property rights of individuals instead of funding large bureaucracies and regulations that may or may not be written by the biggest corporate polluters.

Libertarians believe in the sovereignty of the individual, thus by extension their just choices and justly acquired property. Poisoning someone's body or polluting someone's property is a violation of the libertarian principle of the non-initiation of force.

This means that under a libertarian society, all acts of coercion, fraud or violence are criminal acts that should be dealt with vigilantly by government.

We can be in honest disagreement on what best protects the environment, but in no way does libertarianism propose the idea that everything will magically fall into place.

Giovanni said...


I respectfully challenge you to explain how Ron Paul's alleged irrationality prevented him from predicting the recession and housing collapse, his refusal to support the Patriot Act, TARP Bailouts, the Drug War or the war in Iraq. In what way do these admirable positions and wisdom inspire you to label these positions as irrational?

Giovanni said...

"It certainly is an article of faith for them that unrestrained capitalism will result in a better life for everyone, rather than a conclusion based on actual historical and economic data. Their view is certainly based in an ahistorical nostalgia for a past that actually never existed."

That depends on what you mean by 'unrestrained'. Libertarians believe the government has a just role in protecting the individual from fraud, coercion or violence. This applies to the market place. Corporations going overseas, violating human rights to sell cheaper products to unemployed people in the United States is not free enterprise, it is corporatism (Fascism). This is true because in order for this kind of criminal act to continue, the government needs to step aside from it's just role of protecting individuals from the aggression of others, a role that all libertarians agree with.

You may cite some or many libertarians in disagreement with this, but they are then by definition not libertarians just as a Christian who supports rendition or preemptive war is also not a Christian, no matter what they say.

For libertarians, unrestrained capitalism means that anyone who makes a living, be it an individual or groups of individuals can do whatever they want but that the government should step in to protect people from the initiation of force (dumping toxic waste onto someone's property).

We can disagree with things and we will but you can't keep saying that libertarians believe that the government has no role at all in the economy because it isn't true.

ModeratePoli said...

@Giovanni asks me: "Have you made an honest attempt at discovering answers to your own questions?"

First, I demonstrate the attempts I've made, so I have certainly researched, but I remain very far from convinced for reasons that I state. See what I've written in the comments of this post.

Second, since I demonstrate an understanding of his policies, it should be obvious I've researched them. It seems to me that you have trouble believing anyone would reject his policies after seriously considering them. I can assure you that there are intelligent reasons not to agree with Ron Paul.

Now it's time for you to research those reasons. I suggest typing "why ron paul is wrong" into Google and read the least screechy links. To get into the correct frame of mind (open, not defensive), read this post.

Charlie said...

I agree with Dr. Paul on many issues, and I support him for President. But the reason his arguments appear based more on faith instead of facts depends on his philosophical outlook.

There are two main types of libertarians. The first are philosophical libertarians who derive arguments from first principles. Then, there are consequentialist libertarians who base their arguments on evidence. I am a consequentialist, so I just go with facts and data. I find this is a better way to argue rather than play word games all day.

I come to many of the same conclusions as Dr. Paul based on observation and evidence. For instance, you can compare the results of the drug policy of the USA with Portugal or Prohibition to come to the conclusion that legalization will yield a better result than what we have currently. Some libertarians will argue about non-aggression and the right to smoke dope and all that. I just point out that the purpose of drugs being illegal is to protect people from drugs, yet how is someone better off being incarcerated and subjected to assault and anal rape? And how effective is the policy when those same drugs circulate in the prison system? Drug prohibition hurts more than it helps, and it has never worked in reducing drug use. At this point, the drug warriors are arguing according to faith instead of facts.

Nick said...


At no time did I mention TARP bailouts, the Drug War, or the War in Iraq. ModeratePoli restates my position as claiming that Ron Paul is a fundamentalist who does not make decisions on a rationalist basis. That is not how I would express it, but I don't see any reason to disagree. So I will stand by the claim that Ron Paul is an irrational fundamentalist, but ignore your reference to his policies. Though largely restating what I have already written, this is why I think Ron Paul and all libertarians are irrational fundamentalists.

Libertarians are fundamentalists because they take certain natural rights and individuals as fundamental, e.g. "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). [Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. ix] The platform of the Libertarian Party largely agrees with Nozick. What I want to stress is that ultimately libertarians are not libertarians for consequentalist reasons (e.g. big government keeps people poor), but because of natural rights (e.g. government is coercive even if it does good, e.g. the Civil Rights Act). I largely believe libertarian policies, such as no drug laws, are reasonable deductions from those fundamentals. However, deduction is not rationality.

Rationality requires defeasible reasoning, where one is open to the possibility that one's premises are mistaken or incomplete (read about non-monotonic logics for how incomplete premises can lead to mistaken conclusions). Fundamentalists refuse to challenge their fundamentals and therefore can only (consistently) engage in deductive reasoning.

There are of course moral and political views that make room for defeasible reasoning, e.g. Rawls' reflective equilibrium. Libertarianism, being fundamentalist, is not one of them.

That said, I think the main objection to libertarianism is that it is simply wrong. Humans are dependent on one another; we are not autonomous. There are no such things as unconditioned (as opposed to prima facie natural rights, let alone the extremely limited natural rights that libertarians believe in. And generally when libertarians, despite themselves, engage in consequentialist reasoning (such as the Libertarian Party's platform on the environment or education) they are rather naive and silly.

As for how libertarians can be correct on some issues: a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Note: I see Charlie just posted and makes some of the same points I do, though obviously he would differ about the silliness of consequentialist libertarians. In that case, libertarianism becomes less of a moral or philosophical issue, and more of a (misguided :P) policy issue.

ModeratePoli said...

@Nick and Giovanni

First, I need to clarify that:
Nick pointed out that autonomy is fundamental to Ron Paul.
I (ModeratePoli) pointed out that makes him a fundamentalist and not a rationalist.

So I need to defend what I said too. Paul doesn't acknowledge potential problems with going back to a narrower scope of government. He was pretty flummoxed at debate with Wolf Blitzer about how to handle the 30-year-old who needs intensive care. Paul seemed to think charity care was enough of an answer. The irrationality is in refusing to see how big some of these concerns are. I hope I'm being clear enough in this explanation.

As to your argument that his prediction of X, Y, and Z indicate that he isn't irrational, predicting the housing bust didn't take much acumen. Most people, including me, knew the inflation of house prices couldn't go on forever. So being right on that one is no superhuman skill. It's a pretty weak argument, but the whole idea that some correct choices mean that someone is ALWAYS rational is also weak.