An odd kind of freedom

Ron Paul, that cult-favourite Libertarian is now little more than a quirky footnote to the 2012 American presidential race. For a while, back in January, Paul’s campaign seemed promising after winning third place in the Iowa Caucus then second in New Hampshire. But then Santorum dropped out, Gingrich abandoned the race, and Paul is hanging in there only technically having quit active campaigning. The race is decided and Romney’s place on the GOP ticket is fixed. Despite his impending defeat, Paul’s campaign has made perhaps more waves in recent GOP thinking than anyone else. For a time, Paul was nothing short of a phenomenon, inspiring a kind of messianic frenzy – US economist and commentator Paul Krugman claimed during Paul’s peak that “his economic doctrine has, in effect, become the official GOP line”. These days however, Paul trudges on with no hopes of election, in a bid to get his voice heard at the Republican convention, still espousing that favourite word from both sides of the political divide – “freedom”. Freedom is a concept that appeals with good justification and it is easy to see why the line of reasoning freedom = good, more freedom = better leads to libertarian leanings.

In American politics however, it can sometimes get a little tricky trying to keep up with the secret code, universally accepted amongst professional politicians, the public and the media, that seems utterly at odds with our own political lexicon. In a country where, “communist” means moderate socialist, “liberal” is used to mean “left-leaning” and “conservative” means economically liberal, perhaps we need to reflect a little deeper on what “libertarian” might truly be saying.

Not all of Paul’s policies are specifically libertarian, such as his largely discredited belief in a return to the gold standard (Krugman commented “Unfortunately, Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology’s wrongness”). His libertarianism however seems to consist of two essential strands – the first is a massive reduction in central, federal power, and the second is the transfer of this authority to the level of states. Paul’s rhetoric seems agreeable enough to begin with, until we start properly listening. His is a platform that has won a strong and extremely loyal following, primarily among the fringes of the Republican party, but also amongst Democrats, disillusioned with Obama, disgusted by most of the Republican party and sympathetic to a more hands-off form of government. Paul has, to quote Forbes, “captured the imagination of young people” and “built a movement”. He wants to end the federal war on drugs. Great we think. He wants to remove federal influence over sexuality, marriage and abortion. Wonderful. But the key word there is federal – Paul does not promote the decriminalisation of drugs nor the legality of gay marriage, he simply wants Washington to stop talking about it. In 2007, discussing US drug policy, he argued that he wanted “the federal war on drugs to stop” – so far so good – “and that states would take care of it”. Oh.

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You don’t need an AS-level in political philosophy to understand the concept of a tyranny of the majority – when you give a group of people a choice over how best to govern themselves, then take the majority vote as a binding answer, this mass of people will rise up into a juggernaut crushing all those minorities voices and groups that stand in their way. When this majority has some kind of collective personality flaw or moral failing, ie racism, homophobia, extreme moralistic religiosity, a large and vulnerable minority stand to get very hurt indeed. According to Paul’s vision, powers such as the regulation of drugs, abortion, the legalisation of same-sex marriage and indeed the criminalisation of homosexual sex could be handed over to states. Yet many states have extremely diverse views on these matters, and despite some basic rights protection offered by the constitution, without the mitigating influence of centralised government control, this diversity could be reflected in the way each state treats its minorities. Let us not forget that it was only in 2003 that Texas, along with 13 other states, was forced to repeal their sodomy laws, after they were deemed unconstitutional through Lawrence vs Texas.

Discrepancy between states’ legalisation is not new of course, there already exists a degree of legal diversity across the USA according to local law; for instance gay marriage is recognised at the state level by only six states, whilst remaining illegal under federal law. Until 1984, remember, drinking ages varied from state to state. But under Paul, this strange form of inequality would be widely extended.

Freedom, it seems to me, means freedom for all citizens regardless of their location or local opinion. And the best way to guarantee these freedoms come from their rigid imposition and protection from a strong, central government. Moreover, libertarianism means complete freedom for individuals, protected from official power, rather than the complete freedom of smaller states to micro-regulate the lives of their citizens. To guarantee gay marriage for instance, it is not enough for Federal government to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, it must instead re-legislate, guaranteeing the legitimacy of the union across the Union. Paul aims to get government out of private lives, yet strangely wants states – more easily influenced and determined by the less morally acceptable and more religiously zealous of their citizens – to get into them.

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Libertarianism is a seductive ideal, and yet Paul seems to butcher it. An America under Paul’s form of extreme negative freedom would not be a country in which all citizens could act as they wished. Rather it would be a divided country in which what is taken as an obvious right in Vermont would be considered an abomination in Texas, or where freely buying a legal drug product in New York could get you jail time in Alabama. It would be a country in which illiberal states were free to pursue their illiberal agendas, arbitrarily persecuting their minority citizens whilst federal government stood by. This, surely, is as far from an ideal of personal freedom as one could imagine. Paul’s campaign has been pernicious and slippery, masquerading dangerous conservative policies behind liberal rhetoric (by contrast with the other candidates who wore their dangerous conservative policies like a badge of honour). There is no doubt now that Mitt Romney will be the republican contender for the November election, so let us be grateful that Paul will not have the chance to put any of his policies into place.