Thursday, December 06, 2007

More puzzling over Ron Paul

I have received a few replies to my post on Ron Paul which I would like to respond to. One person commented the following (on Facebook):
Ron Paul is NOT an isolationist. He has been consistently non interventionist for decades. You can read it for yourself in his book, "A Foreign Policy of Freedom", a compilation of Ron Paul’s speeches on the floor of The House of Representatives which is a very prophetic read.
Isolationism is a foreign policy which combines a non-interventionist military policy and a political policy of economic nationalism (protectionism). In other words, it asserts both of the following:
Non-interventionism - Political rulers should avoid entangling alliances with other nations and avoid all wars not related to direct territorial self-defense.
Protectionism - There should be legal barriers to control trade and cultural exchange with people in other states.
A friend of mine, Charlie, wrote (in a follow up comment):
Isolationism depicts a totally autarkic nation going alone; non-intervention simply means not doing liberal intervention - i.e. not invading countries to force them to become liberal democracies. You can still make an impact on the international scene and trade freely without spreading democracy through the barrel of a gun. Paul advocates 'letters of marque' as well - basically the concept I have long advocated of declaring open house on your enemies. So instead of spending trillions of dollars occupying Iraq you simply remove protections prohibiting your citizens going and waging private war against the regime (though obviously in the process they forfeit their own protections).
I'd much rather hawks set up a charity to raise money to pay Blackwater or Sandline to go and kick the shit out of Saddam or Shwe than to tie the entire resources of the state to that purpose when large numbers of taxpayers vehemently disagree and the cost is huge and ongoing, victory vaguely defined and by no means guaranteed.
First of all, I find the intensity of support for Ron Paul from people who believe in non-interventionism a bit odd. While Paul is not a pure isolationist, it is my understanding that non-interventionists are meant to be in favour of open immigration, which Paul clearly in not.
Secondly, I think non-interventionism is a terrible idea. This has nothing to do with the War in Iraq: although I was and am in favour of that intervention, I recognise that there were valid arguments against it (unrelated to non-interventionist dogma). However had non-interventionism been applied as a general concept, it would have affected the course of the 20th century (for example) in ways that, as far as I can make out, would have been disastrous and appalling. As everyone knows the US involvement in the Great War was not directly related to "territorial self-defense," and during the Second World War the US would have been compelled to fight only in the Pacific, if it was to restrict its foreign operations to "territorial self-defense." As Lee Harris writes:
A libertarian like Buckle can recommend a policy of non-intervention in domestic politics and recommend it with a clear conscience; but a policy of non-intervention in international politics is another matter. We may persuade our own government not to intervene, but what have we achieved if other nations do not follow suit? Dean Acheson used to say: "Don't just do something—stand there." His point was that by just doing something, we often find ourselves confronted with the unexpected negative consequence of our action. Yet it is a beguiling illusion to think that by standing there and doing nothing we can manage to avoid blowback. When another party commits an act of aggression, and we take no action against it—as the English and French took no action against Hitler's march into the de-militarized Rhineland in 1935—we will inevitably find that our passivity has only served to embolden the aggressor to behave even more aggressively, which was precisely what happened in the case of Hitler.
This brings us back to Ron Paul's remark. If the inherent complexity of the world exposes any foreign policy to the risk of blowback, then it would be absurd to criticize a nation's foreign policy simply because it led to unintended negative consequences. Furthermore, such criticism would be unwarranted in direct proportion to the degree that the behavior of other players on the world stage was unpredictable and inscrutable, since any factor that increases the complexity of a system makes it more difficult to manage intelligently. Given the fact that the behavior of radical Islam is on an order of unpredictability and inscrutability that eclipses all previous geopolitical challenges that our nation has faced, it is a utopian dream to imagine that the United States, as the world's dominant power, could possibly escape blowback by any course of action it tried to pursue. We are both damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
We may agree with Ron Paul that our interventionist policy in the Middle East has led to unintended negative consequences, including even 9/11, but this admission offers us absolutely no insight into what unintended consequences his preferred policy of non-intervention would have exposed us to. It is simply a myth to believe that only interventionism yields unintended consequence, since doing nothing at all may produce the same unexpected results. If American foreign policy had followed a course of strict non-interventionism, the world would certainly be different from what it is today; but there is no obvious reason to think that it would have been better.
Letters of marque, which Charlie mentions above, are documents that have to be approved by Congress which, according to some interpretations, would allow private individuals to undertake hostilites against foreign targets while remaining "privateers," i.e. without falling under the definition of "pirates." Although the US is not a signatory to the Paris Declaration (1856) banning such practices, the US has since then abided by its principles and I believe that from an international law standpoint would be obligated to continue to do so under the rubric of customary law. Although I am convinced that the Westphalian system has some flaws (to wit, that state sovereignty and legal equality between the states should not be absolute: the sovereignty and equality of states that are undemocratic need not be accorded the same respect that democratic states rightfully enjoy) it seems to me that Charlie's proposal would establish a sort of unilateral state-sponsored anarchy in which the states that don't follow his vision would simply gain the upper hand on the international stage (potentially applying principles that conflict with what I view as superior Western values), while the US would not allow itself to mount a defence unless its territory was breached. On the other hand I agree with Charlie on the importance of democratic principles, and that war and foreign interventions should only be undertaken within such a framework. In this regard I might note that this is exactly what happened in both the US and the UK in the run up to the War in Iraq.
Whatever our disagreements on non-interventionism, however, it is another matter - monetary policy - which really makes me leery of Ron Paul's Weltanschauung. The first commenter I quoted also wrote:
Foreign policy goes hand in hand with monetary policy. The federal reserve is responsible for inflation which pays for the wars of neoconservatives and neoliberals who pursue a interventionist foreign policy and are the only ones benefiting from the military-industrial complex and central banking complex. Every one that is not part of this group of elites are the ones suffering economically and socially (civil liberties).
And Charlie wrote:
I think the most challenging, marginalising and complex part of Ron Paul's message concerns Monetarism. He is pro metal-backed money supply and wants to abolish the federal reserve system. Whilst I can see strong motivations for thinking like this and am myself quite skeptical of national monopolies on the money supply I am not intimately familiar with the details. I think perhaps the best solution is to repeal laws prohibiting use of alternate money supplies in a country - i.e. if I want to set up my own gold-backed currency and compete with the Euro or Dollar I should be able to.
I'm glad Charlie recognises that Ron Paul's vision in monetary matters is "challenging, marginalising and complex." Indeed, there are several dubious statements in the above two comments. It seems to me that foreign policy and monetary policy do not go "hand in hand" and it is certainly untrue that wars are paid for by inflation - they are paid for by taxes (and I'd like to note that the richest 5% of taxpayers - are these the "elites"? - pay 60% of income tax revenues in the US). Megan McArdle ably explains why returning to the gold standard would be a crazy idea. Additionally, although I'm not particularly against the idea of allowing alternative currencies, it doesn't seem like a particularly pressing matter to me. Why would you want to set up your own gold-backed currency? How will this improve society, and what problem are we trying to address? Megan, again, puts it best:
Ron Paul's supporters see the might of his common sense slashing through the doubletalk of the financial solons. I see a really, really smart economist responding to Ron Paul the same way you react to Cousin Mildred when she corners you after Christmas dinner to complain about the flouridation of the water supply. What Congressman Dr. Paul is saying doesn't make any particular sense; American consumers are not particularly suffering because of the decline of the dollar, the dollar is not declining because of Fed policy, and the Federal Reserve has nothing to do with a relative scarcity of oil and food, which is what is driving the CPI increases he complains about. If we were on the gold standard, oil and food would still be getting more expensive, and people on fixed incomes would still be feeling the pinch.
Finally, presumably in response to my claim that Ron Paul has "odd associations," Charlie sent me this message:
This is not anti-semitism. If some people against the state of Israel existing are somehow giving money to the Ron Paul campaign it doesn't seem much different to me from Log Cabin Republicans funding Mick Huckabee's campaign - you take any support you get, as long as there are no conditions tied to it. Obviously if a Neo-Nazi walks up to Ron Paul and offers him a million dollars then that calls him into question, but nothing like that is what has happened.
I certainly do not believe, and have not seen evidence to suggest, that Ron Paul is an anti-Semite. However his associations are odd and at times unsavoury. As far as I know no neo-Nazi has given Ron Paul a million dollars, but he has refused to return a smaller donation ($500) from Don Black of Stormfront. In addition Paul gives credence to cliches about libertarians and their belief in conspiracy theories, which is something I particularly dislike.
To conclude, for the reasons mentioned above (also see Stephen Bainbridge's excellent overview), although I agree with some of Ron Paul's policy positions, I do not support his candidacy and even on strictly libertarian grounds I think it would be disastrous for that cause.


Anonymous said...

Are you ok? It's months you haven't been around...

A. Kvetch said...

Yes I'm fine, thanks for asking. I've just been too busy and lazy to write much... but it's been my intention for a while to start posting again on a regular basis (I hope!), so check back sometime. Cheers!