What You Should Think About Ron Paul

October 26, 2007

“Once we roared like lions for liberty; now we bleat like sheep for security!”

–Norman Vincent Peale

If anyone doubts my assertions about a growing disconnect between the halls of power and the voice of the people, the Ron Paul campaign provides ample illustration of my point. Day by day, the list of media organizations and polling institutions that have implemented special provisions to cope with Ron Paul’s activist base of support grows longer. Though the Internet serves as a lens to focus this support, its raw intensity is about something much bigger than any blogging network or discussion group.

Libertarian thinking provides a valid, often insightful, perspective on governance. Honest and orthodox libertarians are at heart economic conservatives and social liberals. Yet many find themselves caught in an uncomfortable quandary. The media offers few voices that dignify libertarian narratives entirely. Wholly conservative media does address a portion of libertarian economic thought while also spinning social liberalism as hostile to “smaller government.” Faced with the choice between having no popular media validation or dealing with unprincipled purveyors of political hate, some have made the latter compromise.

Yet this does not sit squarely on the shoulders of a thoughtful libertarian. Economically, the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh set never met a high tech weapons system they didn’t like. Declaring an end to an arms race no other nation presently runs may not be top of every libertarian’s agenda, but in terms of real fiscal conservatism it is a bountiful field. There are good arguments for maintaining or even improving the funding for pay, benefits, and training of military personnel. However, the arguments for a whole new generation of high tech gizmos rest on outdated Cold War thinking. Radically reducing spending, the only approach that has any real prospect of enabling a sustained radical reduction in taxation, demands a new spending paradigm at the Pentagon.

The elders of the Republican Party, not to mention their house organs in conservative media, are deeply committed to continuity of defense planning as established with an eye toward a thriving 21st century Soviet menace. Some libertarians understand that America’s economic competitiveness is undermined by every additional expenditure on military hardware that is only trivially more effective in a modern context. Others simply despise government waste on such an epic scale.

Be it because of better relations or better historical perspective among leaders, China’s approach to prosperity has involved spending restraint on the kinds of hardware emergent from the science fiction fantasies of Cold War military planners. It is one of many nations that has been able to change with the times. Between much hype and some actual policy to improve counterterrorism and peacekeeping capabilities, there have been no voices on the political right (and few enough on the left) calling to put the non-functional missile defense project back in R&D or to slash spending on replacements for already unbeatable air superiority warplanes.

Enter Ron Paul. When he speaks of a radical rethinking of government expenditures, he isn’t just talking about the kind that actually do some good for real working Americans. He speaks credibly when claiming he is as hostile to corporate welfare as poverty relief. His agenda cuts foreign aid to support corrupt plutocrats just as much as it cuts foreign aid to support humanitarian efforts. If you really believe in hardcore fiscal conservatism, in Ron Paul you find a principled advocate making promises in earnest. Elsewhere, as history has shown again and again and again, mainstream Republicans exploit demand for fiscal conservatism only to later use their Presidencies as a means to bloat the least useful components of the public sector.

Yet the long string of disappointing economic stewardship from Republican leaders is only half the story. Real libertarians don’t much care if gay couples have access to the same body of family law that clarifies troubled situations for heterosexual couples. Real libertarians do care if the government mines databases containing information on every book you’ve ever borrowed from a library or bought with a credit card. Real libertarians don’t want to see the U.S. Senate convening to perpetuate life support for one Floridian locked into a persistent vegetative state. Real libertarians do care if new policies authorize a secret police force to conduct warrantless surveillance then extract information from criminal suspects by means resembling torture.

The false narrative of social conservatism as a call for smaller government has worn thin. Libertarians understand that institutionalized school prayer is not essential to the free practice of Christianity. Libertarians understand that a daily loyalty oath, with or without any reference to God, is not an instrument of liberation. Censorship of music and television . . . well, that’s not exactly libertarian thinking either. The louder conservative pundits become about these issues, the more uncomfortable the always-uneasy alliance between libertarians and conservatives becomes.

Again, Ron Paul serves to address a problem. At present he works from inside the proverbial system, contending for the Republican party’s Presidential nomination. Yet he does not compromise by supporting the advance of the police state or the financial sinkholes of outmoded Pentagon procurement policies. By standing in nationally televised debates, he gives voice to a group of earnest thoughtful Americans who have never previously seen their ideas resonate beyond third party efforts.

Yet the Ron Paul phenomenon is a small part of a much bigger thing. For a full generation now, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in no significant national discussion regarding a number of issues that merit much more consideration. Environmentalists, socialists, isolationists, even theocrats — there are many perspectives in this nation that are denied a voice beyond the fringe. Personally I believe an isolationist theocracy would be a truly horrible direction for the United States. Yet that does not mean I believe isolationists and theocrats should be prevented from making the best possible case for their beliefs.

If any single factor had to be cited as the foremost cause of our nation’s greatness, I would focus on political diversity. Our revolution launched a new era in human governance — an era in which new ways of thinking would rise up from the people rather than trickling down from aristocrats. The process that gives us this strength functions at its best when ideas are allowed to rise or fall based on their intrinsic merits. A bipartisan oligarchy, distilling everything down into political narratives that focus clash on a few highly divisive issues, shuts out a wealth of great political ideas.

By authentically clashing with the dominant narratives while remaining affiliated with a dominant party, Ron Paul shines a light on the general failure of the system to acknowledge real wisdom that is not also conventional wisdom. Both in terms of the growing lockout of Ron Paul’s supporters from online activities and in terms of the pundits’ “of course he can’t win” mantra, tension is building between believers in a coherent ideology of principled libertarians and believers in the contrived ideology of Bush-style political conservatism.

Personally I have no interest in closing the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, etc. In fact, I advocate new initiatives in areas like that. However, I also advocate an open civic process in which ideas about new social services must overcome opposition from believers in social service cutbacks or even pure anarcho-capitalism. One of the most sound applications of free market thinking is in the context of “a marketplace of ideas.”

John Milton’s Areopagitica contains the text, “though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” It takes more than basic freedom of speech to preserve a political process in which these free and open encounters are commonplace. That passionate support Ron Paul’s candidacy enjoys is at least as much a longing for such openness as it is a craving for tax cuts. Whether or not you agree much with the man, he gives us cause to respect the process and any principled public figure who should happen to somehow find prominence within it.

What You Should Think About Religion in Politics

October 10, 2007

. . . but it is very important for people not to be haughty in their religion, and there’s all kinds of admonitions in the Bible — haughtiness, rightfulness is a sin in itself.”

–George W. Bush

One of the most disturbing trends in modern American politics has been the legislation of morality. Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) displayed a profound lack of good sense when, faced with a concerned citizen’s question, he expressed a belief that political leaders have a duty to “legislate morality.” I believe this approach slightly misses the point of legislation and completely misses the point of the American Revolutionary War, not to mention other great American civic achievements like the Bill of Rights.

It is understandable why some people might have difficulty seeing this area as problematic. For many, a morality derived from religion is the wellspring of all that is thought to be good. For far too many of those, this includes the capacity to judge others as evil. It is unreasonable to expect all Americans, or even that minority motivated enough to participate in elections, to have a coherent philosophy informed by post-conventional moral thinking. On the other hand, for a leader of millions to lack such a useful faculty of judgment . . . is our political process really that bereft of selectivity?

Of course it is, but that is beside the point. My concern is that this nation, with its cultural foundation established by colonists intent on practicing religious beliefs at odds with life in an increasingly urbane England, should never go down the path of inflicting punishments on citizens unwilling to abide by religious strictures. Without really thinking about it, one might well believe this is an argument for legalizing murder and rape.

Of course, it is not, and that is very much the point. Legislation to ban murder and rape can be justified without any appeal to religious thought. Society as a whole is safer and more prosperous to the degree that innocent people can be protected from physical assault. Independent of any appeals to tradition or scripture or theology, there are enough strong arguments to constitute a compelling case for the criminalization of violent attacks.

When it comes to American public policy, only universal good makes sense as a touchstone for validating new laws. Of course this good need not extend across the literal universe, but it must apply to people of any faith. This includes people with no faith whatsoever. Respect for the Constitutional assurance of free religious practice provides a technical basis for upholding this standard. Respect for those victimized by predictable outcomes of legislative morality rooted in any specific faith or religious doctrine provides strong rational basis for upholding this standard.

It is not unreasonable to characterize the United States as “Christian” on a cultural level. Most of our institutions respect Christian holidays, and in most communities talk of religion implies that the subject is Christianity. However, it is both unreasonable and untrue to characterize the United States as a Christian nation in any legal sense. With painstaking care, the founders of this nation set out to establish a secular government in which a plurality of religions, in spite of disagreements in areas like virtue or sin, could co-exist in peace and harmony.

Every time a public figure drags religious convictions into a political discussion, it is (at least) a very small betrayal of our domestic tranquility. In those instances when it is not insincere pandering, it also manages to be a betrayal of reasonable civic discourse. One of our most popular Presidents, John F. Kennedy, went to great lengths during his national campaign to establish that, while he was earnest in his faith, he would never allow a religious concern to drive him to act against the best interests of this nation or its people.

Today, particularly with one of the two entrenched parties, it seems as if candidates are tripping over each other to demonstrate how quickly they would let their faith take precedence over their commitment to secular governance. While a sizable chunk of our own nation applauds some public figures’ refusal to accept the role of biological evolution in shaping the human form, the rest of the civilized world (perhaps along with the rest of our own population) looks on in stark dismay. Even if there were to be a President Huckabee, I doubt grant money would dry up for continued studies into archeology and natural history on subjects more than 10,000 years old. However, I wouldn’t expect policies from that White House to promote great strides in American biotechnology or science education either.

At this point perhaps some readers are thinking, “well, as a good Christian, I have nothing to worry about if public figures indulge in legislating their personal morality.” However, this is a much trickier matter than it seems at first glance. Just what is a Christian? By this I do not mean to indulge the sectarian invective Mit Romney has been receiving lately. Rather I want to call attention to the wandering standards of America’s most vocal Christians.

A religious movement that could be thought of as an ancestor to modern evangelical churches was at the heart of alcohol Prohibition. Though the faithful read scripture holding that the first miracle of Jesus involved transforming water to wine, the misery associated with alcohol abuse left many Americans convinced that the stuff should be banned. As enormous congregations formed around charismatic leaders, all manner of potential social movements could have emerged. What did emerge was a monstrous beast of political activism that led directly to one of the biggest and most painful failures in the history of American domestic policy.

The funny thing is, I believe most evangelical Christians no longer feel that there is anything wrong with alcohol commerce, or even with taking a glass of wine at dinner. The Bible didn’t change. In fact, personalities involved in megachurch leadership didn’t even change much. What really changed was that firebrand preachers no longer could maintain credibility while calling for tougher alcohol laws. Hindsight ended a movement that would never have picked up steam if informed by foresight.

Yet to possess that foresight, one must recognize that religious morality, even that held by a majority, is still a personal thing. If you believe God doesn’t want you to eat citrus on Tuesday, then by all means don’t eat citrus on Tuesday. At the same time, consider the consequences of a nationwide Tuesday orange and grapefruit ban. Does it do any good to people of faith who would voluntarily abide by the restriction anyway? Does it do real harm to people who believe differently and might enjoy a juicy vitamin-rich snack between meals?

In short, if any sort of taboo has a place in the lawbooks, it is because the allegedly sinful act is also a genuinely hurtful act. Organized religions tend to be pretty consistent about promoting humility. It requires a great failure of humility to believe that badges and guns have any place in compelling strangers to abide by your own church’s notions of right and wrong. The essence of maintaining order in a society of many faiths involves drawing this distinction and insuring that the personal nature of faith does not bleed into public policy.

To many, speaking of religion on the campaign trail may seem like a sign of personal virtue. In the context of a tolerant society blessed by cultural pluralism, it is quite the opposite. Exploiting the sympathies of religious voters may not be the dirtiest possible tactic, but it is an alternative to making a case for election into our secular government based on secular argumentation. It deliberately leads others astray from the political culture expressly insulated from religious doctrine by the Founding Fathers themselves. Simply put, making faith a matter of political consequence could only be pleasing to a deity that was intent on undermining crucial principles on which the United States of America was originally established. Does anyone believe God is truly against us in that way?

What You Should Think About Presidential Debates

October 1, 2007

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

–Nikita Krushchev

We Americans have a peculiarly lax notion of what constitutes political debate. It is not at all uncommon in democratic societies for heads of state to make a habit of standing before opposition leaders in public, giving spontaneous answers to the toughest questions a critic of policy could pose. This tends to introduce moments of levity or even embarrassment that some say would be best kept apart from government. On the other hand, it also tends to exclude ideas so indefensible that they certainly should be kept apart from government.

As far from that level of public accountability as we may be, our culture celebrates democratic traditions. Debates as we conduct them still serve some purpose. Among other things, they are vital window dressing to keep low-level political insiders confident that the results of elections are an expression of popular will more than an outcome of power brokers’ whims. In a manner that seems less significant with each passing cycle, Presidential debates also stir up discussion throughout the nation. In times past, fairly specific points of policy might be addressed in detail. Even today, sloganeering and optimistic vagueness still expose substantial audiences to unfamiliar facets of the candidates.

In fact, 2007 has brought us an unusual phenomenon in that both entrenched parties promote many televised debates as part of their own candidate selection processes. Large fields mean that individual candidates only enjoy a few minutes of speaking time at each event, but as a whole they constitute tremendous free air time for the dominant political parties. Well, “free” may be a misnomer, because maintaining media interest involves allowing a few intriguing questions into the mix of softballs and cliches.

In the end though, I suspect more people develop the illusion of understanding than any actual understanding from this process. Take variations in foreign policy practices advocated by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When confronted with a question about the use of nuclear weapons in counterterrorist operations, Sen. Clinton’s answer was profoundly irresponsible, woefully misinformed, and theoretically the cause of historic catastrophe. By contrast, Sen. Obama responded as anyone with a working knowledge of modern munitions should — that conventional weapons are already more than up to to the task of neutralizing any terrorist target that might also be destroyed by a nuclear strike.

To say that “nuclear weapons should never be taken off the table” is either a pointless bluff or a sign of ignorance about the enormous downside of detonating nuclear weapons in the Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, America is a superpower, and we do well to face or even embrace that fact. However, threatening suicidal terrorists with what they would regard as martyrdom, in this case with the especially grand gesture of producing a radioactive wasteland at the site of the event, seems like a flawed approach (to say the least.) Implying that there is a “table” to sit at with terrorists is itself a little awkward, but legitimizing the “do what we say or else we’ll nuke you!” posture is downright absurd.

What happened the day after both candidates expressed their views? Infotainment hacks came to the consensus that Sen. Obama’s inexperience was showing while Sen. Clinton demonstrated the kind of superior judgment she gets from . . . from . . . well, from sleeping with a working President, I suppose. Yet that is a bizarro version of what actually happened. Sen. Clinton, apparently fearful of being branded as unwise by the same media airheads legitimizing this President’s nuclear “bunker buster” initiative, decided that she too had to be cuckoo for nuke-o-puffs.

Most people who would describe themselves as “wonks” would have no trouble following the facts and dismissing that quirk of the process as trivial. Yet still Sen. Obama struggles with perceptions of inexperience and still Sen. Clinton rests on popular exaggerations of her expertise. No doubt both are educated thoughtful people. However, while campaigning to become the President of the United States, one of them refused to rule out a military option that anyone at least moderately versed in real life weapons of mass destruction would not hesitate to dismiss out of hand . . . and the next day she gained ground because of it!

The issue of meeting with heads of government from unfriendly states is less clearcut. Still, the debates wound up promoting public misunderstandings. I disagree with Sen. Clinton’s position that summits with nations like Iran or North Korea should never occur but that the other party makes major concessions simply for the chance to meet with an American President. However, public figures willing to endorse her opinion include plenty of respectable informed experts (unlike the “nuking terrorist camps isn’t a bad idea” set.) This is an area where the nation would benefit from a healthy and deep clash of ideas.

Instead that too wound up being “scored” by vapid media analysts as some sort of win for Sen. Clinton and another indicator of Sen. Obama’s inexperience. There are also plenty of experienced credible experts supporting Sen. Obama’s approach of preserving the option for unconditional summit diplomacy when dealing with troublesome states. If our democracy was truly thriving, then it seems like this would have been the subject of avid discussions from coast to coast. Insofar as it did receive any follow-up discussion, that tended to occur in passing while pundits reviewed the most recent debate as a whole.

Dwelling on the disagreements between the two leading Democratic candidates merely provides a case study in a broader phenomenon. Modern Presidential debates seem to do more to promote the perception of an open popular process than they do to promote the reality of an open popular process. People who are actively averse to informative political media will tune in to these spectacles, perhaps listen to a little analysis as well, and come away with a sense of satisfaction for having performed their civic duty to be well-informed. Admittedly, there are plenty of voters even less informed. Yet that is no justification for celebrating the existing process as if it did justice to the values and aspirations on which this nation was founded.

So, what should you think about Presidential debates? If you like political theater, then by all means you should assemble some snacks and enjoy the show. Even if everyone maintains his or her public persona for the duration, there are bound to be a few moments of interest. Then there are those rare instances where facades crumble and something resembling real human interaction takes place. Given the trend away from the give and take of “real” debate and toward a parade of simple questions with brief answers, neither ideas nor personalities clash much anymore. Yet the potential for an authentic exchange has yet to fall to zero.

One thing you should not think about Presidential debates is that they are an effective alternative to following the issues and the candidates over the long haul. Governing a huge modern nation is about as complex as any activity could be. A quick glimpse at something relevant can add to understanding, but by itself it does not constitute understanding. If you have strong stances of your own on pressing issues, then you have a solid beginning in the hunt for insight into the best use of your vote. If not . . . well, keep checking here, and perhaps you’ll find out a great deal more about what you should think.