Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why Ron Paul condemns the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln

Some of you may be asking yourselves, "Who is Ron Paul?" (you're the lucky ones) and "Why should we be interested in his idiotic opinions?" I grant that the second is a plausible question, but under the circumstances I think his views are newsworthy and merit a bit of attention.

The apparently endless campaign leading up to the 2008 US Presidential election has already thrown up a lot of odd phenomena, but one of the oddest is the candidacy of Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul. What is odd is not that he's running--anyone can do that, and he's already done it several times in the past--but that this time around he's attracting a respectable amount of favorable attention and support (on December 16 his campaign raised more than $6 million, overwhelmingly from small contributions, in a one-day fund-raising push). There is even some speculation that he might pull off a second-place showing in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

Nor is his appeal confined to a lunatic fringe of far-right Republican primary voters. Andrew Sullivan, who normally considers himself a serious political analyst, has actually endorsed him for the Republican nomination (while favoring Barack Obama on the Democratic side); the anti-Bush Republican TV blowhard Chris Matthews has declared "I love Ron Paul!"; and a surprising number of liberal and progressive types seem to find him attractive, too.

(Speaking of the lunatic fringe, the loony-left Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich even proposed running with Ron Paul on a Kucinich-Paul ticket, and [a 1/4/08 addition] here's an "anti-imperialist" endorsement of Ron Paul from CounterPunch.)

I don't think there's any real chance that Ron Paul will actually be elected President, so some of the other Republican candidates are more alarming in practical terms. But the fact that he's being taken seriously at all is perplexing and a bit depressing.

Paul does appear to be a generally sincere, principled, and ideologically consistent politician. But at the same time--let's not beat around the bush here--he's a reactionary political troglodyte and, on various important issues, a bit of a crank. (I will spell out my reasons for saying this more fully in another post soon, but this conclusion should be obvious to anyone who has taken more than a few moments to look into Paul's record or to listen closely to what he's actually saying. People who want to make their own assessment can start by looking HERE and HERE.)

So what is going through the minds of those who see Ron Paul as an appealing candidate of 'change'? OK, I can understand why some people who opposed the 2003 Iraq war might find it refreshing to hear a Republican oppose it and condemn the Bush administration's overall foreign policy (but so have other right-wing Republicans like Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak and, more sotto voce, Grover Norquist), and there's no question that Ron Paul's across-the-board anti-statism leads him to take some genuinely commendable positions. such as opposing government violations of civil liberties--or, at least, violations of civil liberties by the national government. (This aspect of his anti-statist "libertarianism" is complicated a bit by the fact that he is an anti-abortion absolutist, but I grant that there is not an inherent logical contradiction here.) What seems to be going on with a lot of people is that they selectively notice only a few of Paul's positions that they agree with, while either ignoring or being unaware of the rest, and they're attracted to the anti-establishment flavor of his campaign.

But in the process they often overlook the larger fact that Paul is a free-market fundamentalist, who would like to take us back to the most radical version of 19th-century economic liberalism, and an old-fashioned isolationist. I suspect that the real significance of Ron Paul's appeal, and the deeper problem of which it is only one symptom, is that a world-view of simplistic free-market fundamentalism and wishful isolationism has a lot of seductive resonance for many Americans--including a fair number who who might not embrace these positions in a fully explicit way. If so, then the Ron Paul boomlet helps illuminate some important underlying pathologies in American political culture.

Paul's supporters often get upset when is called an isolationist, and claim that this label is either an exaggeration or a malicious falsehood. It is neither. Yes, it's true that being opposed to military intervention abroad does not, in itself, make someone an isolationist. But Paul also wants to eliminate all foreign aid and opposes any international agreements that restrict US sovereignty in any way. Thus, just for example, he favors withdrawing from international organizations like the UN, the World Trade Organization, and NATO; he rejects any new multilateral initiatives, including US membership in the International Criminal Court or US participation in any international climate-change accords; and he appears to have fallen for the paranoid conspiratorial fantasy that NAFTA is intended as the first step toward merging the US into "an integrated North American Union" that would eventually lead to "the abolition of national sovereignty altogether." All that certainly adds up to a coherent perspective--i.e., isolationism--and it's a perspective that has played an important role in US political history. But I doubt it's one that most self-styled "progressives" really want to get behind. Based on everything that has happened in the world since the end of the 19th century, I would describe this position as unrealistic, unwise, and in some respects a bit delusional.

Yes, one has to grant that Paul seems to be sincerely pro-market and anti-statist rather than simply pro-business, as attested by his opposition to subsidies for big business and agriculture and his support for unilateral abolition of US tariffs. But how many people really think it would be a good idea to eliminate the income tax (without replacing it with anything else), abolish the Federal Reserve System, go back on the gold standard, phase out Social Security and Medicare, eviscerate environmental protection, and in general dismantle most elements of economic management and the public household built up since the 1890s? Paul's commitment to this kind of radical market utopianism is no doubt carefully considered and well-intentioned, but the historical experience of the past few centuries makes it clear than any attempt to put it seriously into practice would have catastrophic consequences.

Then there is the fact that, as Ron Paul himself puts it proudly, he has consistently "opposed all gun control schemes"--even the most basic and common-sensical, such as mandatory registration of guns and gun ownership--and appears to believe that the Second Amendment provides an absolute guarantee for individuals to own weapons of all sorts (including military-style assault rifles and other automatic weapons). I recognize that one can have sensible and legitimate disagreements about gun control policies, but such a position strikes me as a bit extreme.

(Congressman Paul also rejects the theory of evolution ... but, alas, that doesn't separate him from most of the Republican pack.)

=> As I said, I'll put off discussing most of that for another time. For the moment, let's just focus on a few of Ron Paul's more eye-opening views, which were brought to public attention by his recent TV interview with Tim Russert (a transcript is HERE, and a YouTube video that captures part of the exchange I'm about to quote from is HERE), in which he reiterated some long-held positions. Brad DeLong responded to Paul's remarks with a contemptuous "*SNORT!!*", and I agree that this is an appropriate reaction ... but maybe it's worth elaborating a bit.
MR. RUSSERT: I read a speech you gave in 2004, the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. And you said this:
Contrary to the claims of supporters of the Civil Rights Act of '64, the act did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of '64 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty....
REP. PAUL: Well, we should do, we should do this at a federal level, at a federal lunch counter it'd be OK or for the military. Just think of how the government, you know, caused all the segregation in the military until after World War II. But when it comes, Tim, you're, you're, you're not compelled in your house to invade strangers that you don't like. So it's a property rights issue. And this idea that all private property is under the domain of the federal government I think is wrong. So this--I think even Barry Goldwater opposed that bill on the same property rights position, and that--and now this thing is totally out of control. If you happen to like to smoke a cigar, you know, the federal government's going to come down and say you're not allowed to do this.... [T]he federal government's taken over property--has nothing to do with race relations. It just happens, Tim, that I get more support from black people today than any other Republican candidate, according to some statistics. And I have a great appeal to people who care about personal liberties and to those individuals who would like to get us out of wars. So it has nothing to do with racism, it has to do with the Constitution and private property rights.
Russert was quoting from a speech that Ron Paul gave in July 2004 ("The Trouble with Forced Integration") explaining his reasons for being the only Congressman to vote against a resolution honoring the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He denounced the Civil Rights Act as an unconstitutional violation of private property rights that served no useful purpose and reduced individual liberty.

Part of his argument turns on a dubious empirical claim that any reduction in racial discrimination that has occurred during the past four decades had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Act and similar legislation. And another part of his case against the Civil Rights Act is the claim that it led ineluctably to affirmative action, quotas, and other forms of positive discrimination, which he excoriates at length. But whatever one thinks about affirmative action, focusing on Paul's criticism of it would be a distraction from the main thrust of his argument, which is not an attack on affirmative action but an attack on anti-discrimination laws. With admirable candor, he makes it clear that he believes that any laws prohibiting discrimination by non-governmental agents or organizations are illegitimate in principle.

Such a position is often described by its adherents as "libertarian," but characterizing it this way--as though "libertarian" simply meant "anti-government"--strikes me as an abuse of both language and logic. The belief that laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, housing, and so on necessarily reduce individual liberty makes sense only on the basis of two highly dubious assumptions: (a) that restrictions on or threats to individual liberty come only from government (or, in some versions, only from the national government), and (b) that a pervasive structure of racist social and economic discrimination directed against blacks did not restrict their freedom unless it was also legally mandated. But the kindest thing to say about these two assumptions is that they are sociologically naive and convey a severely distorted picture of the real world. More bluntly, they are absurd and, in most cases, ideologically tendentious.

(To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I obviously agree that it makes perfect sense to be nervous about the threats to freedom from unchecked or despotic state power and, more generally, about the dangers that can stem from an excessive and unbalanced role for the state in social life. That's one factor that should concern anyone committed to freedom. But the simplistic equation that "less government" necessarily = "more freedom" is obviously wrong--unless you think it's self-evident that people are more free in, say, Afghanistan or the Congo than in Iowa.)

For the sake of argument, let's assume that Paul is being honest when he says that his position on these issues is not motivated by racism (though he does have a history of blatantly racist statements and associations with white-supremacist & anti-semitic wacko groups). That question is less important than the fact that his position is indefensible and pernicious.

=> Then Russert and Paul turn to the Civil War.
MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. "According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery."

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn't have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the--that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We'd still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn't sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.
It's always nice to see an elected official making a considered historical argument, but in fact Paul's argument here is ludicrous on both historical and logical grounds. However, my impression is that most commentaries have failed to zero in on the central point that makes it so absurd.

Let's leave aside the question of why it would be morally acceptable, from a so-called "libertarian" perspective, to reward slave-owners financially for having successfully enslaved and exploited other human beings (a point nicely addresed here). One could, hypothetically, make the pragmatic argument that ending slavery in the US through a legislative program of compensated emancipation might have been preferable to ending it through a massively bloody and destructive civil war.

But Paul's whole argument rests on the fallacious assumption that at some point these two options--of compensated emancipation or civil war--were available alternatives between which the Lincoln administration or some other US leadership could have made a choice. In the real world, the choices never presented themselves this way. Proposals for compensated emancipation were certainly floating around in the decades before the Civil War (and Lincoln even proposed it, unsuccessfully, for the border states during the war itself), but the point is that the southern slave-owning elites refused to consider it. In the case of the British Empire, once the British government had decided to end slavery, the slave-owners (in the overseas colonies) did not have the political strength to block it. Therefore, legislated abolition could be forced down their throats without the need for military conflict. In the US, the southern slaveocracy did have the political strength to block it, and they were unwilling to accept any peaceful abolition of their "peculiar institution."

How do we know this? Well, in 1860 the election of Lincoln--a candidate who had explicitly and repeatedly declared that he would not touch the institution of slavery where it already existed, but only proposed to limit its expansion to new territories--was enough the provoke them to secede from the US and form the Confederacy. Once that happened, the question of whether the US government should use compensated emancipation to end slavery in the southern states became historically irrelevant, since (as Ron Paul seems to forget) the US government headed by Lincoln no longer had any jurisdiction in the Confederate States--unless, that is, it used military force to prevent their secession.

I suppose it's hypothetically possible that, if the southern states had not seceded in 1860, then at some point in the next few decades the possibility of ending slavery through compensated emancipation might have become a realistic policy option. But in terms of the actual choices facing Lincoln and the rest of the US government in 1860, the scenario presented by Paul (and others like him) is a pure fantasy, and the question of whether a policy of ending slavery in the south by compensated emancipation might have been better than going to war had become irrelevant. The real choice, for Lincoln, was whether to accept the breakup of the Union or to go to war to preserve it. He chose the latter option and carried the country with him--though, at certain low points during the war, just barely.

(Once the war got going, as we all know, it developed its own political dynamics, as massive wars do, and it eventually resulted in an outcome that few people intended or foresaw at the beginning--the comprehensive abolition of slavery in the US. This was the ironic result of a process that the southern slave-owning elite themselves set in motion by seceding from the US in order to protect slavery.)

=> And by the way, to briefly address another canard that obfuscates many discussions of these matters, let's be clear that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery--not because ending slavery was the prime motive that led most of those on the Union side to support the war (it wasn't), but because the determination to maintain slavery was the crucial and fundamental reason why the southern states decided to secede in the first place.

Southern apologists have tried to deny this undeniable reality for a century and a half, and some people still buy the line that secession had to do primarily with the defense of states' rights and other such principles, in a manner quite unrelated to slavery. There have also been pseudo-sophisticated economic-determinist arguments, often with a Marxist or quasi-Marxist twist, claiming that the war was "really" about such issues as industrial tariffs, public investments by the national government, and the like. (Marx himself was never seduced by such obfuscations, and always described the war as having been caused by a "slaveholders' rebellion.") But in fact these arguments are bunk. (This post has already gone on long enough, so for the moment I will simply point this out rather than defending this assertion in detail.)

Yes, history is complex, and these and other issues generated all sorts of political conflicts within and between regions during the decades leading up to the Civil War. But without the overriding, explosive question of slavery, none of these issues would have broken up the Union. Furthermore, when 11 southern states did secede to form a new country, what they said about their reasons at the time (as opposed to the rationalizations that some southerners offered in retrospect) made it clear that the perceived threat to the institution of slavery was their main impetus for doing so.

One example (among many) is a famous speech that Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, gave on the eve of war in March 1861. After surveying various aspects of the new Confederate constitution, Stephens zeroed in on the key point: "African slavery," based on the natural inferiority of "the negro [....] to the white man," is "the corner-stone" of the Confederacy. And the controversy over slavery "was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." The second point, at least, is indisputable.
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.

But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. [....] Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. [....]

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.
(Links to this speech and some other relevant documents are collected in a useful post on the weblog Reason and Revelation. Another cogent evisceration of Ron Paul's historical absurdities is offered by Ari at The Edge of the American West.)

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. [1/8/2008]: Again, nothing I said above depends on whether or not Ron Paul is personally a racist. Nevertheless ... it is worth perusing a round-up of Ron Paul's history of pro-Confederate sympathies, his associations with various lunatic-fringe groups, and the steady stream of bigotry and paranoid conspiracy-mongering that appeared for decades in Ron Paul's newsletters (Paul's spokesmen now deny that he wrote any of it, though he certainly didn't dissociate himself from it) in this New Republic piece by James Kirchick.