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Liberty Is Not Complicated

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01/13/2012David Gordon

This brilliant book collects 50 short essays by Ron Paul on issues that range from abortion and assassination to unions and Zionism. It is no disparate assemblage, though; rather it is unified around a central theme, the vital importance of liberty. Paul's defense of liberty and opposition to its contemporary enemies put him at odds with all establishment politicians, both Republican and Democratic.

As he puts the point with characteristic force,

For more than 100 years, the dominant views that have influenced our politicians have undermined the principles of personal liberty and private property. The tragedy is these bad policies have had strong bipartisan support. There has been no real opposition to the steady increase in the size and scope of government. Democrats are largely and openly for government expansion, and if we were to judge the Republicans by their actions and not their rhetoric, we would come to much the same conclusion about them. (p. 20)

What exactly is the liberty that Paul favors? He makes clear at the book's start what he has in mind:

Liberty means to exercise human rights in any manner a person chooses so long as it does not interfere with the exercise of the rights of others. This means, above all else, keeping government out of our lives. (p. xi)

And of course the liberties in question include property rights: a free society rests on a free-market economy.

Few if any in American politics will openly avow total opposition to liberty and property, but the mainstream approach toward these values differs entirely from Paul's. As conventional politicians see matters, liberty and property, whatever their importance, must be balanced against other values, such as social justice and security. Is it not reasonable, they say, that the rich should surrender a little of their wealth to help the destitute? Again, does not an absolutist conception of civil liberties ignore the peril of terrorism? Even if we must submit to bothersome surveillance and intrusions, is not the price worth paying if these measures reduce the dangers of a terrorist assault?

It is a principal merit of Liberty Defined to refute these all-too-common contentions. As Paul trenchantly points out, attempts to surrender a slight amount of liberty in pursuit of competing values lead rapidly to drastic incursions on freedom, if not its virtually complete curtailment.

Granting food stamps benefits to 2 percent of the population in need seems like a reasonable thing to do. But what is not realized is that though only 2 percent get undeserved benefits from the 98 percent, 100 percent of the principle of individual liberty has been sacrificed … it was only to be expected that the dependency of 2 percent would grow and spread.… Here is a good example of how a compromise can lead to chaos. The personal income tax began at 1 percent and applied only to the rich. Just look at the size of the tax code today. (pp.129–30)

Paul's contention should not be set aside as a "slippery-slope" argument. His view is not that it is logically necessary that any incursion on liberty lead on to others. Rather, his contention is twofold: people who favor balancing liberty against other values have failed to arrive at a principled limit on sacrifices of liberty; and experience with such balancing shows that it abandons freedom.

Precisely the same process of incremental surrender takes place over security. "Many Americans believe that it is necessary to sacrifice some freedom for security in order to preserve freedom in the greater sense." (p. 253) This belief has at times led to the defense of gravely immoral behavior:

In recent years, especially since 9/11, a majority of the American people have been brainwashed into believing that our national security depends on torture and that it's been effective. The fact is, our Constitution, our laws, international laws, and the code of morality all forbid it.… The old ruse is to ask what if you knew someone had vital information that, if revealed, would save American lives.… The question that supporters of torture refuse to even ask is, If one suspects that one individual out of 100 captured has crucial information, and you don't know which one it is, are you justified to torture all 100 to get that information? If we still get a yes answer in support of such torture, I'm afraid our current system of government cannot survive. (pp. 290–91)

But if we renounce, in all instances, the use of torture, do we not put our nation at risk? To the contrary, the view that security depends on the state, let alone state-mandated torture, rests on illusion. If a genuine threat to life and liberty is present, people in a free society can deal with it voluntarily: government coercion is superfluous.

In a free society, where depending on government is minimal or absent, any real crisis serves to motivate individuals, families, churches, and communities to come together and work to offset the crisis, whether it comes from natural causes … or is man-made. (p. 254)

Are threats posed by foreign nations an exception to this contention? Not at all. These alleged threats are grossly exaggerated in order to aggrandize the state's power. The so-called war on terrorism perfectly illustrates how the state uses a blown-up crisis to its own advantage:

For a little bit of reassurance — even with all the bad mistakes that contributed to the terrorist dangers — it is more likely that an American will die from being hit by lightning than from a terrorist attack. (p. 97)

With great courage for someone seeking the presidency, Paul notes that our misbegotten quest for "security" has led to America's becoming a menace to other nations.

Now many Americans can't even conceive of other countries believing the United States to be a threat. And yet, ours is the only government that will travel to far distant lands to overthrow governments, station troops, and drop bombs on people. The United States is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons against people. And we are surprised that many people in the world regard the United States as a threat? (p. 257)

The policy of American aggression unfortunately did not begin with the Bush and Obama administrations. These presidents followed in the footsteps of many eminent predecessors in office. Not least of these was Franklin Roosevelt, who spoke of "freedom from fear" but was a past master at arousing the very emotion he professed to allay, in order the better to pursue his bellicose scheming:

Roosevelt's motivation and intent [in the Four Freedoms speech] are unknown to me, but the results of his effort did not serve the cause of freedom in the United States. Within seven months of this speech, Roosevelt stopped all oil shipments to Japan, which helped lead to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All the while, Roosevelt preached a distorted view of freedom; he was maneuvering us into war. (p. 125)

In light of the campaign of contumely to which Ron Paul has of late been subjected, one turns with particular interest to his remarks on racism. He insightfully draws a connection between racism and a war-dominated foreign policy:

Wartime is an environment that breeds wicked forms of racism. This is because governments love to turn existing prejudices into hate in order to mobilize the masses.… If we hate racism, we must also hate war since it is war that has bred all these malignant types of racism.… Government-backed racism is designed to shore up government power. The idea is to stir popular opinion that should be directed against one's own government toward some evil foreign enemy. (pp. 239, 241)

Paul's struggle against American empire has won him wide notice, but he is equally famous for his campaign for sound money and a free economy. Indeed, the two battles are closely linked, since it is military Keynesianism that supports the extensive government spending that the quest for empire requires.

Military Keynesianism supported by both conservatives and liberals has led to an obscene amount of taxpayer dollars being spent, now surpassing the military spending of all other nations combined.… Military Keynesianism invites mercantilist policies. Frequently, our armies follow corporate investments around the world, and have for more than a hundred years.… There's something about military Keynesianism that I dislike even more than domestic economic Keynesianism. Too many times, I've seen how the conservative agenda of cutting government gets overtaken by this ideological attachment to unlimited military spending. (pp. 174–76)

Paul does not confine himself to criticism but has a remedy for this dire state of affairs. The government should retire altogether from economic intervention and allow the free economy to work unhindered. In particular, the government should altogether renounce its control over the money supply. His familiar rallying cry "End the Fed" is part of a larger program:

I would like to see a dollar as good as gold. I would like to see the banking system operating as it would under free enterprise, meaning no central bank. I would like to see competitive currencies emerge on the market and be permitted to thrive.… Paper money is a drug and Washington is addicted.… Washington should get out of the way and let another system built on human choice emerge spontaneously. (pp. 201–202)

Paul's entire political program rests firmly on moral principles. He movingly sums up what he believes in this way:

What moral system should government follow? The same one individuals follow. Do not steal. Do not murder. Do not bear false witness. Do not covet. Do not foster vice. If governments would merely follow the moral law that all religions recognize, we would live in a world of peace, prosperity, and freedom. The system is called classical liberalism. Liberty is not complicated. (p. 211)


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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.