Over the course of his political career, Texas congressman and presidential hopeful Ron Paul has taken a number of positions that could lead a savvy observer to conclude that he is a libertarian. He has consistently voted to eliminate the social safety net for the poorest and supports eliminating the Federal Reserve, Environmental Protection Agency and five cabinet departments.
But Paul is not a libertarian — or at least not in a meaningful sense that connotes a set of consistent ideologies and values. Libertarians advocate individual liberty and freedom, which they believe is best achieved by limited government. The power to tyrannize and oppress, libertarians argue, is one that should not exist in the hands of the state.
Paul advocates for a small federal government, but it would be wrong to conflate his position with that of the libertarian. The truth is that he would accept a government of broad and expansive powers, so long as it is a state government. While Paul would not vote for environmental regulations or an individual health mandate on a federal level, he believes that states have every right to enact such measures themselves.
Nowhere is Paul’s hypocrisy more evident than in his sponsorship of the We the People Act, which would prevent the Supreme Court and all federal courts from adjudicating claims based on to the right to privacy with regard to issues of “sexual practices, orientation or reproduction,” or on equal protection of the law with regard to the right of homosexuals to marry.
A cursory analysis of this bill could lead one to initially conclude that it has libertarian intentions. The bill’s stated purpose is “to limit the jurisdiction of the federal courts” — and aren’t libertarians interested in smaller government? But this is an extremely shallow line of reasoning. Here’s why.
Libertarians do not dislike government in and of itself. They oppose tyranny and dislike the state to the extent that the former perpetuates the latter. But there is no sensible reason why a libertarian would oppose an exercise of state power that restrains the ability of another branch of the state to oppress the people.
So why is Paul actively pushing legislation that would allow states to oppress their gay citizens without restriction? Paul believes that the 50 states should collectively possess a monopoly on the power to tyrannize gays and lesbians. A true libertarian would believe that the level of government at which this power is housed is irrelevant — such a power should not exist at all.
Paul may not care about the liberties of homosexuals, but he is obsessed with ensuring that their persecution or enfranchisement be the exclusive prerogative of the states. Of course, from the vantage point of a homosexual experiencing state-sanctioned persecution, the knowledge that such oppression is the doing of one arbitrary unit of government rather than a different arbitrary unit of government is of cold comfort.
So if Paul is not a libertarian, is there a name for what he is?
Federalism is the division of powers between a central government and its constituent governing authorities. With regard to gay rights, Paul is concerned with the distribution of oppressive power across different levels of government, not actually with eliminating such power altogether. He is a federalist, not a libertarian. Or, if you prefer, he is an anti-federalist, a term from the early days of the republic for those who opposed the centralization of power in a strong national government. Either way, these are more apt descriptions of Paul. He’s not a libertarian for the simple reason that libertarians unconditionally advocate, well, liberty.
A libertarian cannot support the infringement of individual liberty and must support the enforcement of constitutional provisions that restrict such tyranny. Paul believes that majorities of voters in individual states may legitimately deny homosexuals certain civil rights, but he would never argue that democratic majorities may legitimately deny property rights in a similar fashion. Paul is a libertarian on economic issues, but not on matters concerning basic human equality.
But here’s the snare for Paul — you cannot coherently separate the two. Libertarianism is not a buffet from which one selfishly selects only those portions that serve one’s own ends. A vegetarian who eats hamburgers is not a vegetarian, and a libertarian who is indifferent to or supportive of the oppression of a unique class is not a libertarian. A self-serving desire to pay lower taxes, unaccompanied by a commitment to the basic rights of others, doesn’t make for a particularly compelling ideology.
So why does this matter? Paul has received enormous support from college students who identify with tenets of libertarianism while espousing decidedly un-libertarian views on an issue of enormous moral significance. He misrepresents both himself and libertarianism. Paul’s libertarianism is cheap marketing — it’s not an ideology, it’s a brand. His would-be supporters, particularly those on college campuses, deserve better.
Bradley Silverman ’13 hosts Taking Liberties, a weekly podcast focusing on news, politics, law, civil liberties and more, available on iTunes or at news.wbru.com, along with fellow Herald columnist Ian Eppler ’13.