Ron Paul’s Other Problem

I missed the chance to chime in on the Ron Paul controversy during the Iowa caucuses. Congressman Paul’s unfortunate newsletters should not blind us to the deeper message of his candidacy. I find this deeper message is almost as objectionable as the various bigotries published under Paul’s name in is cheesy newsletter.

Not that one should ignore these newsletters. A surprising number of moderates and progressives find Ron Paul’s mix of views morally, politically, and politically complex. It’s not. The man is a charmingly eccentric bigoted crackpot who deserves the coolest of civilities. He’s interesting because of the many people who find him so, not because of what he actually says. That he holds the occasionally progressive issue position is really beside the point.

Much has been made of the impressive pile of racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay material that appeared under Congressman Paul’s byline in his own highly profitable newsletter. It’s depressing that people must be reminded—e.g. by Jon Chait and Kevin Drum—of some basic realities here.

Paul’s apparent bigotry and his crackpot economic views attract scorn when they lead to his principled objections to (say) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an undue infringement on individual liberty. They certainly should. Those who admire Paul’s issue positions sometimes regard these unpalatable conclusions as oddly admirable, an example of Paul’s willingness to push basic principles to their logical conclusion. Or these views are treated as a freakish and embarrassing, yet now operationally irrelevant aspect of an otherwise justified way to look at the world. Conor Friedersdorf complains, for example, that “For Critics of Libertarianism, It’s Always 1964.”

Again Jonathan Chait is right note the oddness of such arguments. Racists have long taken refuge in libertarian arguments to oppose civil rights legislation. I would add that for generations, a key, often-explicit argument against federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare was that these programs would help minorities by imposing colorblind federal policies on states and localities.

Race conservatives were right to worry. Medicare’s first, often-forgotten achievement was to integrate hospitals throughout the south. A remarkable paper by Almond and colleagues documents that Medicare markedly reduced post-neonatal mortality rates among African-American infants in places such as the Mississippi delta. Medicare pried open the doors of hitherto segregated facilities, saving the lives of striking numbers of black infants who would otherwise have died from pneumonia, dehydration, and other readily-treated ailments. That was the human reality of segregation that federal civil rights laws, and the major Great Society programs, sought to address.

Thus one confronts what might be called Paul’s other 1964 problem: His opposition to basic pillars of our modern welfare state, which are so essential to maintaining a humane society. Several of these pillars–Medicare and Medicaid principally among them–were established during 1964 and 1965 by the same people who championed civil rights legislation.

The American welfare state, on Paul’s radically libertarian account, is unjustly coercive because we are forced to pay taxes that are used to finance government services we may not support, or that simply subsidize other people. To take one example among many, Paul opposes the Americans with Disabilities Act. Regarding other matters, he opines: “The individual suffering from AIDS certainly is a victim – frequently a victim of his own lifestyle – but this same individual victimizes innocent citizens by forcing them to pay for his care.”

Consider the above FOX news clip of Congressman Paul, in which he considers the Supreme Court’s willingness to uphold the constitutionality of Social Security and Medicare as a fundamental threat to individual liberty, even somewhat analogous to an earlier court’s support for slavery.

Now consider another picture.

Yeah. That’s my wife Veronica giving her brother Vincent a shave. Oddly enough, people who perform such rituals every day are rarely Ron Paul supporters. Vincent lived until the age of 38 with his parents. He moved in with us after his mother died. He then made the transition to a nearby group home. He spends his weekdays with friends, coworkers, and staff at a sheltered workshop. He receives good medical care for various significant challenges.

Because of Social Security’s disabled adult child program, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host imperfect, sometimes costly, often essential programs, Vincent has been able to spend his adult life in relative dignity, safety, and comfort. Because of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and subsequent legislation, Vincent was able to attend public school, where he received important services. Because of those onerous class action lawsuits and the like, conditions at public and private care facilities are much better, much more community-based than they used to be.

Were it not for a host of policies that Ron Paul has consistently opposed, Vincent might well have exercised his individual liberty curled up medicated on a cot in the back ward of a gigantic state mental facility. His mother might have spent her final years going bankrupt, struggling to care for him at home or sending him away for institutional care. These comments might strike you as blogosphere hyperbole. They are not. These were common experiences across the country for hundreds of thousands of disabled people and their families well into the 1960s. In many places, inhumane policies persisted long after. Federal money and federal mandates were absolutely essential to address these concerns.

Libertarians deserve credit for noting abuses of government power and for criticizing oversteps such as the drug war. Of course, there’s nothing distinctively libertarian about these specific concerns, which are standard fare among liberal Democrats. The federal government indeed poses worrisome threats to individual liberty. Libertarians err if they presume that federal power is the only or always the most concerning of these threats. Local governments, corporations, intolerant majorities can pose equally worrisome threats, too. There’s just more to fear in this world than are dreamt of in libertarian philosophy.

There is something else, too. Each of us faces risks that would easily crush any one of us, if we were abandoned to face these risks alone. We need to take care of each other. If you don’t believe that, you don’t belong on the stage in American politics. Credible charges of racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism don’t help. In my book, these charges are almost beside the point.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.