Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Anthony Gregory on Ron Paul and foreign policy as a campaign plank

Bob Murphy brings my attention to a post by Anthony Gregory on the question of whether the handful of issues libertarians always talk about when promoting Ron Paul should be enough to earn a vote for him.

I'm not sure what Gregory feels about Nader - perhaps he's like Gene and would vote for him. I hope so - someone like that would be consistent. Unfortunately, I would wager that only a small minority of libertarians would vote for Nader on these grounds (and the ones that would would be either hard-core anarchists that have suspicions about Ron Paul in the first place, or those on the fringe of the movement).

It's an interesting read either way.

This line jumped out at me: "Ron Paul, from a genuine antiwar leftist perspective, shouldn't be considered good on 10% of the issues — but closer to 90% of the issues. Anyone who would prefer federal genocide and slavery to curbing the EPA and cutting taxes on the wealthy has some twisted priorities."

The first sentence is striking because it seems like we're talking about two different groups of people. If you're going after the "antiwar left", good luck with that - you'll probably get a fair amount of them - but that group is really, really small. People talk about how the antiwar movement hasn't been against Obama. It's bogus. The antiwar movement has been every bit as much against Obama as they were against Bush, because like Bush, Obama prosecutes wars. Code Pink has been plenty angry with him. The thing is, they haven't been able to attract as big crowds to their events because most of the people who came to the antiwar events under Bush weren't antiwar - they were anti-Bush's version of war. I went to protest events and teach-ins organized by pacifist groups, for example - but I never claimed to be a pacifist. So we have thinning crowds at these events, but that's because the actual antiwar left is fairly small. Most people left of center don't particularly like war but do not have a blanket disapproval of it. They are willing to accept a certain amount of civilian casualties as a consequence of war. They are comfortable treating prisoners of war differently than convicted criminals. They do not think there is any inherent problem in building and maintaining extremely lethal machines and training young men to use them against other young men. Or better yet - build lethal machines that don't require our young men to be put in harm's way.

But these sorts of people are not indiscriminantly comfortable with war. Not at all. We want it done in a certain way. And most of us that were in the protests in the 2000s but not as much now are not and never were antiwar. We also see a difference between Bush and Obama and Obama and Paul and think Obama's approach makes more sense than either Bush or Paul.

So if Gregory wants to convince the "genuine antiwar left", he should go for it. But I think that constituency is a lot smaller than he thinks, and a fair number of them are already positively disposed towards Paul.

Now, the second sentence of that quote is striking to me because of how condescending it is. And people say this sort of thing a lot. Paul says this sort of thing a lot. Somehow he gets treated like he's a "nice guy" but this sort of thing sounds more like "condescending asshole" than "nice guy" to me. These are big issues, though. So even though that's my reaction, I try not to be quite so blunt when I read things like this. But when you say things like that, just remember - we could shoot it right back at you and say that you're supporting slavery and genocide for not supporting judicious military engagement. That's why I'm not a pacifist, after all. Because I am opposed to slavery and genocide and I think pacifism will lead to slavery and genocide. That's what motivates me, but you don't see me calling pacifists promoters of slavery and genocide. Why don't you see me calling them that? Because I know that just because that's how I see the world, that's not how they see the world. They actually do care about slavery and genocide, and it would be wrong of me to act like they don't. Just something to keep in mind when you find yourself saying something like that. And perhaps also something to keep in mind when you scoff at those troglodyte Republicans booing Ron Paul - because Ron Paul has said stuff like that too. Maybe they're booing because they feel like Ron Paul has a history of being condescending to them.


  1. I think the idea that the "antiwar left" should only have one priority and then vote for a guy who would be terrible on 90% of other issues just so that he will put and end to a war that is already winding down seems kind of absurd.

    Like, issues of scale aside, Texas executing people is just as horrifying as the deaths from the war in Afghanistan.

  2. "but this sort of thing sounds more like 'condescending asshole' than 'nice guy' to me."

    One thing to note here is that this is *representative* politics. And as noted in Bernard Manin's wonderful (though highly flawed) work "The Principles of Representative Government," representative government is inherently aristocratic (see chapter 4 ['A Democratic Aristocracy']). So it is not surprising to find the statements of representatives highly condescending. (Note that I find Manin's *descriptive* conception to be very enlightening, not so much as a *normative* account of *legitimate* representation).

  3. In his original post, Anthony Gregory says this: "It fascinates me that anyone thinks this way. I am a shameless libertarian. I love the free market and oppose the federal government doing anything." Let's examine how providential, in the simple utilitarian terms Gregory's analysis of "genocide" suggests, a minimalist Gregory-approved government might be: Some estimates heard today (from Diane Rehm's NPR show) have 5 million sufferers of Alzheimer's, a number expected to triple by 2050 with the aging of the baby boomers. It is one of the top killers of adults, does not have a cure as of yet, and so far has received far less funding than the other top killers (like AIDS or cancer). Anthony Gregory's statements necessarily set this crisis - which in simple utilitarian terms must outweigh hundreds of thousands, or even a million, Iraqi dead. That is a farcical way to construct a dichotomy and must be rejected: We can protect foreign civilian lives while also conducting robust government intervention in issues of importance.

    The fact of Alzheimer's treatment underfunding and spending on indiscriminate wars suggests that public policies should be more discriminating, not less. Yet simplistic arguments such as that Anthony Gregory makes do not bother providing any sort of argument or yardstick for non-converts to judge the probable success of a world shaped by minimalist government policy. That is indicative that real policy tradeoffs (real, as opposed to imaginary, dichotomies of the type that the Founders were very aware of, and which we can predict based on history and empirical study) are being ignored.

    Beyond that, calling wars "genocide" when they are not in fact doesn't merit a serious consideration. There isn't anything wrong with the basic sentiment against unjustified wars, however, but it is at least prudent not to frame it thoughtlessly in a way that would open individual U.S. soldiers (including those all of us would recognize being engaged in legitimate, thoughtful actions) to charges of genocide. This is not truth-telling; it's self-serving lying that sacrifices the well-being of others.

    There is also the unconsidered political history that Gregory glosses over. It's a simplistic view of politics that a Gore administration would have jumped into war with Iraq, a war that only had peculiar attraction for the Bush camp. Salman Rushdie, in recent remarks about his friend Christopher Hitchens, remembers Wolfowitz showing up one evening for drinks and spending the time arguing that the Wolfowitz Doctrine was pretty bad but was somebody else's fault. As it turns out - while Wolfowitz, Bush, Cheney, and the other uncritical war romantics may have loved the idea, their fool cause is far from an indictment of Democratic politics (or even moderate Republican politics, as exemplified by Colin Powell). Christopher Hitchen's own association with the program was widely seen as an idiosyncratic aberration.

    1. These are all excellent points. I think it's essential not to take something like the Alzheimer's point and then call him a proponent of genocide. That clearly shouldn't be the object of it. But it's a good way of refuting his claim (not that his claim was that hard to refute in the first place).

      And you make a very good point - that I should have - about the claims that he did make about genocide.

      When you call something a genocide that's not a genocide you are trivializing the experiences of people who have gone through genocide. When you call something slavery that isn't slavery you are trivializing the experiences of those who have been slaved. That is not acceptable.

  4. "but that group is really, really small"

    You don't think that of the group of people self-identifying as "liberal", a large number would identify as anti-war? I would wager that there are more anti-war leftists than there are libertarians.


    1. Anti-war as in pacificst or as close to pacifist as Paul is at least?

      I somehow doubt that, although I'm not sure I have a sense of those numbers.

      Put it this way - if you look at the big marches against the Iraq War and are calling that "the antiwar movement" you're not really understanding who is "antiwar" and who isn't and what the comparative numbers are.

    2. I'd imagine he means Anti-War as in "non-interventionist" rather than Pacifist (by that definition of anti-war very few people are anti-war to any appreciable extent), but that group has been shrinking ever since Vietnam ended.

      Most Libertarians are certainly not pacifists, for example, but by normal usage the majority of them are pretty clearly anti war.

    3. I don't mean pacifist. "Anti-war" is a rather vague and situational descriptor, and I don't believe that the average person has a well defined, internally consistent philosophy on foreign policy (or much anything in public policy). My sense is, though, that most people who are lefty enough to call themselves "liberal" have, at least, a skepticism toward the military and military ventures. Most of them would probably, for example, answer "no" if asked whether they supported military action in pakistan, in yemen, in ethiopia, and so on, even if they tolerate it from a president of their party.

      Also, I'd posit that what most people's approval or disapproval measures is generally not *absolutes* (which is what Gregory is concerned with), but *relative changes*. So Obama can win the approval of many "anti-war" (or anti-militarist, or whatever) lefty types just by being less bellicose and aggressive than Bush was.


  5. Daniel, it is pretty clear that Ron Paul is not a pacifist.

  6. Regarding Alzheimer's, it seems many of our modern diseases are caused by our diets that are high in sugar and processed foods. Some argue eating grains, especially gluten, is also a problem. My mother has Alzheimer's, so I've changed my diet and started exercising more.

    I reject Edwin Herdman's "Alzheimer's point."

    Dennis Baker

  7. Dennis Baker: I'm happy that you're taking note of diet which is indeed probably the critical factor in preventing Alzheimer's on an individual basis.

    However, we're still left with the problem of people who have Alzheimer's - either because they were born too early to be the beneficiaries of diet studies (mainly, I think, something for which we have the government to thank) or because they are taking advantage of the freedom to eat as much as they like.

    In both cases it's wrong to say that circumstances or lifestyle habits mean we should abandon those parts of the population to their fates, since we have an alternative of choosing to have an active policy response - especially since Alzheimer's is something that is not merely payback to free will ("sin" or "karmic retribution"); it can hit anybody, risk factors aside. We would be hard-pressed to find a plurality of voters or workers, be they current sufferers of the terminal disease, at-risk, or not at-risk, who would begrudge a small portion of their earnings to fund this important research (right now funding is at the $500M level - not exactly a governmental white elephant).

    We can always make a case that Alzheimer's is something that the private sector will take care of effectively (I keep hearing Novo-Nordisk plugs on the local NPR station as one of the contributors - "diabetes treatment is our passion, not just our business").

    But the burden of proof that private companies are going to pursue an Alzheimer's cure, rather than just offering hospice and non-curative treatment drugs which can be easily monetized, is up to the anti-governmental response folks. We know that government can be effective; we know this is a legitimate policy area. We don't know that private industry is going to be effective, and we shouldn't just assume it. This doesn't mean that you're wrong to mention it, but it's wrong to generalize from this scenario to all others even in the case you do prove private industry could be as effective (which I find doubtful).

    Your response more directly invites a criticism because of the public information angle. Are people out in the boonies with few opportunities to be easily reached by private-sector literature on diabetes also of no concern to us? Public messaging is an area the government is often clearly suited for.


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