Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ron Paul, Liberty, and Majority Rule

Ron Paul's farewell speech in Congress focused on one of libertarianism's themes, the conflict between liberty and majority rule. To Paul, liberty matters more, and majority rule should be restrained whenever it infringes on what he regards as important liberties. He also offered a reading of American history in which things were going along just grand until the Progressive era, when
The majority of Americans and many government officials agreed that sacrificing some liberty was necessary to carry out what some claimed to be ‘progressive’ ideas. . . . Pure democracy became acceptable.
Setting aside the bizarre notion that the America of slavery, Indian wars, lynchings, and so on was a paradise of freedom, I note once again the deep distrust or even dislike of other people that libertarianism embodies. The interfering majority cannot be trusted to do what is right.

Paul also tried a little counterfactual economic history. Encroachments on liberty, he argued, have greatly impeded economic growth:
Some complain that my arguments make no sense, since great wealth and the standard of living improved for many Americans over the last 100 years, even with these new policies. But the damage to the market economy, and the currency, has been insidious and steady. It took a long time to consume our wealth, destroy the currency and undermine productivity and get our financial obligations to a point of no return. Confidence sometimes lasts longer than deserved. Most of our wealth today depends on debt.
I certainly do complain that his arguments make no sense. We really are much better off since the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society. If that contradicts Paul's economic theories, then his theories must be wrong, because the reality of our prosperity cannot be denied. And so far as I can see, most Americans are not libertarians because they understand this.

But the real problem is that Paul's argument prize liberty over every other possible good. Why? Where is it written stone that liberty is the only measure of a good society? I submit that this is a fatuous notion, especially when it is only applied to our relationship with the government. In practice, a weak government only allows the strong to oppress the weak without interference; even in the small government paradise of medieval Europe, many kings thought they had a special duty to protect widows and orphans.

Liberty is a good thing, I think, but it is far from the only good thing. Community, solidarity, freedom from fear and want, health, education, housing, clean air, clean water -- these are also good things. No perfect world can be created by ignoring all the possible blessings of life in favor of one. We can only try to balance them as best we can.

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