A Critique of Ron Paul’s Ten Principles of a Free Society: Natural Rights?

My first encounter with the idea/s of Ron Paul came more than a decade ago on a long-defunct Website, I’m sad to say, the name of which I don’t recall. It was a repository of intelligence about some of the more bizarre beliefs of prominent right-wingers. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were particularly favorite targets. But there was one page devoted to Ron Paul’s outrageous racism, a catalog of some truly ignorant and occasionally horrifyingly mean-spirited remarks Paul was alleged to have made about poor people of color over the course of his political and academic careers.

When, during the last decade, Paul’s courageous (or simply intellectually rigid?) anti-war stance earned him a lot of love from many on the left and heightened his stature internationally, I wanted to double-check my first prejudice against him. Alas, the site was gone, and the web seemed to have been scrubbed of any evidence of Paul’s backwardness on race.  (A Google check today, however, now that Paul is a big favorite of Tea Party types, shows that his racist past–and probable present– is ready to come back and bite him at any time: Jonathan Chait and James Kirchik for example have written on the subject for TNR.)

My attitude about Paul has changed over the years from outright mistrust to, if not respect, then simple intellectual curiosity. I’ve been particularly curious about Paul’s intellectual attractiveness for so-many on the left.  My guess is that the anti-war position provides most lefties a way in.  Paul and Dennis Kucinich are practical bedfellows on Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Libya) policy, regardless of who is in the White House. On economics, Paul frequently agrees with anti-corporate globalization skeptics like Max Keiser and the Zero Hedge folks, especially on the subjects of Ben Bernanke and the Fed. As a very good expatriate friend of mine who is a bit of an intellectual and political contrarian told me that he would have considered voting for Paul if he were still living in the US, I resolved to mellow my own Paul-skepticism.

It was in that moderate spirit that I went to visit a link on a tweet to the fansite The Daily Paul, seeing that it promised to outline Paul’s basic principles of a so-called free society. “This is the Appendix to Ron Paul’s forthcoming book, Liberty Defined,” the post’s author, one telepathic, explained. And indeed, there did follow ten points, nakedly claiming to be the sum total of principles required to establish or adjudge a society’s freedom, as ascertained by the Republican-Libertarian politician and Tea Party darling himself.

What I found there surprised me with its transparently ideological shallowness. I was expecting something more subtle, somehow, more nuanced, than a poor 21st century substitute for John Locke. Granted, this is an appendix to Paul’s book, which might present a vastly more sophisticated case for each of these points. But if we are to take these “principles” as advertisements for the product, they leave a lot to be desired from the main argument in terms of convincing a skeptic from the left. I suspect the book will be better suited to an already-convinced choir of Paulites on the right.

But is there enough in these principles to justify a leftist’s interest in the Paul ideology in toto? Do they suggest that Paul’s leftist comrades on the anti-war and anti-Fed fronts have reason to join forces with Paul on other fronts, like the political philosophy front generally? More simply put, could these principles resonate in a leftist heart?

Let’s take a look at the very first of his principles:

1. Rights belong to individuals, not groups; they derive from our nature and can neither be granted nor taken away by government.

This sounds lovely “in principle,” so to speak. But is it true? Can a principle be anything but true to be useful? In this instance, it seems patently false on one count–without government, would anyone have a right to marry someone of the same sex, for example?–and at bottom not at all falsifiable (what does it mean–how can one show what it is–to derive a right from nature?), which makes its overall truthfulness ultimately doubtful.

The early Enlightenment philosophers took some pains to prove that rights derive from nature. Such a concept was not at all obvious;  indeed, the very notion of “rights,” was all but nonexistent to the pre-Enlightenment mind.  But when the Founders of the United States autographed the Declaration of Independence, they were signing on to an already well-visited notion of “inalienable rights,” borrowed from Hobbes and Locke’s Social Contract tradition. The basic idea: individuals are born equally endowed with a right to everything and anything that enables them to live. Locke enumerated the basics as “life, liberty and estate [property],” the last of which, the Americans famously altered to “pursuit of happiness.”

Several questions present themselves to this modern post-Darwin observer, who takes Darwin seriously: Is it really a “right” they were talking about or something more elemental and brutal like “will” or “need” (or simple “ability,” as Jonathan Wallace proposes). More fundamental, might sociability be a genetic endowment in human individuals derived from their parents? In which case, might not sociability and altruism have as much pull (or, at least, as much of a chance to pull) on an individual’s behavior as more selfish or “animal” traits like hunger, wanting and anger? And if so, what makes  “rights” (or whatever you want to call them) more deserving of our political interest than “god-given” (or gene-given) responsibilities and social bonds?

No matter. As they understood things, the Enlightenment thinkers (besides Hume, notably) considered that this substance equally endowed by the Creator in all was a right that could not be taken away without consent. Furthermore, Hobbes, Locke and even Paine argued, as these paragraphs from him below show, that reason compelled individuals to give up their rights willingly to a power in exchange for protection from every other individual and their selfish rights:

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few… They… consequently are instruments of injustice.

The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.

Paine, being the most radical philosophe of the American Revolution, almost certainly shared this belief with the more conservative group that actually wrote the Declaration and the Constitution and, therefore, had a strong incentive to convince the public of the legitimacy of their appropriation.

I suspect Paul’s Tea Party fans would be shocked to learn, if they had the honesty to even admit it, that the Constitution is rooted in the presumption that Americans willingly yielded their rights to the federal government in order to have them enumerated back. This makes virtually all talk of naturally endowed individual rights on the right moot, actually. You can yammer all you want about the god-given right to property, my right-wing friends, but it ain’t god you got your property from, if your sacred original intent of the Framers really means anything to you. The government giveth, and the government can taketh away at will, thanks to our ancestors’ compact with it.

So let’s review Paul’s first principle of a free society and see if we can get anything useful or relevant to the present circumstances out of it. “Rights belong to individuals, not groups,” it asserts, “they derive from our nature and can neither be granted nor taken away by government.” The right to marry whomever I want belongs to me, on this account, not to my community or the nation, not even to my family. Is this true? Would the marriageable gay men and lesbians of New York state have found this true before June 24, 2011? Will all the clerics and officiators of New York find it true when confronted with two individuals of the same sex wanting to wed after  marriage equality becomes law in July 24, 2011? Is an individual’s right to anything even meaningful outside the context of some group that recognizes it? Do the women of Kansas still enjoy the right to safe and legal termination of their unwanted or dangerous pregnancies now that the state has effectively shut down all abortion clinics?

The only conclusion to draw from the Paulist principles is that New York and Kansas are not free societies. That may very well be true–they certainly aren’t fully free for gay men and lesbians who want to marry or for Kansan women who want or need abortions. But is any society fully free for any person? Can any person be said to have a right if others in a society–specifically others who wield power–don’t recognize it?  Then how can it be meaningful to claim a state can neither grant nor take away a right? Isn’t that precisely what states are for, as far as the individuals in them are concerned?

It seems to me that meaningful, relevant, fruitful, etc., discussions of freedom simply won’t advance if they’re based on the nebulous notion of rights. But we’ll see if Paul’s other principles confirm this suspicion or challenge it as we continue our critique.

UPDATE: The relative freedom of Kansas women is still being negotiated.

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7 thoughts on “A Critique of Ron Paul’s Ten Principles of a Free Society: Natural Rights?

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