In his most recent book Liberty Defined, libertarian Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul takes dead aim at Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms," the ideas that created the social foundation for the American compact on the edge of the great mid-century war against fascism and totalitarianism. Seventy years removed from that 1941 speech, Roosevelt's words may seem to some as gauzy as the Gettysburg Address did during the FDR's time, yet this passage from that speech - delivered 11 months before Pearl Harbor with the certain knowledge of the national peril ahead - reinstated in absolute terms the American commitment to her founding ideals, and the evolution of her place in the wider world:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
These were heady words for a man restocking the arsenal of democracy in order to fight and win a global war over both Atlantic and Pacific hegemony, a fight that brought the nation into its next stage of massive armament and its generational opposition to communism in general, and the Soviets in particular. Yet at the time, FDR's speech was also a political broadside - something of a killing blow, really - against the isolationists of the era, personified by Charles Lindbergh. The America First campaign attracted many anti-war liberals, particularly young intellectuals like Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal, but also socialist leaders like Norman Thomas. No matter that nativism and anti-Semitism fueled much of the isolationist movement, and filled halls for Lindbergh speeches, the left could join the nativist right in opposing military campaigning.
Roosevelt's Four Freedoms cut through the claptrap isolation-and-bigotry brew of the American Firsters like a scythe over amber waves of grain, and they established idealistic 20th century goals to be pursued by American policy-makers. Have we ever lived up to any of those Four Freedoms completely? No, we haven't (nor did Roosevelt). But many of those who believe in this notion of a democratic republic with strong communitarian values believe we should keep on trying. Ron Paul, on the other hand, fills his halls (at least partly) with those who reject that view and believe FDR's Four Freedoms were a radical cul de sac off the main highway of America's real national ethic: the acquisition and preservation of property.
Writes Paul in his book (h/t Daily Beast): “Any effort to mandate or enforce the goal of making everyone free from want and fear through government action will guarantee the destruction of the concept of personal liberty. Whether it’s local government or world government, and no matter the motivation, this effort can only destroy one’s right to life, liberty, and property.”
Notice the bastardization of the original American set of rights: the "pursuit of happiness" has become property. This mutant strain has been living in vitro in American public life since Roosevelt used the power of the Federal government to battle the Great Depression's, and extended its reach in modern life. The New Deal, the Great Society, Medicare, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Federal aid to schools, the nation's highway system, the EPA, FEMA, Head Start, the Labor Department, and of course, national defense and the military, were all responses in their own ways to the embrace of a greater communitarian spirit embodied in the four freedoms.
The libertarian obsession with property rights is in direct conflict with the ideas of national unity that have linked the majority of Americans since 1941. Ron Paul may associate with some unsavory racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, anti-immigrant, gay bashing supporters and that association – best seen in 20 years' worth of newsletters he claims not to have written nor edited nor approved – is both offensive and disqualifying to a candidate of a major American political party.
Yet their offensive character, is really just a sideshow to the ideological threat that the rise of Ron Paul represents. The linking of so many liberals and civil libertarians on the left with either tepid or bold support for Ron Paul signals an abandonment of those communitarian ideals in favor of a very narrow reading of American destiny. Weary of war, of corporate warcraft, of heightened state security, and battered its by the malfeasance of deregulated financial monsters, many liberals understandably feel their hearts skip a beat when they flip on the latest Republican televised debate and hear the isolationist Congressman from Texas rail against the military-industrial complex and the Federal Reserve.
Yet this is just the candy that a predator uses to lure his unsuspecting victim into the back seat of his car. If the left joins this right, our future is a wasteland. The path that Ron Paul represents, should he be elected president of the United States, leads to what is rightfully described a Somalian in in nature. For there, removed from the community of nations, lies the ultimate libertarian state. It is a place where property is valued more highly than the lives of the people who inhabit the land, and where property is protected by force of arms and the freedom to use a weapon. There is no social safety net. There is no national economic system. There is no reserve bank. There is no healthcare, no education, no welfare, no collective bargaining, no interstate highway system, no truly national defense. As David Atkins writes in Hullabaloo:
This, by the way, is why racism, theocracy and libertarianism go hand in hand, when from a philosophical point of view they should have little to do with one another. The negative effects of the lack of a central government are so obvious in developing countries that wherever the social order fails as in Somalia, it must have been due to bad religion, or the defect of having been born to an inferior race. Ron Paul fans must reassure themselves that such things would never happen to white, Christian folk. They're immune from the Somali problem by virtue being of different stock and different values, you see.
In a post on the Naked Capitalism blog, Matt Stoller describes model modern liberalism as comprising two distinct – and as he hints, equal – elements: a central Federal government that protects the rights of individuals and provides a social safety net, and opposition to warfare. I suggest that while both of these elements are indeed found in modern liberalism, in any left or center-left voting pool in the United States, that they are far from equal. The largest strain of U.S. liberalism is rooted in domestic communitarian values and economic self-interest for the majority of the working public. Opposition to military adventurism and to what some progressives call American Empire comprises a strong, often loud, highly principled, and righteous strain of the liberal polity. Long may it hold sway in primary campaigns, and warn American politicians of the limits of a democratic republics hegemony.
Yet it is a mistake to place what Stoller called "distrust of centralized authority" on the same level as the concern for economic well-being and domestic civil rights. Economics always comes first. This may be ungenerous, this may not be the highest ideal of a great nation, this may mean the pale watering down of one of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, but it is also the truth. We should all oppose our sad and unethical drone warfare and the erosion of civil liberties in the era of military adventurism and anti-terrorism "security" apparatus expansion. But we also need to realize that Ron Paul opposes these and other excesses not because they're wrong, but because they're paid for by a strong Federal government he seeks to abolish - the same elected government that guarantees our liberty, regulates commerce, and provides some measure of social safety net.
I am a liberal, more of a social democrat actually, as I grow older. There may be some phrases and ideals embedded in the tumor that is libertarianism, but I trust neither Paul's judgment nor his ethics. He would lead us backwards, and abandon many of the freedoms in this hard land of ours that organizers and advocates have fought so hard to attain. The dalliance with Ron Paul that so many liberals, center-lefties and civil libertarians seem to be engaging in during this Republican preseason, does not seem - if I may be frank - to be intellectually rigorous. Too many war-weary liberals seem happy to waive the rest of their communitarian views - and with them, their responsibility to work for reform. Roy Edroso cannily knocks that chip off the liberal shoulder with a post on Paul's libertarian cronies and their real ideas about "freedom" on the American scene:
These guys can always work together, because they all came out of the same Big Bang of hatred for the New Deal and its legacy: Big Government and the coalition that sustains it -- blacks, gays, unionized workers, women, et alia. Each conservative tribe has its own relationship to that legacy -- some of them (the more intelligent ones, generally) are deeply cynical, and some are as sincere as any schizophrenic street preacher. But all of them deeply hate that a bunch of minorities have coalesced to get something that they think belongs by right to them and people like them, and many of them have learned that it would be more effective (and, these days, more popular) to strike at the state that enables that coalition than at the minorities themselves.
What mania, particularly, animated Paul's newsletter stories of criminal-natured blacks and AIDS-drama-queen gays doesn't matter to me. I know that he's a Republican Libertarian and, having been born earlier than yesterday, that is enough for me.
UPDATE: Maha Barbara perfectly captures a central objection to the hard-core libertarianism (and its close connection to social bigotry) with this passage from her excellent post on the choices Ron Paul presents for liberals:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — modern libertarianism was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. That’s when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce desegregation of the schools and protect nine African-American students from being torn apart by a howling mob for attempting to enter a school.
Ever since those years, white racists have embraced the argument that only the authority of the federal government is oppressive. Whatever the state does, is OK. The philosophical basis of this argument is that state governments are closer to the people and therefore more responsive to them.
Read the whole post - it's quite good and responds directly to Paul promoters who are ostensibly on the left, like Glenn Greenwald. Scott Lemieux also finds the links to key portions of Paulism that should offend any progressive:
It’s wrong to think of Ron Paul’s racism and his libertarianism as two distinct parts of his political persona, when in fact they are deeply tied together. White supremacists understand what Glenn, apparently, does not; the absence of Federal authority makes it easier for private actors and local governments to repress the civil and political rights of minorities.
Exactly. And frankly, the most frustrating aspect to Greenwald's angry scorn for Obama - and for liberals who dare to disagree with his pure civil libertarianism - is his frequent descent into trying to divine the hidden motivations of progressives who don't see things his way. His common use of ridiculously divisive language - derivations of "coward" make daily appearances in his work - serve to put off and ultimately disengage the very polity he's trying to convince from the very issues upon which we might all agree. Engaging Greenwald on the merits is far more interesting than dealing with his latest flame war (I for one, remain glad that Greenwald's out there making the arguments that he makes), as Tom Hilton did so well last week, when he pointed out the flaws inherent in the natural attraction to Paul's anti-war views:
...the nature of his anti-war stance is fundamentally different from that of liberal opposition to any given war. The tipoff is in his opposition to foreign aid, and his anti-United Nations position: he's anti-war because the rest of the world just isn't worth it. His is not the pacifism of the anti-war movement but the nativist isolationism of the America-Firsters; Paul is "to the left of Obama" the way Lindbergh was to the left of Roosevelt. (That may be true in a fairly literal sense, although I wouldn't trust anything from Big Government without further corroboration.)
Similarly, Paul's positions on civil liberties issues aren't actually about civil liberties as we understand them; they're about his opposition to Federal authority. (An opposition that is somewhat conditional, it should be noted.) For example, in talking about the death penalty, he makes clear that he opposes it only at the Federal level. His opposition to the PATRIOT Act, the War on Drugs, and domestic surveillance come from the same root as his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He has no real objection to states violating the rights of their citizens; it's only a problem if the Feds do it.
That natural attraction to Paul's language among liberals weary of war and the constant intrusion of "security" on our lives in the long decade after 9/11 is well-defended by Levi Asher, in his response to my post here. Here's the toughest part:
...nowhere in Tom Watson's appraisal does he show that he takes pacifism seriously, or that he sees any momentum towards worldwide adoption of an antiwar agenda. In fact, the peace platform is a platform that never rests, and there is always momentum in the world towards pacifism. The popularity of Ron Paul is one indication of the dynamic nature of antiwar politics, and the great Occupy movement that began on Wall Street (which is solidly and blessedly antiwar) is another indication.
Doesn't Tom Watson hear the chimes of peace? Instead, his article seems rooted in nostalgic "good war" imagery, with enough World War II references for a Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg movie. Watson mentions "the great mid-century war against fascism and totalitarianism" ... "11 months before Pearl Harbor with the certain knowledge of the national peril ahead" ... "a man restocking the arsenal of democracy in order to fight and win a global war over both Atlantic and Pacific hegemony". But these allusions to World War II are stale and inappropriate. Many recent history books like Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker and Breaking Open Japan by George Feifer have pointed out the many ways that our understanding of the motivations behind World War II has hardened into cliche, and led us to believe too easily that World War II was a "good war". This causes us to forget the larger truth that there is no such thing as a good war.
I've observed in these pages before that pacifism is a lonely position. It's lonely in the Democratic party and it's lonely in the Republican party. Ron Paul has helped to make pacifists a little less lonely in 2011, and that's why I'd rather praise him than bemoan his flaws. Next, maybe we can forget about Ron Paul and find a new Republican or Democratic or no-party presidential candidate with an antiwar platform ...who isn't unelectable for one reason or another. Then maybe we can finally get some changes made.
Levi puts me in the right intellectual vise: yeah, I'm not a pacifist. Though I would argue that I do take that point of view seriously and favor the stripping away of the American security state that has changed our society by force force of fear and corporate profit in the last decade. But I'm just not willing to barter the civil liberties that our representative democracy and an activist Union guarantee after centuries of struggle to pay for it. That's a trade I'm not willing to make. And to me, that's the trade that Ron Paul represents.