Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave a talk at the International House at UC Berkeley this afternoon. I got the news too late to get a ticket, but Paul used the opportunity to discuss his particular take on “freedom”, the most abused word in American English. Talking about “freedom” for Paul usually means launching a slightly unhinged attack on “Government”.
Normally, Paul’s critique is a sweeping one which involves every facet of the federal government’s functions. At Berkeley, however, he was trying to restrict his remarks to cover the activities of the military-intelligence complex, by way of planting seeds and being dishonest about the nature of his overarching argument. Paul has long been a critic, albeit a half-hearted one, of the activities of the NSA, the CIA, and other law-breaking agencies which spy on citizens, subvert efforts by Congress to regulate them, and engage in torture, rendition, disappearances, and murder.
The dragnet-like approach of the NSA, which sweeps constitutional rights aside as it hoovers citizens’ information irrespective of any case against them, is immoral and illegal. Worse still, the executive branch now routinely orders military action without Congressional approval, and also instructs on the murder of people without any transparent legal process.
Paul is correct to critique these things, although his critique is a deeply cynical one. He famously filibustered an Obama administration appointee, pretending that he was standing on some great point of principle. It turned out that once Paul was assured that the President was not preparing to use drones to kill U.S. citizens in the U.S., his duty as a Protector of Freedom was finished. As far as he cares, the rest of the world can go to heaven or hell on the end of a predator drone, and it’s none of his concern.
So on the one hand, one arm of one branch of our government (the military-intelligence apparatus) does things which are wrong and illegal.
On the other, our government does some pretty useful things. It pays public safety officers, and it takes charge of schools. The existence of public schools mean that every child can attend school free at the point of entry, irrespective of their background. We used to operate public universities in the same manner. The government provides parks and libraries in our community, undertakes the repair of infrastructure, and maintains minimum standards and wages for the workplace which have improved beyond measure the lives of working people. It also enacts regulations designed to keep water sanitary, food safe, and air clean. It is charged with keeping monopolies from forming.
Confronted by the reality that “government” does a bunch of things, some of which are good, and some of which are bad, most thinking people with the public interest at heart would probably say, “Golly, why don’t we continue to have government do the things it does well, and make it stop doing the things it does wrong!” We could strengthen those agencies or arms of government which act in the public interest and enhance the quality of life of citizens, and put a halt to the violence and lawbreaking associated with the military-intelligence complex.
But Rand Paul’s argument is, at its essence, that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. There are admittedly more words involved—and perhaps fewer thoughts—but that’s what it amounts to.
Because Paul would have us not only halt the activities of the CIA, NSA, and our military, but also withdraw government from virtually every sphere of social life, effectively shutting down the public sphere. He says the result would be “freedom”. Evidence suggests otherwise.
In the absence of a democratically-elected authority, capable of ruling in the public interest, the people who tend to call the shots are those who are powerful. And in our world, power means money. Most of us don’t have much in the way of disposable income. And we’d have far, far less in a system where we were all on our own and had no way of pooling common resources.
The result is that the overwhelming majority of our population would be, at a stroke, written out of the political process. Sure, we could still vote. But in Paul’s world, our representatives wouldn’t be allowed to do anything useful, because the private sector would be taking care of things. This means that insurance industries would run the healthcare sector, polluters and extractors would take care of energy and environmental policy, the banks would run the economy, big business would manage the workplace, and the arms industry would govern our relations with the rest of the world.
In the U.S., because of our weak public sphere, we have a pretty good idea what a moderated version of this world would look like: it’s the one that crashed our economy, made us dependent on harmful fossil fuels, got us into wars abroad, stripped away workers’ rights, and gave us the highest medical costs and poorest healthcare in the developed world. Now imagine how bad things could get if there were no checks whatsoever on these interests.
So why is Rand Paul pretending that we are incapable of distinguishing good from bad? Why is he selling this lie that “government” is inherently one of the world’s Bad Things, and is incapable of helping people when most of us benefit from public services and collective investments on a daily basis? Why must we not only strip the CIA of its right to murder people, but also the ability of other sectors of government to do things which help people to survive and succeed?
One conclusion would be that Paul is stupid. This is clearly not the case, although he obviously hopes that many of his potential supporters are.
Another interpretation is that he is working out of malice, and that his concern for civil liberties is simply for show. It could be argued that he is mostly interested in advancing a right-wing economic agenda, backed by a combination of hardcore ideologues and the Koch Empire and its ilk. Paul, remember, is the man who would repeal the Civil Rights Act because it prevented businesses from discriminating, and is okay with our fellow global citizens being murdered by the intelligence agencies he purports to abhor.
At the end of the day, what use are civil liberties which exist only on paper, unenforceable because the government is too weak to enforce them after power has been ceded to the plutocrats?
Paul’s “freedoms” are of a very hollow sort. So long as you stay in the United States, you won’t be killed by a drone or have your e-mail read. You probably won’t pay taxes. But you’ll also be free to get sick and not afford to see a doctor. You’ll be free to get mugged by economic gangsters, and pushed to the ground, kicked, and not ever get back on your feet. You’ll be free to be priced out of an education. You’ll be free to struggle and fail if you and your family don’t have personal resources. You’ll be free to be exploited by your employer, because there will be no rules, and no floor for the labour market. You’ll be free to drink whatever water Big Ag thinks is safe. And you’ll be free to be unemployed and find neither sympathy nor support from your society.
Rand Paul sees a happy ending somewhere, amidst all of these freedoms. I see a man who is pretending that we are incapable of creating a sophisticated society which looks after its own while behaving morally and respecting the rights of citizens.
Rand Paul might not be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But I’m pretty sure the rest of us can. Which seems as good an argument as any for writing this manipulative cynic out of the running when it comes to selecting national leaders.