Friday, September 9, 2011

Ron Paul, the Media, and Dangerous Opioids

As a libertarian with a wide range of opinions on both stuff and things, I suppose it's a little odd that I've never talked about Ron Paul here (a site search brings up only one reference, and it was very much in passing). I don't know why that is. My best guess is that I rarely find him objectionable enough to write about, but I have too many reservations to really get on board with his campaign. Also, his supporters have a reputation for being obsessive, Internet-savvy lunatics. I'm not sure this reputation is entirely undeserved. (Prove me wrong, lunatics!)

But screw it, those aren't good reasons, and so far his presidential candidacy has been way too interesting to ignore, so brace yourselves, because here comes a two-part series about Ron Paul. If it helps, part one is about drugs and part two is about sex, sort of. Both parts, in keeping with my commitment to timeliness and big picture analysis, are about a brief exchange from a debate that happened over four months ago:
Chris Wallace: Are you suggesting that heroin and prostitution are an exercise of liberty?
Ron Paul: Well, you know, I never used those words. You probably put those words someplace, but, yes, in essence if I leave it up to the states, it’s going to be up to the states. Up until this past century, you know, for over 100 years they were legal. What you’re inferring is, “You know what, if we legalize heroin tomorrow, everybody’s going to use heroin.” How many people here would use heroin if it was legal? I bet nobody would… “Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don’t want to use heroin, so I need these laws!”
Wallace threw prostitution into the mix just for fun, but it was heroin that caught a very small portion of the media's attention. Here are some of the points made over and over, all in the name of providing fair and accurate coverage of Paul's debate performance, by reporters and commentators in bizarro world:
  • He didn't say heroin should be legal, he said its legality should be decided by each state rather than the federal government. Which state do people think is eager to legalize heroin? Besides California, obviously.
  • He's not campaigning on this. There's nothing about heroin on his website, and, as far as I can tell, he's never mentioned it in any context other than answering a direct question.[1]
  • He's not necessarily wrong.[2]
In this universe, however, it was all "Ron Paul wants to legalize heroin!" and "that's enough of that, let's talk about Rick Perry now."

So what should Paul have done differently? He could've lied. He could've given the answer Romney, Bachmann, or Perry would give if they were asked a question like this (which, it should be noted, has never happened). Oh, no, of course heroin shouldn't be legal. It's dangerous. But he won't say that because it's not what he believes. Just as importantly, everyone who understands libertarianism knows it's not what he believes.

That's the thing about having an ideology—there aren't going to be any major surprises. I could come up with a question none of the Republican candidates have ever weighed in on—like, say, whether the FCC should regulate the obstacles on Wipeout,[3] which have very gradually evolved from "looks fun, I'd go on that show" to "holy shit, they're actually trying to break her neck!"—and with most of them, I have no idea how they'd answer. Would one of the frontrunners defend the rights of business owners without really sounding sincere about it? Or throw around terms like "wholesome" and "values" in a muddled critique of reality TV? Or somehow turn it into a question about job creation? I have my guesses, but the point is, until the question is asked and answered, I don't know. I already know Ron Paul's answer, because I know how his ideology works. And if he said something he didn't really believe, I'd be able to tell. How is that a bad thing?

And yet, as Chris Wallace made abundantly clear in that debate, it totally is. You're just asking to be confronted by the extremes of your ideology. It doesn't matter that those extremes are such a low priority as to be politically irrelevant, and it definitely doesn't matter that your views aren't indefensible, you're still forced to choose between alienating your most devoted supporters or repelling the rest of the voting public. Mitt Romney never has to make that choice, because he has no ideology.

One of the criticisms I've made of Ron Paul is that he doesn't do a great job of making libertarianism sound reasonable to non-libertarians, and I still think he could do better,[4] but it's becoming increasingly clear that there's a lot more going on, and not all of it is within his control.

1. As far as I can tell, the "Ron Paul wants to legalize heroin" thing first became a medium-size deal in 2007, when John Stossel interviewed Paul for 20/20. The interview was made available online, but never aired on television. The reason for this, depending on who you ask, is either that Paul had a sizeable Internet following at the time but was relatively unknown otherwise, or that The Man doesn't want you to hear what Ron Paul has to say. Because when The Man wants something suppressed, he puts it on the Internet where anyone can see it at any time, including right now, almost four years later, and from probably unauthorized sources, since The Man apparently can't be bothered to enforce his rights under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
2. I'm getting a headache just thinking about what this footnote would turn into if I tried to be thorough, so I'm going to limit it to two over-simplified points. First, consider marijuana, which should be legal for more reasons than I can keep track of. The only arguments for legalizing pot that don't translate over to heroin are those having to do with pot being relatively harmless compared to other drugs. So, if we can agree that marijuana legalization makes sense (and we're getting close), then the heroin debate should be about how much it matters that heroin is more addictive and more dangerous. It does matter, obviously, but enough to overcome everything else?
    Second, I'd just like to point out that there has been approximately one (1) time in American history that the federal government claimed a broad new power, only to have that power rescinded by popular demand after everyone collectively realized they had made a huge mistake. It involved prohibition of a drug. Meanwhile, there have been approximately zero (0) times in American history that the federal government prohibited a drug, and then all the problems associated with it went away. So how about we stop acting like it's insane to suggest that drug prohibition doesn't work?
3. I'm pretty sure the FCC doesn't have that power, but it's more than a little distressing that I can't say so with more confidence. If nothing else, it's not clear to me how the Big Balls pass the "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" test.
4. You know who's better than Ron Paul at making libertarianism sound reasonable? Gary Johnson.


  1. Should he have prefaced his answer with a long tirade about the evils of heroine, then said it shouldn't be illegal, at least under federal law?

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