|Montreal, February 21, 2004 / No 138|
by Rep. Ron Paul, MD
A wise consistency is the foundation of a free society. Yet everyone knows, or thinks they know, that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. How many times has Ralph Waldo Emerson been quoted to belittle a consistent philosophy defending freedom? Even on this floor I have been rebuked by colleagues with this quote, for pointing out the shortcomings of Congress in not consistently and precisely following our oath to uphold the Constitution.
need to discredit consistency is endemic. It’s considered beneficial to
be flexible and pragmatic while rejecting consistency; otherwise the self-criticism
would be more than most Members could take. The comfort level of most politicians
in D.C. requires an attitude that consistency not only is unnecessary,
but detrimental. For this reason Emerson’s views are conveniently cited
to justify pragmatism and arbitrary intervention in all our legislative
Communism was dependent on firm, consistent, and evil beliefs. Authoritarian rule was required to enforce these views, however. Allowing alternative views to exist, as they always do, guarantees philosophic competition. For instance, the views in Hong Kong eventually won out over the old communism of the Chinese mainland. But it can work in the other direction. If the ideas of socialism, within the context of our free society, are permitted to raise their ugly head, it may well replace what we have, if we do not consistently and forcefully defend the free market and personal liberty.
It’s quite a distortion of Emerson’s views to use them as justification for the incoherent and nonsensical policies coming out of Washington today. But, the political benefits of not needing to be consistent are so overwhelming that there’s no interest in being philosophically consistent in one’s votes. It is a welcome convenience to be able to support whatever seems best for the moment, the congressional district, or one’s political party. Therefore, it’s quite advantageous to cling to the notion that consistency is a hobgoblin. For this reason, statesmanship in D.C. has come to mean one’s willingness to give up one’s own personal beliefs in order to serve the greater good – whatever that is. But it is not possible to preserve the rule of law or individual liberty if our convictions are no stronger than this. Otherwise something will replace our republic that was so carefully designed by the Founders. That something is not known, but we can be certain it will be less desirable than what we have.
As for Emerson, he was not even talking about consistency in defending political views that were deemed worthy and correct. Emerson clearly explained the consistency he was criticizing. He was most annoyed by a foolish consistency. He attacked bull-headedness, believing that intellectuals should be more open-minded and tolerant of new ideas and discoveries. His attack targeted the flat-earth society types in the world of ideas. New information, he claimed, should always lead to reassessment of previous conclusions. To Emerson, being unwilling to admit an error and consistently defending a mistaken idea, regardless of facts, was indeed a foolish consistency. His reference was to a character trait, not sound logical thinking.
Since it’s proven that centralized control over education and medicine has done nothing to improve them, and instead of reassessing these programs, more money is thrown into the same centralized planning, this is much closer to Emerson’s foolish consistency than defending liberty and private property in a consistent and forceful manner while strictly obeying the Constitution.
Emerson’s greatest concern was the consistency of conformity. Nonconformity and tolerance of others obviously are much more respected in a free society than in a rigidly planned authoritarian society.
The truth is that Emerson must be misquoted in order to use him against
those who rigidly and consistently defend a free society, cherish and promote
diverse opinions, and encourage nonconformity. A wise and consistent defense
of liberty is more desperately needed today than any time in our history.
Our foolish and inconsistent policies of the last 100 years have brought
us to a critical junction, with the American way of life at stake. It is
the foolish inconsistencies that we must condemn and abandon. Let me mention
Few remember that the first federal laws regulating marijuana were written as recently as 1938, which means just a few decades ago our country had much greater respect for individual choices and state regulations in all health matters. The nanny state is relatively new, but well entrenched. Sadly, we foolishly and consistently follow the dictates of prohibition and government control of new medications, never questioning the wisdom of these laws. The silliness regarding illegal drugs and prescription drugs was recently demonstrated. It was determined that a drug used to cause an abortion can be available over the counter. However, Ephedra – used by millions for various reasons and found in nature – was made illegal as a result of one death after being misused. Individuals no longer can make their own decisions, at an affordable price, to use Ephedra. Now it will probably require a prescription and cost many times more. It can never be known, but weight loss by thousands using Ephedra may well have saved many lives. But the real issue is personal choice and responsibility, not the medicinal effect of these drugs. This reflects our moral standards, not an example of individual freedom and responsibility.
Foreign Policy of Interventionism – General: Our foreign policy of interventionism offers the best example of Emerson’s foolish inconsistency. No matter how unsuccessful our entanglements become, our leaders rarely question the wisdom of trying to police the world. Most of the time our failures prompt even greater intervention, rather than less. Never yielding to the hard cold facts of our failures, our drive to meddle and nation-build around the world continues. Complete denial of the recurrent blowback from our meddling – a term our CIA invented – prompts us to spend endlessly while jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Refusing even to consider the failure of our own policies is outrageous. Only in the context of commercial benefits to the special interests and the military-industrial complex, molded with patriotic jingoism, can one understand why we pursue such a foolish policy. Some of these ulterior motives are understandable, but the fact that average Americans rarely question our commitment to these dangerous and expensive military operations is disturbing. The whipped up war propaganda too often overrules the logic that should prevail. Certainly the wise consistency of following the Constitution has little appeal. One would think the painful consequences of our militarism over the last hundred years would have made us more reluctant to assume the role of world policeman in a world that hates us more each day.
A strong case can be made that all the conflicts, starting with the Spanish-American War up to our current conflict in the Middle East, could have been avoided. For instance, the foolish entrance into World War I to satisfy Wilson’s ego led to a disastrous peace at Versailles, practically guaranteeing World War II. Likewise, our ill-advised role in the Persian Gulf War I placed us in an ongoing guerilla war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which may become a worldwide conflict before it ends. Our foolish antics over the years have prompted our support for many thugs throughout the 20th Century – Stalin, Samoza, Batista, the Shah of Iran, Noriega, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and many others – only to regret it once the unintended consequences became known. Many of those we supported turned on us, or our interference generated a much worse replacement – such as the Ayatollah in Iran. If we had consistently followed the wise advice of our early presidents, we could have avoided the foreign policy problems we face today. And if we had, we literally would have prevented hundreds of thousands of needless deaths over the last century. The odds are slim to none that our current failure in Afghanistan and Iraq will prompt our administration to change its policies of intervention. Ignoring the facts and rigidly sticking to a failed policy – a foolish consistency – as our leaders have repeatedly done over the past 100 years, unfortunately will prevail despite its failure and huge costs.
This hostility toward principled consistency and common sense allows for gross errors in policy making. Most Americans believed, and still do, that we went to war against Saddam Hussein because he threatened us with weapons of mass destruction and his regime was connected to al Qaeda. The fact that Saddam Hussein not only did not have weapons of mass destruction, but essentially had no military force at all, seems to be of little concern to those who took us to war. It was argued, after our allies refused to join in our efforts, that a unilateral approach without the United Nations was proper under our notion of national sovereignty. Yet resolutions giving the President authority to go to war cited the United Nations 21 times, forgetting the U.S. Constitution allows only Congress to declare war. A correct declaration of war was rejected out of hand. Now with events going badly, the administration is practically begging the UN to take over the transition – except, of course, for the Iraqi Development Fund that controls the oil and all the seized financial assets. The contradictions and distortions surrounding the Iraqi conflict are too numerous to count. Those who wanted to institutionalize the doctrine of pre-emptive war were not concerned about the Constitution or consistency in our foreign policy. And for this, the American people and world peace will suffer.
Promoting Democracy – An Obsession Whose Time Has Passed: Promoting democracy is now our nation’s highest ideal. Wilson started it with his ill-advised drive to foolishly involve us in World War I. His utopian dream was to make the world safe for democracy. Instead, his naïveté and arrogance promoted our involvement in the back-to-back tragedies of World War I and World War II. It’s hard to imagine the rise of Hitler in World War II without the Treaty of Versailles. But this has not prevented every president since Wilson from promoting U.S.-style democracy to the rest of the world.
Since no weapons of mass destruction or al Qaeda have been found in Iraq, the explanation given now for having gone there was to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. Yet we hear now that the Iraqis are demanding immediate free elections not controlled by the United States. But our administration says the Iraqi people are not yet ready for free elections. The truth is that a national election in Iraq would bring individuals to power that the administration doesn’t want. Democratic elections will have to wait.
This makes the point that our persistence in imposing our will on others through military force ignores sound thinking, but we never hear serious discussions about changing our foreign policy of meddling and empire building, no matter how bad the results. Regardless of the human and financial costs for all the wars fought over the past hundred years, few question the principle and legitimacy of interventionism. Bad results, while only sowing the seeds of our next conflict, concern few here in Congress. Jingoism, the dream of empire, and the interests of the military-industrial complex generate the false patriotism that energizes supporters of our foreign entanglements. Direct media coverage of the more than 500 body bags coming back from Iraq is now prohibited by the administration. Seeing the mangled lives and damaged health of thousands of other casualties of this war would help the American people put this war in proper perspective. Almost all war is unnecessary and rarely worth the cost. Seldom does a good peace result.
Since World War II, we have intervened 35 times in developing countries, according to the LA Times, without a single successful example of a stable democracy. Their conclusion: “American engagement abroad has not led to more freedom or more democracy in countries where we’ve become involved.” So far, the peace in Iraq – that is, the period following the declared end of hostilities – has set the stage for a civil war in this forlorn Western-created artificial state. A U.S.-imposed national government unifying the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites will never work. Our allies deserted us in this misadventure. Dumping the responsibility on the UN, while retaining control of the spoils of war, is a policy of folly that can result only in more Americans being killed. This will only fuel the festering wounds of Middle East hatred toward all Western occupiers. The Halliburton scandals and other military-industrial connections to the occupation of Iraq will continue to annoy our allies, and hopefully a growing number of American taxpayers.
I have a few suggestions on how to alter our consistently foolish policy in Iraq. Instead of hiding behind Wilson’s utopianism of making the world safe for democracy, let’s try a new approach:
When the definition of terrorism is vague and the enemy pervasive throughout the world, the neo-conservatives – who want to bring about various regime changes for other reasons – conveniently latch onto these threats and use them as the excuse and justification for our expanding military presence throughout the Middle East and the Caspian Sea region. This is something they have been anxious to do all along. Already, plans are being laid by neo-conservative leaders to further expand our occupations to many other countries, from Central America and Africa to Korea. Whether it’s invading Iraq, threatening North Korea, or bullying Venezuela or even Russia, it’s now popular to play the terrorist card. Just mention terrorism and the American people are expected to grovel and allow the war hawks to do whatever they want to do. This is a very dangerous attitude. One would think that, with the shortcomings of the Iraqi occupation becoming more obvious every day, more Americans would question our flagrant and aggressive policy of empire building.
The American people were frightened into supporting this war because they were told that Iraq had: “25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve gas; significant quantities of refined uranium; and special aluminum tubes used in developing nuclear weapons.” The fact that none of this huge amount of material was found, and the fact that David Kay resigned from heading up the inspection team saying none will be found, doesn’t pacify the instigators of this policy of folly. They merely look forward to the next regime change as they eye their list of potential targets. And they argue with conviction that the 500-plus lives lost were worth it. Attacking a perceived enemy who had few weapons, who did not aggress against us, and who never posed a threat to us does nothing to help eliminate the threat of terrorist attacks. If anything, deposing an Arab Muslim leader – even a bad one – incites more hatred toward us, certainly not less. This is made worse if our justification for the invasion was in error. It is safe to say that in time we’ll come to realize that our invasion has made us less safe, and has served as a grand recruiting tool for the many militant Muslim groups that want us out of their countries – including the majority of those Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the entire Middle East. Because of the nature of the war in which we find ourselves, catching Saddam Hussein, or even killing Osama bin Laden, are almost irrelevant. They may well simply become martyrs to their cause and incite even greater hatred toward us.
There are a few things we must understand if we ever expect this war to end.
For decades, Executive Orders have been arrogantly used to write laws to circumvent a plodding or disagreeable Congress. This attitude was best described by a Clinton presidential aide who bragged: “…stroke of the pen, law of the land, kinda cool!” This is quite a testimonial to the rule of law and constitutional restraint on government power. The courts are no better than the executive or legislative branches in limiting the unconstitutional expansion of the federal monolith. Members of Congress, including committee chairmen, downplay my concern that proposed legislation is unconstitutional by insisting that the courts are the ones to make such weighty decisions, not mere Members of Congress. This was an informal argument made by House leadership on the floor during the debate on campaign finance reform. In essence, they said “We know it’s bad, but we’ll let the courts clean it up.” And look what happened! The courts did not save us from ourselves.
Something must be done, however, if we expect to rein in our ever-growing and intrusive government. Instead of depending on the courts to rule favorably, when Congress and the executive branch go astray, we must curtail the courts when they overstep their authority by writing laws, rubber-stamping bad legislation, or overruling state laws. Hopefully in the future we will have a Congress more cognizant of its responsibility to legislate within the confines of the Constitution. There is something Congress, by majority vote, can do to empower the states to deal with their First Amendment issues. It’s clear that Congress has been instructed to write no laws regarding freedom of speech, religion, or assembly. This obviously means that federal courts have no authority to do so either. Therefore, the remaining option is for Congress to specifically remove jurisdiction of all First Amendment controversies from all federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Issues dealing with prayer, the Ten Commandments, religious symbols or clothing, and songs, even the issue of abortion, are properly left as a prerogative of the states. A giant step in this direction could be achieved with the passage of my proposed legislation, the We the People Act.
Conclusion: Emerson’s real attack was on intellectual conformity without a willingness to entertain new ideas based on newly acquired facts. This is what he referred to as the foolish consistency. The greatest open-minded idea I’m aware of is to know that one does not know what is best for others, whether it’s in economic, social, or moral policy, or in the affairs of other nations. Believing one knows what is best for others represents the greatest example of a closed mind. Friedrich Hayek referred to this as a pretense of knowledge. Governments are no more capable of running an economy made fair for everyone than they are of telling the individual what is best for their spiritual salvation. There are a thousand things in between that the busybody politicians, bureaucrats, and judges believe they know and yet do not. Sadly our citizens have become dependent on government for nearly everything from cradle to grave, and look to government for all guidance and security.
Continuously ignoring Emerson’s advice on self-reliance is indeed a foolish consistency which most of the politicians now in charge of the militant nanny state follow. And it’s an armed state, domestic as well as foreign. Our armies tell the Arab world what’s best for them, while the armed bureaucrats at home harass our own people into submission and obedience to every law and regulation, most of which are incomprehensible to the average citizen. Ask three IRS agents for an interpretation of the tax code and you will get three different answers. Ask three experts in the Justice Department to interpret the anti-trust laws, and you will get three different answers. First they’ll tell you it’s illegal to sell too low, then they’ll tell you it’s illegal to sell too high, and it’s certainly illegal if everybody sold products at the same price. All three positions can get you into plenty of trouble and blamed for first, undermining competition, second, for having too much control and gouging the public, and third, for engaging in collusion. The people can’t win.
Real knowledge is to know what one does not know. The only society that recognizes this fact and understands how productive enterprise is generated is a free society, unencumbered with false notions of grandeur. It is this society that generates true tolerance and respect for others. Self-reliance and creativity blossom in a free society. This does not mean anarchy, chaos, or libertine behavior. Truly, only a moral society can adapt to personal liberty. Some basic rules must be followed and can be enforced by government – most suitably by local and small government entities. Honoring all voluntary contractual arrangements, social and economic, protection of all life, and established standards for private property ownership are the three principles required for a free society to remain civilized. Depending on the culture, the government could be the family, the tribe, or some regional or state entity.
The freedom philosophy is based on the humility that we are not omnipotent, but also the confidence that true liberty generates the most practical solution to all our problems, whether they are economic, domestic security, or national defense. Short of this, any other system generates authoritarianism that grows with each policy failure and eventually leads to a national bankruptcy. It was this end, not our military budget, which brought the Soviets to their knees.
A system of liberty allows for the individual to be creative, productive, or spiritual on one’s own terms, and encourages excellence and virtue. All forms of authoritarianism only exist at the expense of liberty. Yet the humanitarian do-gooders claim to strive for these very same goals. To understand the difference is crucial to the survival of a free society.
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