Whose Moral Standard?
I’ve heard a great deal of panting, breathless speaking by various conservative pundits who point to Ron Paul’s statements, as late as 2009, that he wouldn’t have sent troops to fight Hitler, even if he’d known about the camps where Jews, gypsies, and others were being starved, tortured and murdered. On its face, most people will gasp at the thought that anybody would seek to intervene, and almost immediately, conclusions are drawn about Ron Paul’s moral character on this basis, fueled by an emotional reflex, but often without considering it fully. I find it interesting because it offers us an opportunity to learn about Ron Paul, his supporters, and his critics, and it gives us a chance to consider what we believe. The premise put forth by so many commentators is that Paul’s position is an exercise in moral abdication, while a few note that he maintains his philosophical consistency. Who’s right? Is it possible that both are correct? It’s important to understand the moral underpinnings of Ron Paul’s position before we leap into the fray and join in condemnations of him, if for no other reason than because we hate this sort of thing when it is done to us or the candidates who we support.
Many people screech about the “moral implications,” but before we can answer that, we must first ask: “Whose morality?” Or: “Of what does that moral code consist?” This is key to understanding Ron Paul. Here is the question and answer at controversy:
And so I asked Congressman Paul: if he were President of the United States during World War II, and as president he knew what we now know about the Holocaust, but the Third Reich presented no threat to the U.S., would he have sent American troops to Nazi Germany purely as a moral imperative to save the Jews?
And the Congressman answered:
“No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t risk American lives to do that. If someone wants to do that on their own because they want to do that, well, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t do that.”
Ron Paul is a libertarian, and the first thing to know about libertarians is that they believe first and foremost in individual rights. To understand how this position makes for completely different judgments on issues such as the question of Paul’s statements about Hitler, we must first understand how his moral context differs entirely from that which has been deemed the conventional wisdom on the matter. Most people hold that it was right to intervene in Europe in the second World War, if for no other reason than to put an end to Hitler’s campaign of ruthless destruction waged against the Jewish people of Europe. The position is that such a thing should never be permitted in a civilized world, and that from the moment Hitler commenced his holocaust, every nation had a moral obligation to attack his death machine. This is the moral context we understand, and most of us accept in uncritical agreement.
What does such a position require? For starters, it meant mobilizing armies and armed forces of every description against the Nazi war machine. What does that entail? It meant building ships, planes, tanks, rifles and machine-guns in gargantuan numbers, and it meant supplying them to our allies as well. It meant spending vast sums of money that the American taxpayer would work for generations to repay. It meant drafting young men into the armed forces, and compelling them to take up arms against a distant enemy. These are the direct necessities of such a war. This is not imagination, or pondering, but the blunt fact of what was done. Now, let us consider all of these things through the moral lens with which Ron Paul and other libertarians consider it.
Only a statist mind views one man’s life as the means to its own ends. By this method, one could call anything a “moral imperative” according to a particular moral standard, and demand that others serve those standards. What Ron Paul and other libertarians assert is that one person has no right to make such moral determinations for another. For instance, and as only one of endless possible examples, consider this formulation: Imagine in 1942, you’re a robust eighteen-year-old male, and you’re working your way through college working at the grain mill in your small town. You receive a draft notice in the mail, ordering you to report for duty at some location, to serve in the Army. Stop. We enacted an amendment that makes slavery or indentured servitude illegal. That Amendment, the thirteenth, reads simply:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
On what basis can you be drafted into anything? Please demonstrate for me that portion of the United States Constitution that permits conscription on any basis whatsoever. The constitution only mentions that Congress may “raise and support Armies,” but nowhere is Congress granted the authority of conscription. If it had, the 13th Amendment would make it illegal, having amended whatever came before it.
On this basis, I ask you again: According to what moral imperative may you demand of a young man that he place himself in harm’s way, though he may not agree with your moral judgments, or the object of your moral imperative? Would you then demand, as a statist does, that the young man place his future in the service of your purposes? Ron Paul’s stated position is that as President, he would not. This goes a long way to explaining why so many of his supporters are young men who have only recently been compelled against their better judgment to register with the Selective Service.
You might argue that they have a moral obligation even if they’re too young or unwise to know it. I’d say to you that this is no better an argument than leftists who tell me daily how we ought pay more taxes to support the welfare state, as an act in accordance with a moral imperative I am too stupid to recognize, so they say. Just as I reject the leftists’ claims of a moral imperative whereby I work away my life in service of their moral ends, I likewise find myself rejecting those claims wherever they arise, and from whomever may give them voice. I am not fodder for anybody’s ends, and neither is anybody else, and yet what people are insisting about Ron Paul is that he’s abandoning morality. I ask only: Whose morality?
Now come those who will point out “but hey, Mark, you were in the Army, and you served at the leisure of the Commander-in-Chief.” This is true, but when I enlisted, I did so for my own purposes. I believed that if I wanted to live in a free country, I ought to help bear that burden. In short, I was willing for a time to pay the price associated with the freedoms we enjoy. Still, none of my four brothers ultimately shared that view, but my sister did. Among the six of us children, only the eldest and the youngest chose that course. Do I consider my four brothers who did not serve to be lesser men? No. I know that such matters must be a question of one’s own internal moral choosing.
This is the argument, therefore, at the heart of Ron Paul’s statement about whether he would have sent men to war only to stop the holocaust underway in Europe. Paul, to his credit, remained true to his philosophy, which is to say it would have been more popular to say “Yes, I’d have sent Patton to personally kick Adolph Hitler’s backside.” It also would be to abandon what Ron Paul believes about choice, and the individual rights of all people. The question his position poses is this: What right does a President have to make this life-altering decision on behalf of others, for purposes and ends that may not serve those others at all? By what right do you claim the authority to send others to fight your moral battles?
Now, rest assured that Ron Paul’s notions don’t end there. He would tell you that even had every serviceman been a volunteer, ready to go off to war in order to liberate the Jews being tormented and murdered under Hitler’s boot, still he would not have sent them only for this purpose. You might ask why, and I will tell you that he views the money taken in taxes to support such an effort as involuntary, and in this respect, no less egregious in moral terms. When the government comes to collect the tax it believes you owe, it isn’t in the form of a plea for support, but instead in the form of a stick-up man with a gun to your head. Ron Paul’s moral position holds this as a great evil too, but you might be surprised to know that in the main, I agree with him here also.
After all, whether you collect the value of my labor directly, or some time after the fact, if you do so by virtue of compulsory means, it is no less slavery except that in the form of the income tax, I have one bit of choice: I can choose to have no income. What Ron Paul argues, and where I would surely agree, is that it is morally unconscionable to leave a person with the choice: Produce, and we’ll seize your production; produce not and we will leave you in peace. In short, if you are willing to live under a bridge, or as a ward of the state, they will not tax you substantially.
This may all seem far afield from the original thesis of this post, but in truth, it’s no more than a short distance from demanding one’s life in servitude to demanding one’s labor in servitude. Both signify precisely the same thing: You have not ownership even over your own person. Realizing this, I’d ask you to re-evaluate Ron Paul’s stance in a light different from what has been presented to you by the mainstream media. It simply isn’t fair to suggest that Paul takes this position because he harbors some ill will toward Jews, or others. The simple fact is that he sees no basis for which to demand that others pay with their lives and labors in a purpose not their own. The founders did not demand other men serve. George Washington’s army was not comprised of conscripts, but instead only of volunteers. Various states had a variety of forms of militia requirements, but the United States had no national conscription in any form until the Civil War, a fact that leads many, including Ron Paul, to view Lincoln as a great tyrant.
I recognize that some of this will cause some heartburn among many who consider Ron Paul a “kook” or a “loon” precisely because of statements like his response to the question on Hitler, but I’d urge you to reconsider his position in the full light of the philosophy behind it, even if you disagree. Remember, Ron Paul is a doctor, and in treating his patients, he is sworn to observe the Hippocratic oath, and “first, do no harm.” This means that before he can prescribe a course of treatment, he must be sure it will not kill the patient it was intended to treat. Does a President of the United States impose his desire to save the lives of non-Americans upon the lives of Americans? This is really what Ron Paul is asserting: A President of the United States must first serve his own people and their interests, before he worries about the lives and interests of non-Americans, whatever the cause. It is essentially the same argument we have had over the question of “nation building,” but writ large on the pages of history. After all, the Marshal Plan was nothing if not nation-building, and so was our occupation of Japan after their surrender.
At the same time, one might ask of those who decry Paul’s position as “heartless” whether we ought not have done as Patton suggested and march on Moscow right after the defeat of Germany. Stalin was doing as much killing and brutalizing as Hitler, and some time later, Mao did even more. Why did we not intervene in China? If “moral imperative” is the reason, why don’t we intervene in Venezuala, or Iran, or Syria, or North Korea, or any of a hundred places in which brutal dictators make chattel of their fellow man? The job of the President of the United States is not to press its war-fighting capabilities to the humanitarian purposes of the moment, but to defend our nation from attack, and take up that cause when it happens.
All of this is a hypothetical exercise, because in truth what I will now be asked is whether I would have made war against Hitler’s Germany were I to be placed in the same proposition. My answer is simple: Germany answered the matter for us when after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war upon us in accordance with his treaty with the Empire of Japan. Roosevelt had promised not to send our sons to war, and he was well aware of what was going on in Germany with the “evacuations” of the Jews. He was stuck until such time as Germany made open war against us, or joined with others who did. Pearl Harbor settled the matter along with Hitler’s declaration of war, making moot all of these questions in the context at hand. FDR did not launch war against Hitler to stop the holocaust, and to suggest otherwise is to repaint history with an altruistic brush that never was. Our liberation of those camps was a side-effect of our eventual victory, but they were not the objective when the corpses of our young men piled up on the beaches at Normandy, as their blood ran into the English channel. The more relevant question that still remains to be answered is this, and it is the question I would ask of Ron Paul if I could:
“If you were in place of Franklin Roosevelt, and Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Imperial Navy of Japan, and Hitler and in the aftermath, Mussolini likewise declared war against the United States, would you engage that war?”
Put this way, I wonder if Paul’s answer would be different, and upon that answer rests his suitability for the presidency. What Americans should want to know is to what degree and under which circumstances Ron Paul would act in defense of the nation. That’s the role of President. If we find he is unwilling to take up arms against those who attack us or who openly threaten attack, then he is not suited for the job, but his unwillingness to use the United States military as an instrument of humanitarian objectives makes no breach of that office or its high qualifications in my view. Would he honor treaties with allies? Would he protect direct American interests? Would he defend our nation when attacked, or when attack was imminent? If he would only do these, that would be satisfactory, because his inclination to think first of American lives is precisely the mindset every soldier who volunteers to serve wants to recognize in a commander-in-chief.