Saturday, August 11, 2007

Thoughts on Ron Paul, Abortion, and Federalism

Because of Ron Paul's relatively strong showing in the recent Iowa straw poll I find it necessary to make a few comments about Rep. Paul and explain why I do not whole-heartedly support his campaign.

I have a friend -- a die-hard libertarian -- who supports Ron Paul with an enthusiasm I cannot muster for any politician, Republican or Democrat. I'm sure he wonders why I haven't jumped on the Ron Paul bandwagon yet. My reluctance to support Dr. Paul can be explained fairly simply: I do not think his beliefs can be fully reconciled with my own libertarian position.

From my understanding, Dr. Paul believes that a) the right to life extends to pre-born human beings; b) federalism is the best way of protecting all of our rights.

As a libertarian, I hold the following belief: c) rights, if they are anything at all, must be understood as what Nozick called "side-constraints" on action. This means that one person's rights may not be traded away in order to protect some other person's rights. I reject a "utilitarianism of rights," as do many other libertarians.

These preliminary remarks should be enough to set up the dilemma. If the right to life extends to pre-born human beings, then the killing of such a being must count as murder. The only conclusion we can draw from Dr. Paul's legislative record is that he accepts this implication.

Suppose you are anti-abortion because you think abortion is murder. If the killing the pre-born is murder, then we cannot allow abortion law to be decided on a state-by-state basis. Murder is murder. If it's wrong in South Carolina, it must also be wrong in California.

Suppose, instead, you believe that pre-born human beings have no rights. Or that the rights of the pregnant woman trump the rights of the pre-born human she is carrying. Either way, if you believe that women have a right to abortion, then you must believe they have this right regardless of where they happen to live.

The pro-choice libertarians I know are comfortable with Dr. Paul's belief (a) because of his belief (b), federalism. They believe that abortion law should be decided on a state-by-state basis.

Dr. Paul, himself pro-life, believes that federalism is the best approach to securing the abolition of abortion. Pro-choice libertarians must believe that federalism is the best way of securing the rights of women to have abortions. Both have an end in mind they would like to achieve and think that federalism is the best way to achieve that end.

From my point of view, it doesn't matter who is right about this, because both approaches conflict with my belief (c), that rights are side-constraints.

Suppose we knew that through various sociological processes, killing a certain group of people would result, eventually, in fewer murders occurring. Indeed, suppose we knew that, in the end, we would prevent far more murders than we would have to commit or allow to be committed in order to reach that goal. We should still not allow those prior murders to be committed.

In other words, it is not appropriate to violate the right to life of some in order to prevent the violation of many more rights in the future. It is certainly not appropriate -- ever -- to allow such murders to proceed with the full sanction of the law, even the law of another state.

If abortion is murder, it must be treated as murder. Likewise, if banning abortion violates the fundamental rights of women, it must be treated as such. We cannot allow, or hope, that through the machinations of state legislatures fewer rights violations will eventually occur.

Libertarians I know tell me that, despite Ron Paul's belief (a), we should hope for his nomination because his many other beliefs are fully consistent with our libertarian views. But this is again to fall into a utilitarianism of rights. Abolishing the IRS will prevent the occurrence of many property rights violations. It will drastically limit the government's ability to control our lives. All true, perhaps, but I find myself unable to cheer if the rights of women are going to be traded away to achieve that end.
We all know Ron Paul is not going to receive the nomination, no matter how many of us -- libertarians -- support him. Thus, support for Ron Paul is, at this time, a matter of personal expression, not a matter of changing the outcome of an election. Like much political activity, including voting, those who do it do so because the candidate projects views they hold themselves.

But precisely because support for Ron Paul is an expressive activity, the message such support sends must be clear and consistent with my own beliefs if the activity is to be successful. In this case, it is not. Despite the fact that I probably share many other beliefs with Dr. Paul, he is in the end a very bad reflection of my overall ideology.

It is no use and in bad faith to say, "I support Ron Paul, but I also support the rights of women to have abortions. And that's OK because he also believes in federalism. " Dr. Paul is counting on federalism, on state legislatures, to ban abortion, and violate the rights of women. He would like to amend the Constitution to prohibit abortion permanently In his own words, amending the Constitution to prohibit abortion is perfectly compatible with his version of federalism.

Legislatively, we should focus our efforts on building support to overturn Roe v. Wade. Ideally this would be done in a fashion that allows states to again ban or regulate abortion.

I suppose this is the part pro-choice libertarians focus on when they muster their enthusiasm for Dr. Paul. But here's what he says next:

The alternative is an outright federal ban on abortion, done properly via a constitutional amendment that does no violence to our way of government.

As far as I can tell, for Ron Paul, either alternative is consistent with federalism. But I can reconcile neither with my own understanding of libertarianism.

Rights are not chits to be exchanged one for another. Especially not the rights of others. One might as well say, in support of a candidate, "Well, he'd like to bring back slavery, but at least he'll certainly lower my taxes!" One should not say this even if one knows the candidate has no chance of winning an election, and no chance of ever bringing slavery back. It's the very idea that should be repulsive to anyone who loves liberty.


Robb said...

"He would like to amend the Constitution to prohibit abortion permanently."

Everything you have put forth up to this point is sensible. However, How can Ron Paul wish the states to decide the abortion issue while also wanting a Constittional amendment? This seems contradictory.

Robb said...


Terre said...

Hi Robb. Thanks for commenting on my blog. Here's my response:

In 2003, Dr. Paul said this in the House of Representatives:

I based my argument on the following passage.

"Legislatively, we should focus our efforts on building support to overturn Roe v. Wade. Ideally this would be done in a fashion that allows states to again ban or regulate abortion. State legislatures have always had proper jurisdiction over issues like abortion and cloning; the pro-life movement should recognize that jurisdiction and not encroach upon it."

This speaks to the kind of federalism you cite in your comment. But he continues:

"The alternative is an outright federal ban on abortion, done properly via a constitutional amendment that does no violence to our way of government."

It looks like that, to Dr. Paul, either alternative is compatible with federalism: leave it up to the states, or pass a constitutional amendment. What's not acceptable (and here I agree) is a ban that extends by fiat of the judiciary.

So if he doesn't WANT a Constitutional amendment, as his first choice, he wouldn't be unhappy with one, as long as it met the criteria he suggests in his speech. But I probably should amend my blog post slightly. Thanks! :-)

Robb said...

Interesting. Your response has caused me to realize that since the Roe V. Wade decision is obviously based upon the Constitution, specifically a woman's right to privacy, then it would be difficult if not impossible to overturn the ruling without a Constitutional amendment. In this way, for the states to be given jurisdiction on the abortion issue there would have to be a Constitutional amendment forbidding the Federal government from having any jurisdiction on abortion. I suppose the Court could overturn its own ruling, however i do not think that five justices would ever be allowed on the Court that both believe that the Constitution does not provide a right to an abortion and do not respect precedent.

I am fiscally conservative and socially moderate. I support Ron Paul because I feel that he always speaks the truth and his views are as close to mine as any other of the current presidential candidates. I personally believe that the Roe v. Wade decision has prevented the states to individually decide the abortion issue. I also disagree with how the Roe v. Wade decision seems to "legislate" by creating the "trimesters" during pregnancy.

Despite his abortion stance you may want to take another look at Dr. Paul, because as President he has little chance to affect the abortion ruling. I understand your position,I am just being a realist.