Ron Paul: Selling His Birthright

He was never expected to win. That is not the problem. He was expected to articulate a vision of free men and free markets that would at least have some influence on American politics. It was to be an exercise in public education rather than political power; its purpose was (or should have been) to increase the sentiment for liberty. This is important because politics begins in public sentiment for certain perceived common goods, and requires an education in practical reason on the best methods and policies for reaching those goods. From that standpoint, a campaign like Ron Paul's could have been very valuable, in much the same way that the populist campaigns of “Fighting Bob” La Follette was a success; although the candidate lost, the campaign won in that his major causes became part and parcel of American politics. Ron Paul is not likely to have that kind of success, neither for himself nor for his cause.

It is not that other candidates do not use the rhetoric of liberty. Mitt Romney, for example, claimed to be a champion of the “free market,” and then proposed giving the automakers $20 billion. McCain opposed the Cheney/Bush “tax cuts,” and then insists on making them permanent. (I put “tax cuts” in quotes because there were no such cuts; there was a tax shift. Borrowing is taxing as well, but merely a tax you shift to the next generation.) And Huckabee wants to slap us all with a 30% sales tax and massive tax increases at the state and local level. And all of them—except Ron Paul—actively support an illegal and pointless war. They all use the rhetoric of constitutional liberty, but in reality they all support the torture state, the imperial presidency, the bankrupt government, and foreign adventures. A Ron Paul campaign that at least broke into double digits would have served as a warning to political leaders of both the right and the left that there remains in this country a significant sentiment for freedom and constitutional government.

Alas, I think the Ron Paul campaign has been counter-productive. It could be argued from his poor results that such sentiments are confined to a fringe group and need not be taken seriously in political calculations. He has demonstrated that you can ignore the reality of freedom so long as you pay homage to the rhetoric. Paul himself was never able to get beyond that rhetoric to articulate a coherent vision and practical policies. Indeed, clicking on the “issues” button on his own website gives only the most superficial discussion of the issues. Comparing all the candidates' web sites, Paul has, if anything, the most superficial discussions. Had Paul been consistently able to break even into the 10-15% range, he might have had a great influence on American politics; he might have established himself as the leader of a group that the Republican Party could not afford to ignore. As it is, he only demonstrated their impotence.

It is not that he did not have the money to do the job. Indeed, he has been successful in fundraising. But he has been less successful in finding useful ways to spend the money. He was no better than Romney or Giuliani at using his political funding wisely. And he turned out to be both a poor campaigner and poor debater. Well, there is not much he can do about his naturally whiny voice, but at least he was willing to defend the Constitution against all comers. Or so I thought. But in his latest ad, he is using all that money he raised not to defend the Constitution, but to attack one of its bedrock principles; he is as willing to abandon the Constitution for political advantage as is any of his rivals, Republican or Democrat. The principle that Ron Paul is now attacking is that of birthright citizenship. (see the ad here.)

Of course the ad plays to the immigration issue, and does so in the standard fear-mongering terms that might be expected from nearly any other campaign; he does not use the opportunity to articulate a “libertarian” view, but a purely nationalistic and even xenophobic one. Nevertheless, that is an issue that can be argued either way, and I do not here argue it one way or the other. His particular view is not where the problem comes in. Rather, the problem is that in the course of this ad, he calls for an end to a bedrock constitutional principle, that of “Birthright citizenship.” This has been a part of American tradition since the founding and part of the Constitution since the 14th amendment. Ending it would require repeal of at least part of the 14th amendment. This is a strange “defense” of the Constitution. Even that's okay; after all, the Constitution is not holy writ and has a mechanism for change. But should this principle be abandoned? Can it be overturned without great harm to our understanding of citizenship and the role of government?

Birthright makes citizenship an “act of God,” as it were. Repealing the 14th amendment would make the granting of citizenship purely an act of some government department or other. We would all become, in effect, “naturalized” citizens, whose membership in the body politic was in the gift of the bureaucracy. At a time of the torture state and the imperial presidency, in a time when the government seeks the power to declare some citizens “enemy combatants” (whatever that means) and to strip them of all rights before bringing them to trial, this is a dangerous idea. And whatever one thinks of this idea, one cannot really call it a “libertarian” idea. Indeed, making citizenship a gift of government seems to me to be the opposite of libertarianism, because what the bureaucracy gives, the bureaucracy may take away.

I am not a libertarian, for reasons I have laid out before (see Why I am not a Libertarian.) Nevertheless, I wish the libertarians well, and I believe a Distributist state would resemble the libertarian ideal more than it would resemble anything else. Further, I believe that libertarianism is impossible without well-distributed property. So I had good reasons for wishing Ron Paul well. I am truly saddened to see him sell out his principles for a few votes. As it is, he is not likely to get those votes; he sold his birthright and didn't even get what Esau got: a mess of porridge. It is, I think, a sad ending to a promising campaign.


Vi Saturday, February 16, 2008 at 2:26:00 PM CST  

John, I haven't yet seen Representative Paul's ad, but I'm inclined to think that a stronger case can be made for such a proposal than you think. (I say "such a proposal" advisedly, as Paul's specific one may be quite weak.) All you'd need to do to properly (IMHO) amend the constitution is to require that parents be citizens or legal aliens of the US for a child born here to be granted automatic citizenship. If illegally here, then they can't hide behind that dodge. That seems to me a reasonable requirement, and one necessary to protect against what can otherwise be something of a shell game.

Incidentally, the 14th amendment is possibly in historical terms the most dubious in the legality of its enactment, and perhaps the one most susceptible to interpretation contrary to its original intent.

John Médaille Saturday, February 16, 2008 at 9:27:00 PM CST  

Vi, you can see the ad by clicking on the word "here." Point well taken on the 14th amendment. However, birthright citizenship was part of the legal tradition before the 14th amendment, and is certainly part of the constitution now. If some authority (say the Supreme Court) were to rule that the 14th Amendment was not validly ratified, there is no doubt that it would be speedily re-introduced and re-ratified in short order.

The more pressing question is why are you bothered by citizenship as a birthright? In any case, I think Paul's pandering to the immigration issue is, at best, peripheral to his libertarian campaign. The neo-cons have been able to marginalize the old-line conservatives, even in their own party. Paul's campaign could have demonstrated the depth of conservative concerns about the New Republican Orthodoxy. As it is, I am afraid that he has merely added to the marginalization and advanced thereby the neo-con cause.

Vi Monday, February 18, 2008 at 1:39:00 AM CST  

Hi John, Viking here again, tho I may appear as that stupid "Vi" again. (What happened to the nickname field?) Thanks for the advice on the ad, but I did know how to see it, just hadn't bothered to do so. And glad we agree, largely at least, on the questionability of the 14th amendment. I DO fault Paul for making the case for law-and-order without mentioning that it would take a constitutional amendment for that to be the law.

I'm not so sure, tho, that the 14th would be so speedily re-ratified, if at all. There are some features of it that are disquieting, the citizenship issue being just one. The more important one at the time was probably the first clause of the second sentence: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States". This basically gave both the US Supreme Court and Congress "carte blanche" to overrule states whenever they saw fit. (Sorry, I haven't figured out how to italicize foreign words on this.) Anyway, disregarding my cybernetic ignorance, that may have been why New Jersey and Ohio tried (and failed) to retract their previous ratifications, suspecting that the former legislatures hadn't given proper thought to the ramifications.

As to the "more pressing question", I'm not at all bothered by birthright citizenship, as long as it's from a couple who has the legal right to be in the US or any other country which wants to enact such laws. I'm probably worried largely due to a similarity between the immigration issue and the Social Security/Medicare one. As you undoubtedly know, John, there is great concern about the future viability of SS/M. We can't seem to get the votes to make the necessary compromises. And if not now, how in the world will we do it later, when the pensioners will be so much the greater a political force? (Especially as they'll include such masters of disputation as you and I in their numbers!) It's a quite pressing, not to say de-pressing issue, to me at least. And the citizenship-by-birthrate, even if borne and begot by illegal aliens, seems to be much of a muchness with that. Giving citizenship to the child, after all, makes it much harder, ethically and sentimentally, to have him/her go back to the parents' homeland with them. And this matter, like SS/M, will only grow harder to legislate wisely upon over time. Do you really not see the problem?


John Médaille Monday, February 18, 2008 at 2:45:00 PM CST  

Viking, I understand what you say about the parents being "legal," but once again this makes citizenship a gift of gov't.

And this matter, like SS/M, will only grow harder to legislate wisely upon over time. Do you really not see the problem?

I do see the problem, but I reach a different conclusion. There is no question that there is inter-generational warfare going on. My generation has left the next with debts it cannot pay. The so-called "tax cuts" were not cuts at all, since borrowing is taxing too; it is merely a tax shifted from the current generation to the next. Further, the Social Security system is untenable without a sufficient number of children to support it. But we didn't have those children.

Now we are up against a mere demographic problem.
We do not produce enough children even to replace the population, much less support our fiscal extravagance. We have, in effect, outsourced the next generation to Mexico, Vietnam, China, and the Middle East. There is no getting around the fact that the future belongs to the fecund, and that a loss of interest in the next generation is the surest sign of decadence.

Anonymous,  Monday, February 18, 2008 at 3:57:00 PM CST  

Oh oh, throwing around the "xeonophobe" and "nationalist" slur. Is Medaille really a tool of the global multinationalists, lusting for a cheap labor pool?

Christine Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 2:04:00 AM CST  

I can see your point about birthright citizenship, but why do you assume he is "pandering" to the Right on this issue? How do you know it isn't one he believes in deeply? He once supported open borders, but over the years has changed his mind because of what he sees as a veritable invasion of immigrants who are now subsidized by our tax dollars, and who are not only here to stay, but are bringing greater numbers over because of our continued subsidization. What makes you think this isn't a position sincerely held by him?

One may have reasonable arguments against Paul's position, but it doesn't seem fair to claim he's just pandering and has "sold out" his beliefs.

John Médaille Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 4:21:00 PM CST  

Christine asks I can see your point about birthright citizenship, but why do you assume he is "pandering" to the Right on this issue?

Fair enough question, but then one must look at the point of a campaign like Ron Paul's. It certainly isn't to win the nomination, but to demonstrate the strength of a certain position within the party. But immigration isn't a particularly "libertarian" issue. In fact, most libertarians of my acquaintance are "open borders" people, as was Ron Paul himself at one time. So, even if he were to win more votes by using this issue (which he won't), it wouldn't say anything about his free market convictions, which is the point (I hope) of the campaign.

This issue has been a staple of American politics since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The terms were exactly the same then as now, just as they were through the Irish immigration, the "Yellow Peril" Chinese immigration, and every other wave of immigration that we have had.

The real problem is demographic. America has always been an underpopulated nation in need of immigration. But recently the problem has been exacerbated by the prevalence of birth control and the 40 million missing children due to abortion. Whether one is for or against abortion, one cannot deny the demographic hole left by removing 40 million children. We have, in effect, outsourced the next generation to Mexico, and everything else is just noise. And if a nation outsources its next generation to another nation, it would be wise to learn their language rather than complain about it. For more on the demographic problem, see

Vi Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 2:02:00 PM CST  

Hi again John,

Interesting that you cited Christine's site after rebutting her argument. Just remarking on it, that's all.

I understand what you mean about social security - and that's what worries me. The way you describe it, as something that needs a lot of workers supporting it, is what it is exactly, a pyramid scheme. Oh, it's not as flagrant a one as some in the private sector, since the top consists of so many, but there is a considerable difference between it and a legitimate pension plan as known in the private sector. A couple of side points: (1) I don't believe native-born Americans are quite at ZPG, tho we are close; (2) we haven't really ceded our future to Mexico and the others. If the future belongs to the well-educated, as seems to be the case, then the Third World hordes wanting to come here wouldn't seem to argue for their desirability as our main source of immigration.

Unlike Christine, I don't quite see your point about birthright citizenship. Whether the law says that all children born here are automatically citizens or whether it states that only those of citizens and legal aliens are, it's the law in either event, and made by some form of government. I can't see why it's more a gift in one instance than the other. If it's the automatic feature that appeals to you, I would respond that we distributists have heard a bit too much of automaticity from the advocates of laissez-faire, and it ill behooves us to add to it ourselves.

Finally, shouldn't we acknowledge that there is some limit to the Earth's ability to provide for us? We probably haven't reached it yet, but your insistence that our relative lack of fecundity is a sign of losing interest in the next generation will likely make it more difficult to avoid catastrophe when the time does come.


John Médaille Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 8:24:00 PM CST  

Viking says I understand what you mean about social security - and that's what worries me. The way you describe it, as something that needs a lot of workers supporting it, is what it is exactly, a pyramid scheme.

No, its the history of the world, the natural scheme of things. The very young and the very old are supported by those in their productive years. How could things be different?

Whether the law says that all children born here are automatically citizens or whether it states that only those of citizens and legal aliens are, it's the law in either event, and made by some form of government.

Yes, you are right, it is law in either event. But the second even calls into question even the citizenship of the parents. Besides, I do not like playing with established tradition to solve a current problem. The truth is, this won't solve the problem. As long as we have a birth dearth, and Mexico is as poor and corrupt as it is, the problem will continue. (By the way, note the movie blogged on Christine's site; I have ordered it and will write a review when it arrives. It bears directly on this question.)

Finally, shouldn't we acknowledge that there is some limit to the Earth's ability to provide for us?

I don't agree with this, and even if I did, it would not apply to the United States, a very thinly populated country. Rather, I agree with Ghandi, that The earth provides enough for each man's needs, but not enough for even one man's avarice. True, there are some things we cannot have in endless supply, such as oil (Roy disagrees with me on this), but there can be no shortage of energy, which comes, ultimately, from the sun, and it has more than enough for the next billion years or so.

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