On May 16, 2015, I had the opportunity to interview presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Another reporter and I had about 12 minutes to ask him questions before he gave a speech in Fairfield’s Central Park.
As you will see from the transcript I’ve produced below, my questions sought to pry into Paul’s philosophy of government. I asked these for a couple of reasons, one was that I had no idea what answers he would give and I was genuinely curious what they would be, but also to gauge the depth of Paul’s philosophy, to determine whether he had carefully contemplated the issues or was spitting out bromides.
My commentary on the exchange, and my general thoughts on Paul informed by his speech that afternoon, follow the transcript.
I had a little trouble getting my recorder to start, so by the time the transcript starts I’ve been talking to Paul for a few seconds. During that time, I told him I wanted to begin by asking him questions about philosophy. That is why the introduction appears abrupt.
Hallman: What justifies government itself? Coercion seems like it’s wrong when it’s done by private individuals. It’s commonly believed that when government does it, that is an exception, that there is something special about government that justifies its coercion. What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion? To put it more pointedly, why is taxation not theft?
Paul: I think the best way to answer this is that we all inherently believe that for me to use coercion to tell you to do something as an individual is wrong. We have this idea that there is a non-aggression principle that aggression is something we shouldn’t use on another individual. Governments do use aggression and do use coercion. I don’t think we give up on the principle of saying it’s wrong, what we do is we acknowledge that it’s wrong, but we acknowledge that we want as little of it as possible. So really, it’s an argument that government that governs best, governs least because you have to give up some of your liberty to have government.
Now, if you want to be a purist and say all aggression against other individuals, governmental or individual, is wrong, then you’d believe in no government, but most of us believe we need some government, we need some stabilizing force in society, and so you give up some of your liberties.
I always tell people there are two reasons we minimize government: there’s the liberty argument and the efficiency argument. The liberty argument is, if you tax me 100 percent, then I’m zero perfect free. [If you] tax me 90 percent, then I’m 10 percent free. So the thing is, we want to minimize taxation because it is a form of coercion. So we don’t want a lot of it, we want a little bit of it if we have to have some government.
The efficiency argument is what Milton Friedman put forward, and Milton Friedman said nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as their own, so it’s an argument for not giving a lot of money to a distant government, because they’re not very wise in how they spend it, and if you have to give it to a politician, you’d want to give it to a more local politician because you have more interaction with that politician, and ultimately you’d rather keep more for yourself because you’ll make wiser decisions than government.
Hallman: Yes, certainly. I’m not against all forms of coercion. What I was trying to get at is if you think there is something special about government that gives it political authority. That is, is there something about government that allows it to coerce people in a way that private individuals cannot? Surely, we understand there are extreme cases where a private individual can coerce someone [such as] in the case of self-defense or to prevent something very terrible from happening. I guess what I’m trying to get at is …
Paul: Most societies, in their original state, decided there would be a social compact.
Hallman: Ok, so it’s a social contract argument?
Paul: It kind of is, but nobody actually signs it.
Paul: It’s an unstated, acceptance or agreement among a community that there will be some government. It isn’t abandoning the principle that government has to use coercive force. It’s acknowledging that, and trying to minimize that.
Hallman: [Let me] move on to another issue, but it’s along that same line about your general philosophy of government, and that is immigration restrictions. Immigration is in the news a lot. Immigration restrictions seem like an act of coercion, an act of aggression, preventing someone from moving where they want to, taking a job where they want to. So it seems like, on the surface, that is wrong. Why do you think immigration restrictions are justified?
Paul: Milton Friedman also had something good to say on this. He said basically you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. So the problem is … we’ve agreed to have some coercion and compulsion in our government. In our system, it’s much greater than I would have, so half of my income is taken from me and given to government. If we say we’re going to have an open border in that system, then it would be 75 percent or maybe 100 percent of my income that goes to other people through a form of compulsion. There was a PEW study that added up data from a lot of different countries, and asked them, if you could, would you go to the United States? 600 million would come. We’re a country of 300 million, it would be a bit disruptive to have 600 million people show up, so it has to be an orderly process, and there is now a great religious sort of struggle and war going on [and people] who for many different reasons, don’t like Americans and would come and kill us, so you have to know they’re coming across the border to try to stop them.
Hallman: Although, screening those out wouldn’t justify the kind of quotas that the government has instituted. To talk about what you just said about welfare, it’s true that welfare is an act of coercion, but I would think immigration controls may be a more grievous kind of coercion. You’re preventing someone from improving their life, perhaps by an order of magnitude in their earnings, if we talk about someone in Haiti or India.
Paul: If it were only border controls that had to do with people coming to work, I’m for as many people coming to work who want to. I’m for an expansive work visa program where we don’t mind people coming to work. The problem is, as Milton Friedman described it, is that we have an enormous welfare apparatus. Not everybody comes to work. Some people come to receive. If 60 million people come here [perhaps he meant 600 million, the figure he stated earlier], it would overwhelm us.
Hallman: It sounds like the solution and the just thing to do is to eliminate the welfare state and to eliminate the quota system. Would you be in favor of that, those two measures side-by-side?
Paul: We rarely get decisions like that. We get decisions on, “Do you want to improve the immigration system?” I think the immigration system is broken for a lot of reasons. We have 11 million people here who came in here and explicitly broke our laws to get here. So we do have to figure out something to do or 11 million more will come, so that means the immigration system writ large needs to be reformed and fixed.
[Questions by the radio station]
Hallman: Senator, I wanted to ask you a question about the use of drones and drone strikes. Of course, you became very famous for the drone filibuster you did a few years ago. The United States military is operating under a protocol that allows it to claim a very low number of civilian deaths because of how it counts civilians. Any male who is military age, whether they are armed, whether they’re a known member of al Qaeda, regardless of their identity, is counted as a combatant in a drone strike. Is that something the federal government needs to change … that the military needs to change that policy, to look at how it conducts drone strikes?
Paul: Yes. If you look at what we do, I think drones like any other weapon, can be useful in war, but I do think that ultimately there is an infinite amount of people who will rise up once you eliminate one level of leaders … another group lines up. Inevitably, there are accidents that happen, when a bomb lands on a wedding party, you inflame the thousand relatives of those people for the next … until memory is forgotten, which is sometimes centuries. So, we have to protect ourselves, but we also have to be aware that we have to do it in a way that does not make the situation worse.
To my opening question, it sounds like Paul thought I was asking him “Why is coercion justified?” and not the question I actually asked, which was, “What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion?”
After having a day to reflect on this question and why Paul did not answer it directly, I don’t think the question was too vague, and that Paul couldn’t tell what I was asking. Rather, I think the question is so rarely posed to legislators that Paul did not have a prepared response to it. I don’t fault him too much for this, since I’m fairly certain I would have gotten the same response from the other 99 senators.
When I clarify that I’m not asking about coercion generally, but specifically about the difference between governmental and private coercion, Paul alludes to the supposed “social compact,” while immediately acknowledging that it’s not a real compact that citizens have agreed to.
Social contract arguments do not make sense to me. The reason contracts have moral force is that the parties agree to them, so the fact that the social contract was not agreed to means it does not have the force of an ordinary contract.
My views on this subject are influenced by having just read Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority,” in which he counters arguments for political authority, including social contract arguments. One variation he considers, and perhaps the one Paul meant, is a hypothetical social contract, one that we would have agreed to had we known all the facts, or something like that.
Imagine someone who is knocked unconscious and needs a life-saving operation, but we cannot obtain the person’s consent before operating. We can surmise the person would have agreed to the operation had they been able to, so we are justified in operating on the person. Is this analogous to a hypothetical social contract? No. In our example, the reason we are justified in operating is that the patient cannot consent. If the patient remains conscious and informs us they do not want an operation, we are not justified in forcing them to have one. This is analogous to how we find ourselves in the face of government coercion. We are in a position to consent to coercion, just like the conscious patient is able to consent to the surgery, so therefore government must obtain our consent before governing us. It cannot rely on hypothetical agreement when actual agreement is achievable.
One thing we learn from the interview is that Milton Friedman is a major influence on Paul’s views. I am heartened to hear that. It is important to keep in mind that Friedman was against the welfare state, not immigration. In fact, he was fully supportive of immigration as long as it was illegal:
Friedman: Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.
Friedman’s views aside, those who make the welfare objection to free legal immigration must answer two questions: 1) Given there is some tension between the size of the welfare state and free immigration, which is worse? Welfare or immigration restrictions? and 2) Is there some way to mitigate the effects of immigration on the welfare state that do not involve outright prohibition of immigration?
To question #1, it does not at all seem obvious to me that the tension between welfare and immigration implies immigration restrictions any more than it implies living with both open borders and a larger welfare state. As I point out to Paul, welfare is coercive just as immigration restrictions are coercive, so we must weigh the wrongness of each act of coercion.
Immigration restrictions appear to cause misery on a level the welfare state does not and could not based on any reasonable expectation of how Congress would respond to a large influx of immigrants. (If 600 million people immigrated to the country, we would more likely see a drastic reduction of benefits than we would see a drastic increase in taxes, because taxpayers do not like paying for people who are not like them.
The average Haitian experiences more than a seven-fold increase in wages upon immigrating to the United States, so my contention that some immigrants could see their earnings rise by “an order of magnitude” is an exaggeration for the average immigrant now under mostly closed borders but is not much of an exaggeration for the most destitute immigrants from the Third World.
I was glad to hear Paul say he was in favor of unlimited immigration for people who want to work. Since he is clearly worried about the size of the welfare state, I was disappointed he had not thought of keyhole solutions to allow free migration while cutting immigrants off welfare. We know this is politically feasible because the federal government has already done it. It did it two decades ago with the welfare reform act of 1996, which prevented legal immigrants from accessing many government benefits.
I was a little disappointed in Paul’s answer to my question about drones, although I admit it was not well formulated. Perhaps what I meant to ask was more along the lines of “Is it moral to kill military age men whose identities we don’t know?” but it came out jumbled.
Paul’s answer focused entirely on the blowback from drones and not on the potential wrongness of using drones to kill, which is what I was clumsily asking about. For instance, perhaps there is nothing wrong with hitting a beehive since bees have little to no moral worth, but it is still imprudent because the bees might sting you. But when we’re talking about firing a missile at a house or a car full of people, we’re not talking about bees, we’re talking about humans, and while bees might not have moral worth, humans do.
Paul did not give any indication as to whether he thought all military age males in a “strike zone” should be regarded as militants or not.
Paul gave a fantastic speech that afternoon that could have been lifted from the Libertarian Party’s platform. He touched on many civil liberties issues such as his opposition to the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records and his opposition to civil asset forfeiture. I felt I was witnessing a sea change in the Republican Party as the crowd applauded Paul’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Libya. Although, here again, I was dismayed that Paul chose to focus on the ways in which the wars helped America’s enemies rather than on the deaths they caused.
He denounced detaining American citizens indefinitely without a trial, without clarifying whether it was also wrong to detain a non-citizen indefinitely. He mentioned the case of Richard Jewell, who some members of the media believed was responsible for the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, but who in fact helped to evacuate the building upon discovering the bomb. Paul used the case to caution against jumping to conclusions about the guilt of potential terrorists.
“What would have happened if Richard Jewell had been a black man in the 1920s?” Paul asked the crowd.
By the end of the day, one thing about Paul was clear: He is the most libertarian presidential candidate who has a chance of winning. He is among the few candidates I’ve interviewed who is explicit in recognizing the wrongness of coercion and the presumption of liberty that advocates for government must overcome.
To that point, it is possible and even likely that other candidates will be more libertarian than Paul on select issues, but on the whole I believe Paul will be the most pro-liberty candidate in the field.
As Paul was walking out the door, I showed him Michael Huemer’s book “The Problem of Political Authority” and told him to read it. I explained that it had convinced me of the correctness of anarcho-capitalism, and I told Paul that I believed an anarcho-capitalist society was attainable. I mentioned that I knew Paul’s father Ron was familiar with Murray Rothbard, another anarcho-capitalist (Rand said he knew Rothbard, too).
Before entering his car, Paul told me that our current society was far removed from anarcho-capitalism, and that we would never get there without people like him moving society in that direction.
If Rand Paul becomes president, and the government comes crashing down, now you know whom to thank. ☺