Capitalist Libertarians’ difficulty with separation of church and state

Reacting to last night’s passage of same sex marriage legislation in the state of New York, journalist, human rights activist, and temporary National Security fellow at Enduring America Josh Shahryar tweeted, “Dear Sen. Ruben Diaz of the New York State Senate, read up a little on ‘Separation of Church and State’.”[1] But the ignorance which Shahryar refers to, and as I’m sure he’s well aware, has become a common feature of U.S. political discourse. So I’m less interested in the follies of Diaz and more interested in those of some politicians who believe they have a firm grasp on religious freedom, and recite it along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, while interpreting freedom and the U.S. Constitution as a mandate for unfettered property rights. In particular, I’d like to point to Ron Paul, Representative of the 14th District of Texas and once again a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and to his son, Rand Paul, who is now one of Kentucky’s senators.

In a recent presidential debate, Ron Paul’s fellow Republican contender Mitt Romney said he would want “want those troops [in Afghanistan] to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.”[2] Which sounds prudent by Republican and Republican-wannabe (Democratic) pro-war standards, but this is 2011, and if Barack Obama is for it, Republicans, desperate to show they’re different, are against it. So the House of Representatives, dominated since 2010 by Republicans, voted yesterday against authorizing the war in Libya but, just to show their true colors, failed to cut off funding for the effort.[3] And at the debate, Paul replied to Romney in part,

I wouldn’t wait for my generals. I’m the commander in chief. I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do. I’d bring them home as quickly as possible. And I would get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn’t start a war in Libya. I’d quit bombing Yemen. And I’d quit bombing Pakistan.[4]

Apparently, Paul was not alone, leading 2008 Republican nominee John McCain to blast candidates who responded to recent polling[5] indicating growing unease with the Afghanistan War. “‘This is isolationism. There’s always been an isolation strain in the Republican party, that Pat Buchanan wing of our party,’ McCain told ‘This Week’ anchor Christiane Amanpour. ‘But now it seems to have moved more center stage.'”[6]

To their credit, capitalist Libertarians understand that the dichotomy between “isolationism” and warmongering is a false dichotomy.[7] And Paul expressed the constitutional notion that civilians control the military, not the other way around—a notion which has virtually disappeared in U.S. political discourse.[8]

But [Ron] Paul does not want to forsake anti-abortion-rights and social-conservative voters, a traditionally powerful bloc of the GOP electorate that’s battling to maintain its relevance in a campaign environment more focused on the economy and jobs.

Last week, Paul signed a candidates pledge compiled by the Susan B. Anthony List, a major anti-abortion-rights group.[9]

My understanding was that capitalist Libertarians historically favored abortion rights on the theory that what people do with their own bodies really is none of the government’s business, a theory that to me draws strong support from the Fourth Amendment “right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” So it was a surprise to me that capitalist Libertarians seem to have decided otherwise. But Doug Bandow critiqued Hillary Clinton’s criticism of female infanticide on the grounds that “if abortion is a legal right [as Clinton staunchly advocates], then motivation is irrelevant. If you have a right to kill all babies, you have a right to kill girl babies.” He concluded, “It is wrong to kill baby girls. But it also is wrong to kill baby boys.”[10] I can only guess that capitalist Libertarians have decided that women and especially their reproductive functions are, once again, male property.

Refusing to distinguish between unborn zygotes and born babies, and thus placing beyond challenge an evangelical Protestant assertion that human life begins at conception, as Bandow does explicitly,[11] with the implication that life suffers diminished rights through original sin at birth,[12] and therefore privileging a particular religion in apparent ignorance of the fact that freedom of religion necessarily implies freedom from religion is only one way in which capitalist Libertarians now implicitly favor a Protestant world view.

I am careful to always refer to capital-L Libertarians, referring to members and adherents of the Libertarian Party in the United States and those putative scholars at the Cato Institute, whose views I treat as an authoritative representation of capital-L Libertarian positions, as capitalist Libertarians (with an upper case L). In general I recognize those who oppose political hierarchy but fail to oppose economic hierarchy as capitalist libertarians (with a lower case L). The distinction between capitalist Libertarians (upper case) and capitalist libertarians (lower case) doesn’t always come through when I’m speaking, and as illustrated with abortion, is more important than I’ve been admitting because I thought the capital-L Libertarians still favored abortion rights. But as I explained most completely earlier this month,

The idea of a society is supposed to be that humans band together, to combine our efforts so that all may live better. This means, more or less, that everyone contributes, and that everyone shares in the gain. In order to ensure that everyone contributes, we have an economic system of exchange, which as I have previously explained, inherently privileges whomever is most able to decline a deal. Money, particularly in the modern world, is more negotiable than labor, so people who hoard money as a store of value have the option to spend it wherever they like, while laborers have limited opportunities to exchange their services and usually must commute to their employers’ facilities. Money, therefore, is inherently more valuable than work. Moreover, the valuation of some work over other work is largely arbitrary, as the discrepancy in remuneration between “men’s” and “women’s” work illustrates,[13] and as the discrepancy between CEO and production worker pay illustrates.[14] So money does not accurately reflect social contribution and, despite the mythology of “equal opportunity,” the rich have tremendous advantages in pursuing opportunities over the poor. They have exploited these advantages to magnify disparities even further.[15]

To make all this work, so people aren’t completely left to “law of the jungle economics,” with a result that they rebel instead, we have a system in which government “benevolently” provides certain services, services including those which in the passages quoted below, Rand Paul would leave to private charity. It’s hard to imagine private charity ever rising to the occasion, particularly when the preeminent value of our society is competition and the blessed rich are entitled to tell everyone else to go to hell. And for private charity to be able to fulfill the needs now served by government would seem to require that people donate at least as much as they pay now in taxes. But the wealthy also need services from the government, services which capitalist libertarians neglect to acknowledge, as Arundhati Roy explains,

The Free Market (which is actually far from free) needs the State, and needs it badly. As the disparity between the rich and poor grows in poor countries, states have their work cut out for them. Corporations on the prowl for “sweetheart deals” that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of state machinery. Today corporate globalization, needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries, to push through unpopular reforms, and quell the mutinies. It’s called “Creating a Good Investment Climate.”[16]

What Roy says of developing countries is also true in the United States, as a violent history with labor unions demonstrates. For the wealthy to organize into corporations is accepted practice, while for workers to do the same into labor unions in the United States has become intolerable.[17] And now that government should provide any social safety net for the poor is under severe challenge. karoli on Crooks and Liars deals with the capitalist Libertarian perspective on this so well that I here quote her entire posting. “Baby Paul” refers to Senator Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son:

Oh, it does my heart good to watch Baby Paul schooled in such a direct fashion. This little “debate” on food programs for seniors highlights the Randian “screw you, I’ve got mine” attitude so well. This video is from a Senate hearing on the Older Americans Act. Here are some highlights:

FRANKEN: Make no mistake, the Older Americans Act saves money. It allows seniors to stay in their homes, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to stay in their homes.

PAUL: It’s curious that only in Washington DC can you spend two billion dollars and claim that you’re saving money. Here’s a thought. Perhaps the two billion dollars we spend on OAA, if we subsumed that into another program and didn’t spend it, that might be saving money.

So, let me see if I have this right. Baby Paul is saying that by merging OAA with another program but not funding it, there would be savings to the government. Yes, that’s what he’s saying. Sanders and Franken have an answer for him.

SANDERS: Senator Paul has suggested that only in Washington can people believe that spending money actually saves money. And I think that is the kind of philosophy which results in us spending almost twice as much per person on health care as any other country on earth, because we have millions and millions of Americans who can’t get to a doctor on time. Some of them die, some of them become very, very ill. They end up in the emergency room, they end up in the hospital at great cost rather than making sure they have access to a doctor. Maybe it’s the same reason why we have more people in jail than any other country on earth including China, tied to the fact that we have the highest poverty rate among children than any other major country on earth.

So the point is, and I think we have a bit of a difference here, I believe — I think Senator Franken has spoken to the fact — that prevention, keeping people healthy, taking care of their needs at home does actually save money. And that if you deny those resources, if you leave a senior citizen home today, alone, isolated, confused about medicine, not getting the nutrition they need, you know what happens to that person? That person collapses, that person ends up in an emergency room, that person ends up in a nursing home, at much greater cost to the system.

FRANKEN: Here’s my very precise question. Does the Older Americans Act save taxpayers money by allowing seniors to stay in their homes as opposed to going to nursing homes?

MS. GREENLEE: Yes, Senator.

FRANKEN: Thank you.

SANDERS: Senator Paul wanted to make another comment.

PAUL: I appreciate the great and I think very collegial discussion, and we do have different opinions. Some of us believe more in the ability of government to cure problems and some of us believe more in the ability of private charity to cure these problems. I guess what I still find curious though is that if we are saving money with the two billion dollars we spend, perhaps we should give you 20 billion. Is there a limit? Where would we get to, how much money should we give you to save money? So if we spend federal money to save money where is the limit? I think we could reach a point of absurdity. Thank you.

FRANKEN: I think you just did.

That Baby Paul mind-bent wandering down stupidity lane there at the end is mind-boggling, isn’t it? Start with the old “private charity” nonsense. Private charities do not, have not, and can not handle the need. It’s that simple. It’s ridiculous to make this argument at all. And the rest of it is pure nonsense, which Franken handled quite nicely.

Steve Benen:

Understanding this just requires a little bit of thought. If we cut spending on volcano monitoring and tsunami warnings, we save a little money on maintenance, but pay a lot of money on damage repairs after disaster strikes. If we cut spending on food safety, we save a little money on inspection, but pay a lot of money on health care costs when consumers get sick. If we cut spending for the Securities and Exchange Commission, as Republicans are desperate to do, we save a little money on enforcement, but pay a lot of money to clean up financial catastrophes.

For every dollar the IRS spends on audits, liens, and property seizures, the government brings in more than $10. If we spend less on IRS enforcement, as Republicans demand, it costs us more.

Is this really that confusing?

Yes, evidently it is that confusing to Baby Paul, who has been raised on the bitter taste of human selfishness rather than human kindness.

None of this is new, and most of you reading already know how bent this guy is when it comes to social programs. But it still merits attention, if only to demonstrate yet again how insanely selfish the Ayn Rand set is when it comes to smart spending. I wonder if Baby Paul has maintenance done on his car? Would he consider that to be wasteful spending, even though it extends the life of his car and prevents major breakdowns?

But of course, auto maintenance isn’t something charity provides. It’s business. So there’s that. In Rand Paul’s weird, skewed universe, he only lives in a place where he is forever exempt from need, want or hunger and therefore has no compassion for those who do.[18]

It is widely understood that a claim that life begins at conception, such as Cato “scholar” Bandow makes, is a religious position. What’s missing here is an acknowledgment that Rand Paul’s fundamental value of the “invisible hand of the market,” the individualist rat race of capitalism, in which “competition” ensures “efficiency,” and the assumption that the resources of “losers” (including labor) in the competition will be reallocated to “winners” and thus put to better use—not lost, contrary to what we see with 31 million unemployed and underemployed people in the U.S.[19]—also derives at least in part from Protestantism. And karoli’s final observation that “[Rand Paul] is forever exempt from need, want or hunger and therefore has no compassion for those who do” is particularly on point. But to see how capitalist Libertarians are advancing a Protestant ideology requires a bit of history.

The Protestant Reformation marked a break from the Catholic hierarchy. No longer, according to Luther and his adherents, did humans need to seek God through a Church organization culminating with the Pope in Rome, but instead they had direct individual relationships with God. And evidence that they were among the “select,” bound for heaven, could be found as God’s reward in their prosperity in this life.[20] Which implies that anyone who does not prosper is bound for hell anyway. Which means, as karoli observes, that the righteous rich have absolutely no duty to the poor.

This difference between Catholics (not necessarily Roman) and Protestants appears in the recent uprising in Greece. If you hold Greek bonds, you are rich. And therefore, especially according to Teutonic Protestants, you are good, even if your excesses produced the financial crisis which has made it so difficult for so many people all over the world to pay their debts. And because you are good, they owe you and must pay, even if they must sacrifice intolerably to do so.[21]

At this writing, it is not clear that the Greeks (historically Orthodox Catholics) on the streets will buy into this. I hope they don’t. But that would be because my notion of good and evil are nearly completely reverse from that arising from Protestantism and that which predominates in the United States. I understand property as theft, as Proudhon so brilliantly illustrated.[22] I reject economic systems of exchange as inherently hierarchical and unfair. (I only accept money because I need it to survive the present social system.) And I do not subscribe to a colonialist notion of an unlimited wilderness available for (particular) humans—when facing deprivation at home—to pick up, go off into, and subjugate (whether occupied by indigenous people or not), which is also a notion predicated on a belief that God gave the earth to (some) humans to exploit.[23]

Capitalism in fact derives largely from Protestantism. And while Martin Luther reacted to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, it is hard to see how Protestantism has done better.

And capitalist Libertarians would do well to admit their ideology breaches separation of church and state and they would do well to acknowledge their ideological debt to Protestantism.

  1. [1]Josh Shahryar, Twitter.com, June 24, 2011, http://twitter.com/#!/JShahryar/status/84469099157131264
  2. [2]David Dayen, “Ron Paul Reminds Nation that President Commands Armed Forces, Not the Other Way Around,” Firedoglake, June 14, 2011, http://news.firedoglake.com/2011/06/14/ron-paul-reminds-nation-that-president-commands-armed-forces-not-the-other-way-around/
  3. [3]Donna Cassata, “House rebukes Obama but won’t halt funds for Libya,” Boston Globe, June 24, 2011, http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2011/06/24/house_weighs_cutting_off_funds_for_libya_mission/
  4. [4]Dayen, “Ron Paul Reminds Nation that President Commands Armed Forces.”
  5. [5]See, for example, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Record Number Favors Removing U.S. Troops from Afghanistan,” June 21, 2011, http://people-press.org/2011/06/21/record-number-favors-removing-u-s-troops-from-afghanistan/
  6. [6]Jessica Desvarieux and Imtiyaz Delawala, “John McCain Chastises 2012 Republican Field for Isolationism,” ABC News, June 19, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/john-mccain-chastises-2012-republican-field-isolationism/story?id=13878570
  7. [7]Doug Bandow, “The Isolationist Charge: The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel,” Cato Institute, June 20, 2011, http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=13219
  8. [8]Norman Solomon, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2005).
  9. [9]Jordan Fabian, “Rep. Paul goes on road tour to promote his opposition to abortion rights,” The Hill, June 24, 2011, http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/168259-rep-paul-goes-on-road-tour-to-promote-his-opposition-to-abortion-rights
  10. [10]Doug Bandow, “Moral Challenges of Abortion,” Cato Institute, September 13, 2009, http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10537
  11. [11]Bandow, “Moral Challenges of Abortion.”
  12. [12]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002); George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
  13. [13]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007).
  14. [14]Economic Policy Institute, “More compensation heading to the very top,” 2011, http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/charts/view/17
  15. [15]David Benfell, “An Anarchist in Sacramento: A Reflection on How Our Social Structure Threatens our Survival,” DisUnitedStates.org, June 6, 2011,
  16. [16]Arundhati Roy, “How Deep Shall We Dig?” Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (Cambridge, MA: South End, 2004), 105.
  17. [17]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its back on the MIddle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Robert Reich, “Why the Republican War on Workers’ Rights Undermines the American Economy,” June 14, 2011, http://robertreich.org/post/6538345540; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  18. [18]karoli, “Bernie Sanders Vs. Rand Paul With A Little Franken On The Side,” Crooks and Liars, June 23, 2011, http://crooksandliars.com/karoli/bernie-sanders-vs-rand-paul-little-franken-
  19. [19]David Benfell, “Cold buildings and hot air: the Main Street choice between empty and hateful words,” DisUnitedStates.org, June 3, 2011, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=3713
  20. [20]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991); Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  21. [21]Michael Hudson, “Michael Hudson: The Financial Road to Serfdom – How Bankers are Using the Debt Crisis to Roll Back the Progressive Era,” Naked Capitalism, June 13, 2011, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/06/michael-hudson-the-financial-road-to-serfdom-%E2%80%93-how-bankers-are-using-the-debt-crisis-to-roll-back-the-progressive-era.html
  22. [22]Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?, Donald R. Kelley and Bonnie G. Smith, eds. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2007).
  23. [23]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness.

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