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Turning Swords Into Plowshares
A review of Ron Paul's exploration of the American malaise
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Dr. Ron Paul has written many books but I would highly recommend his latest, Swords into Plowshares: A Lifetime in Wartime and a Future of Peace and Prosperity, for those who are particularly interested in how his political views developed and what his assessment of today’s political landscape might be. As the title suggests, the focus of the book is on turning America’s apparent love affair with foreign wars into something much more responsible, notably a nation self-confident and secure enough to desist from intervening in other peoples’ quarrels and turning instead to the development of the type of liberty rich republic envisioned by our country’s founders.

I have long been a great admirer of Dr. Paul and was, full disclosure, one of his foreign policy advisers when he ran for the Republican Party nomination for president in 2008. I have always respected the clarity of his vision and his willingness to address issues that other politicians avoid with an unflinching honesty. Indeed, during his long tenure in Congress he might well have been the most honest man in the chamber, which is an attribute that earned him both vilification from the ethically challenged and accolades of support from all across the political spectrum, even from those who normally would have been skeptical of some of the policies that he promoted.

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Most interestingly in Swords into Plowshares is how Dr. Paul describes his own personal journey starting with his youth in Pennsylvania and continuing on with his education, military service and eventual entry into Congress as a representative from Texas. His appreciation that America has been on the wrong course grew on him commensurate with his life experiences, most particularly his observation that the country had become addicted to war through the manipulation of its economy and political system as well as by its own delusional perception of its national interests. Undeclared and unconstitutional war became the new normal starting with Korea, following on two global wars that the United States could easily have avoided, and today’s world has become even more dangerous due to the web of entangling relationships that Washington has heedlessly entered into.

Dr. Paul’s account is rich in anecdotes, including my favorite about his puzzled and somewhat irritable reaction when people come up to him and “thank him for his service.” He also notes the ignorance of many in Congress and the White House regarding recent history and the ability of neoconservatives to exploit that, up to and including the role of the gaggle of neocon “chickenhawks” surrounding George W. Bush in using 9/11 as a “Pearl Harbor event” to declare war on Muslim regimes in the Middle East. Dr. Paul also makes many of the obvious points, for example observing that Americans are less secure now than when the “global war on terror” started. He notes that executing people randomly by drone deliberately depersonalizes the process of killing, making it more palatable to a disengaged American public but leaving a legacy of hatred in its wake among the families of the victims.

And war produces nothing positive. Carried out using borrowed money, war, as Dwight Eisenhower noted, is a waste of national resources that may lead to bankruptcy and ruin. It is also what should be a last option in international affairs unfortunately transformed into a first recourse for lazy politicians. It has killed tens of thousands Americans in our own lifetime for no good reason whatsoever and as well as millions of foreigners. It has led to abuses of our constitutional order, and created a national security state that is both lawless and reckless in its behavior, both at home and abroad. It has involved the United States in armed conflict in places that few Americans would be able to find on a map and it has made our country the most hated on earth.

Along the way, Dr. Paul also makes some shrewd observations about the dynamics of the warfare state. He is particularly critical of the way organized religion has gone along with the game, deferring to Caesar and seeking not to rock the boat even when the government is bent on policies that are hardly in sync with what most would regard as Christian doctrine. Indeed, I would go beyond that to note that some believers best described as “Armageddonites” have been among the leading enthusiasts for America the warlike, vociferously supporting regime change and destruction of Muslim governments and peoples.

There are some parts of the book that I would question. I am not a Libertarian and to be honest I find that many who define themselves by that label are sometimes lacking in any sense of community. Given that attribute, it is not surprising that they would oppose paying taxes and supporting wars or serving in uniform, which is of course a good thing, and it is where they and I see eye to eye, but while I desire much smaller and weaker government I do not share their disdain for government per se. In the area of what constitutes a reasonable defense establishment I believe that Washington must retain sufficient military capability to defend our borders as well as to deter Russia, which is the only world power that can literally destroy the U.S.

I do not agree with Dr. Paul’s rejection of trust fund based government programs like Medicare and Social Security, possibly because I am a current beneficiary of both. His recommendation that each American accept “responsibility to care for oneself and one’s family instead of relying on government or private theft” might appear admirable but it is clearly unworkable in practice as most people will kick the can down the road and not make hard choices. Many working class and even middle class Americans can no longer afford to save for retirement or medical expenses. Imagine what would have happened during the crash of 2008 if Americans had invested their Social Security accounts in equities.

Also, as a foreign policy “realist” I do believe that America has global interests that should normally be protected through diplomacy and the exercise of soft power and would disagree with Dr. Paul’s observation that realism automatically leads to intervention. If anything, the past fifteen years should have taught most realists that intervention is no option at all.

Some of Dr. Paul’s observations are based on his profound understanding of Austrian economics. His arguments for sound currency and against sanctions as a political tool are rock solid. Personally, I am an economic nitwit, my sole exposure consisting of taking a course with Milton Friedman in 1966 which I eventually dropped when it became clear to me that I had no idea what he was talking about. But that is not to say I have not observed an often faltering economy over the past forty years and it has not been pretty. Dr. Paul’s book cites his support of free trade and free movement of labor as part of his liberty agenda. He also indicates his belief that self-correcting market forces and the “marketplace” should often be the ultimate determinant in how we judge whether something is working properly or not.

I am not on that page. As an American nationalist who believes that the major function of our government is to do what is best for the people it governs, I cannot agree with an internationalism or globalism that both accepts and depends on transnational market forces independent of local restraining mechanisms. Why? Because unless I am missing something, which is quite possible, the marketplace is profit driven which means that only a fine line separates it from predatory capitalism. It will accommodate for bottom line reasons loss of jobs, devastation of the environment and abominable practices like factory farming.

Free trade, for example, mandates that all nations remove obstacles to buying and selling which in theory enables those who produce the best product at the best price to succeed. It allegedly works based on “comparative advantage” which assumes that everyone has something that they can produce on a competitive enough basis to survive in the marketplace. So everyone allegedly benefits but at a cost of doing away with regulation, unions and other protection for the workforce. And what happens if you as a country are no longer competitive in many high value added enterprises because there are plenty of $1 a day folks waiting to step into your shoes? Or a country with a potential start up industry that decides not to go that route because it will be seriously undercut by competitors? And free trade is often a misnomer as goods are frequently dumped into the U.S. market at below cost to drive American competitors out of business. In practice that kind of freedom can be devastating for those on the receiving end and can be seen in town after town in the rust belt. While freer trade might indeed produce a greater volume of economic activity that could in theory benefit everyone it can also be a zero sum game with very definite winners and losers.

To cite just one example of the dark side, nineteenth century England had no government regulation of its industry and free trade with its colony India. Its manufacturers were able to produce machine made cotton cloth in Manchester much more cheaply that the village weavers were able to do, destroying that industry and devastating the local economy. People starved. And the children working long shifts in the “dark satanic mills” of Manchester did not benefit greatly from the transaction even if the mill owners did. Free trade (or actually managed trade) introduced by NAFTA and the offshoring of production for many large U.S. corporations has been in my opinion marginally beneficial for consumers but disastrous for the American worker.

Far worse would be an open borders free market in labor, which would bring the uneducated and unassimilable to our shores in droves. Although these immigrants would keep industrial and other wages low they would undoubtedly generate significant social costs, mostly borne by state and local taxpayers. Dr. Paul observes that it is better for the American worker to take a substantial wage cut and still have a job than it is to be unemployed, a comment to which I give a large raspberry having myself been brought up in a New Jersey factory town that was gutted by offshoring of jobs and even whole industries to avoid environmental regulation. I might churlishly suggest that all medical doctors show the way by taking a fifty per cent cut in their salaries, but they are of course protected by the intensive lobbying of their own “special interest group” (which Dr. Paul notes).

And then there is the issue of guns. In his book Dr. Paul states that unrestricted ownership of weapons “stop[s] domestic tyranny from developing.” I am skeptical of such claims because I see no evidence that an armed public has in any way inhibited the over the top policies embraced by Washington during the past fifteen years. Indeed, gun owners might well be disproportionately supportive of the national security state. Owning personal weapons is a constitutional right but believing that it is a check on government abuses in contemporary America is a bit of a stretch and I will leave it up to the reader to decide how he or she views the issue.

Finally, there is the viability of the liberty revolution itself, that it is “AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME,” which is the final uppercase message in the book. Dr. Paul insists that change is inevitable because more and more people are learning about freedom, will eventually philosophically turn against the status quo and will engage in rejectionism and civil disobedience to get their message across.

I see it somewhat differently. I think “Liberty” is an abstraction that few can grasp and obsessing over it as a defining label is distracting. Change may indeed be coming but it has little to do with demands for freedom or the ability of the American public to learn anything beyond the modalities of instant gratification. It has a lot to do with government that is very visibly corrupt at all levels, that lies all the time and that is drowning in a sea of debt. And the wars are not only killing us, they are also making us poor. Dr. Paul does indeed deliver on all those points as well as observing that our unsustainable debt will someday soon bankrupt us. When that happens and Americans wake up one morning to find themselves broke and hopeless it will finally be time to throw the bums out. Many will even figure out that there is a connection between the warfare state funded on borrowed money and the bottom dropping out of the economy. That is when the last American soldiers will come home from Afghanistan and the troubadours will sing “Ain’t gonna study war no more.”

 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Neoconservatives, Ron Paul 
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