Archive | November 13, 2007

Playing With Fire

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Because Ron Paul sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, some critics have inferred (not unreasonably) that he supports bans on flag-burning. In fact he doesn’t; he was simply trying to make the point that such bans would presently be unconstitutional, and so that those who do favour making flag-burning illegal are obligated to amend the Constitution.

It was for similar reasons that Paul introduced a declaration of war against Iraq – not because he supports such a war (nobody who’s followed his campaign even slightly could suppose that), but because he wanted to make the point that a war is unconstitutional unless Congress declares it – so that if his colleagues take the Constitution seriously they should show it by, um, doing their wrong deeds the right way.

Okay, I get it; but I don’t much care for the strategy.

burning flag What’s my objection? Well, I’m not making the criticism that his introducing these proposals is risky because Congress might actually vote for them; if the mood of the Congress were such that they had a chance of passing, someone else would already have introduced them, so I don’t think it was especially risky (though it is disconcerting to see a loaded gun being tossed around to make a political point, even if the safety is on).

No, my complaint is that this strategy focuses unduly on the unconstitutionality of Congress’s misdeeds rather than their wrongness. Paul clearly doesn’t think that aggressive wars and flag-burning bans would be unobjectionable if only they were constitutional; but his strategy could encourage that belief.

Of course as an anarchist I don’t regard the Constitution as having any authority; but I don’t think my criticism depends on that point. Assume the truth of minarchism; or assume the correctness of Barnett’s case for the anarcho-compatibility of the Constitution; or even just assume (and this much is definitely true) that a federal government that kept itself within constitutional bounds would be enormously, staggeringly preferable to the one we have now – and I still think my criticism holds. However objectionable a law’s unconstitutionality is (and I do think, as things stand, that a law’s being unconstitutional is a serious ceteris paribus objection to it), such a law’s being inherently unjust is surely a more serious objection to it. As a political strategy, introducing resolutions encouraging Congress to pass unjust constitutional amendments in order to render other unjust actions constitutional (thus making the Constitution more unjust – as though whatever legitimacy the Constitution possesses could be independent of its content!) can only foster the misleading impression that unconstitutionality is a more serious problem than injustice. I’m not saying that Paul believes that; I don’t think he does. But I do think he has been trying to serve two masters – constitutionality and natural justice – and this particular strategy I fear serves the lesser master at the expense of the greater.

Incidentally, on a tangentially related subject, can anyone tell me precisely what Ron Paul’s views on abortion are? Because I know he recently supported legislation declaring human life protected from the point of conception; but I seem to remember that back in the 90s he was supporting RU 486 (the “morning-after pill”) as a desirable alternative to abortion, which would imply that he thinks protected status begins at some point later than conception. (Didn’t he have an article in Liberty in this subject? Unfortunately my back issues are packed away.) So has he changed his mind, or is there some nuance I’m missing? Does anyone out there know more?

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