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The Single-issue voter: A birder’s look at Ron Paul (R)

February 3, 2012
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It’s that time again. As civic-minded individuals do, I’m oft interested in how the platforms of those running for president affect my life, that’s as a birder naturally. With so many candidates and elections still more than a year off I decided to do the work so you, dear reader(s), don’t have to. So here’s what I hope will be a regular look as those who would be birder-in-chief. Starting with the long-shots and working my way up so that you all will be prepared when the time comes to cast your ballot. This is the fifth of The Drinking Bird’s however many parts it takes series.

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Hold tight.  This is sort of a big one.

Texas congressman Ron Paul has found himself as the most consistent not-Romney in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.  His dark horse run at the nomination (and we all know how much Paul hates dark horses) has been one of the most surprising stories of this election season, and the one most consistently ignored by the mainstream media, much to the hilarious chagrin of Paul’s many star-eyed admirers.  See, Paul is something rare in American politics, the political sideshow.  He caucuses with, and almost exclusively votes with, his GOP colleagues in the House, but he has a serious of slightly odd views that have given him a reputation as a maverick’s maverick.  These are primarily associated with his opposition to foreign wars and anti-terrorism legislation, views that are shared by few in either party.  This sort of legitimately principled stand has earned him lots of followers, but even a cursory glance behind the curtain reveals that those positions are of the stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day variety.  There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s step right up to the midway folks, and we’ll see what snake oil the good Dr. Paul has for you today.

See, Ron Paul claims to be a Republican in name only.  His political ideology swings strongly towards libertarian and he claims to never vote for any legislation unless it is expressly authorized by the Constitution.  And, in fact, it’s pretty much impossible to consider Paul except in light of this libertarian bent, which claims, in so many words, that the national government should do pretty much nothing and most of the government’s responsibilities should be passed on to the states or private industry.  So fine.  Small government and all that jazz.  I suppose I can get behind the fact that people should be closer to the elected officials that impact their day to day lives, but to honestly accept that libertarianism can be a functioning form of government in the universe where we all live requires the sort of suspension of reality that is generally only acceptable in the within the confines of a Disney on Ice matinee.  You’d have to be blind to not see the problems inherent in every single aspect of this ideology.  For starters, it heavily depends on the implication that private corporations – and because this is sot of an enviro blog let’s focus only on extractive industries here – have the best interests of society in mind and will therefore refrain from participating in harmful practices that may hurt people or ecosystems.

I’m just going to pause here and let you recover from the raucous laughter that has, no doubt, incapacitated you.  Continue whenever you’re ready.

Ok, now?

Now a libertarian would say that those extractive industries would refrain from harming people or ecosystems because they’re afraid of coordinated lawsuits from citizens seeking damages once their wellwater is flammable, their fishing livelihood is wrecked, and their liver is covered in metastatic lesions.  This fear alone will keep them on the straight and narrow.  No regulations, and certainly not federal regulations, necessary.

Or, they’d say that the states have every right to regulate these industries individually and that 50 little bureaucratic fiefdoms with different, or even contradictory, regulations is a much better, and constitutional, solution than one overarching federal regulatory agency because tyranny something something something. It’s funny how the answer to bloated federal bureaucracy turns out to be 50 bloated state bureaucracies, but I digress…

It’s asinine is what it is, and it completely ignores the fact that ecosystems (and plants and animals and birds and fish and oceans) have no obligation to abide by what are completely arbitrary state boundaries.  Now if only there was some sort of epic environmental disaster that could expose this infantile ideology for the fraud it is.  In lieu of that, I guess I’ll just have to make up a completely fictional extractive industry that, through lack of regulatory oversight, was responsible for a massive disaster that impacted both the ecosystem and the people that depend on that ecosystem for sustenance.

I think I’ll call it Big Drillers.  BD for short.

So let’s say that BD, an completely made-up and not-at-all real extractive corporation, is drilling offshore in the LSA, the Libertarian States of America, natch.  Through their own malfeasance, one of their offshore rigs catches fire and sinks,  leaving an uncapped line stuck into the underwater oil field spewing thousands of gallons of raw crude straight into the ocean.  Again, this is TOTALLY MADE UP.  The oil rig is under the jurisdiction of Spexas, a state known for it’s lenient oil regulations.

The oil starts killing off everything in the ocean.  Spexas does nothing, they have no laws that require oil companies to be responsible for these sorts of accidents.  Those were done away with to attract the indistry to begin with.  The oil washes ashore and into marshes of the neighboring state, Moosiana, that foster a hugely important shrimping industry.  The shrimpers livelihoods are ruined for multiple generations.  Worse, the fumes start making the Moosianans sick.  Cancer rates skyrocket and people start dying.  What are their options?

Well, the shrimpers and Moosianans start suing BD.  But BD is huge and has hundreds of lawyers on retainer.  They drag out the lawsuits for years, decades even, until the sick Moosianans die and the ruined shrimpers are destitute and relying on the state of Moosiana for welfare, providing a massive burden on the taxpayers of Moosiana who have to fit the bill.  When the judgment is finally handed down by the Spexas court following the appeals and legal wrangling 45 years have passed.  All of the parties involved are dead.  The marshes are long gone.  Only then does BD pay the state of Moosiana and the estates of the dead Moosianans, who are also destitute for having to cover medical costs for their dying relatives.

Think this is just fantasy?  Federal regulations exist for a reason, and while they’re not always as robust as we might hope, there exists in the federal government a mechanism to address and adjust them such that they apply to all jurisdictions and not just individual states.  States are free to add to them, of course, but federal regulations exist as a baseline, a minimum standard, without which the ramifications for wrong-doing could be subject to the whims of partisan gamesmanship times however many states are involved.

This applies to the Endangered Species Act too.  And the Clean Water Act.  And the Clean Air Act.  As I mentioned before, application of these laws across 50 different state bureaucracies makes things needlessly difficult.  Which, it much be said, is sort of the point.  Putting together a multi-state alliance to protect a highly migratory species like Whooping Cranes, for instance, would require incredible logistical manpower before you even got to the actual conservation work.  The idea is to make it so difficult that it can’t get done, at which point the interests looking to take advantage of the natural resource, be it mineral or water or animal, have the advantage  And, in fact, Paul has gone on the record as even opposing state regulation of these crucial public trusts, preferring that industry should be allowed to police itself with regards to individual environmental practices.  I don’t have to tell you how completely naive such a statement is, but there you have it.

Another quick anecdote, because this thing is already getting out of hand.   We, as birders, are all too well aware of the importance of the federal government’s help with regard to habitat conservation.  National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and Seashores, Forest Service and Land Management tracts all knit together to form an incredible resource for the nature loving American, mostly purchased and managed thanks to federal tax dollars.  It is solely because the federal government purchased land that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore or the amazing Grand Teton vista isn’t all private property, that the NWRs aren’t hunting lodges for the wealthiest Americans, that the Yosemite Valley isn’t at the bottom of a giant lake.  The reason these places continue to exist is because we have a federal government that makes preserving them a public priority.  To think that this would still be done as effectively by private interests is laughable.  To deny that our public lands systems are a gift to all Americans, and that more, that they wouldn’t immediately be set upon by those few who seek either to exploit them or keep them to themselves, is the height of fantasy fit only for fairy tales about the invisible hand of the free market.  And make no mistake, handing public lands over to private interests is exactly what Paul’s ideology would require; states simply don’t have the wherewithal to manage these properties without massive increases in state taxes of the sort few libertarians would admit are necessary.  This is what is often left unsaid about libertarianism.  In order for the state’s to offer the services people love, including public spaces like huge parks, those taxes will have to go up.  Think the 300,000 citizens of Wyoming will be able to manage Yellowstone?  I don’t.

Thing is, I don’t really believe that any of this is going to happen.  For starters, I don’t think Paul himself has given it much though.  His ideology itself is so ludicrously shallow that it may appeal to a few, but fewer still are willing to take him seriously.  His rise in the polls is a result solely of the GOP’s discomfort with Mitt Romney.  Paul is a useful protest vote, and nothing more.  And it’s a good thing too, because the bottom line is that effective environmental policy can only be handled effectively with a strong federal environmental policy.

Paul lets his devotion to these libertarian beliefs get in the way of reality.  But the happy reality is, most people don’t give the sideshow much thought anyway.

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6 Comments
  1. February 4, 2012 12:37 pm

    Great post Nate.

    By the way, that fictitious scenario about the plight of Mooisana reminds me of another fictitious and tragic, yet fully intentional, spilling of crude oil into tribal rainforest that allegedly occurred in Hecuador about 40 years ago. The extractive giant, Chevroff, was able to degrade habitat for some 500 bird species and threaten the health and livelihoods of indigenous communities all in one go! I believe the legal team at Chevorff is denying culpability to this day while all parties suffer (except for Chevroff and their lawyers of course).

  2. February 7, 2012 9:21 pm

    Well done Nate…props for tackling politics here on a regular basis. I don’t think people think very in depth about what libertarian policies would do to the environment, you raise a lot of good points.

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 7, 2012 9:50 pm

    @Scott – A veritable libertarian paradise there.

    @Steve- Thanks. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. Last time I wrote about Ron Paul here I had a huge and immediate influx of Paulbots descend. Shame it didn’t happen this time, I was all ready for them too.

  4. Phillip permalink
    February 21, 2012 3:32 pm

    You imply that people would not be held responsible for their actions in a libertarian society. This is patently false. A libertarian society isn’t anarchy. It would enforce strict property rights. A libertarian society wou It wouldn’t be a case that would be long and drawn out.

  5. Phillip permalink
    February 21, 2012 3:41 pm

    You imply that people would not be held responsible for their actions in a libertarian society. This is patently false. A libertarian society isn’t anarchy. It would enforce strict property rights. A libertarian society holds the individual responsible for their own actions. An oil spill would be pollution of property which could be considered a crime like arson. Effectively destruction of property. This could be extended to air pollution also. BD would be held accountable for clean up as well as reparations being paid to the individuals whose livelihood and properties were damaged by the company. For every law the US has on the books regulating corporations, there is another that limits the corporation’s liability. There would be no such laws in a libertarian society.

    • Nate permalink*
      February 21, 2012 3:57 pm

      You miss my point. The problem is that those property rights could be interpreted differently in each state. Arson certainly is. Perhaps one state caps the damages BD would be required to pay those affected. Maybe another state might waive damages entirely as part of an attempt to attract extraction industries like BD.

      You assume that, in a libertarian society, individuals in each state would be equally compensated for their damages, but that requires some sort of strong federal arm able to enforce the liabilities equally to all aggrieved parties, which libertarians find to be anathema. How, in a society with 50 different bureaucracies and 50 different sets of regulatory frameworks, is anyone supposed to get compensation in a timely manner?

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