Rand Paul is building a bridge — to the early 1800s
The senator from Kentucky wants tiny government. But it didn't work for Thomas Jefferson.
The official launch of Rand Paul's presidential campaign this week showcased an interesting blend of proposals, with the junior senator from Kentucky agitating against the forthcoming Iran deal, racially unjust incarceration, and NSA surveillance. The bulk of it, however, was dedicated to a libertarian vision of government — one drastically at odds with the last century of American governance and more.
This vision isn't just contained to his speeches. Paul's budget proposals provide a blueprint for how a President Paul would remake society, and the result is eyewateringly radical. When it comes to domestic policy, his views are far to the right even of Paul Ryan, whose budgets would decimate the legacy of the New Deal. It's a vision of government from the age of Thomas Jefferson, and ludicrously unsuited to the 21st century.
And yet Paul, despite fashioning himself as an outsider, will likely be a contender in the Republican primary, which means his ideas deserve close scrutiny.
Dylan Matthews has done a deep dive into the various Paul budgets of the last three years, and the findings are jarring. "The gap between Paul's budget and Ryan's," he writes, "is nearly as big as the gap between Ryan's and Democrats."
On one occasion or another, Paul has proposed completely abolishing the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy; the Bureaus of Reclamation and Indian Affairs; all foreign aid; and the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. On the tax side, he proposes a flat income tax and scrapping the tax on estates, capital gains, dividends, large gifts, as well as the Alternative Minimum Tax.
As Matt Bruenig concludes, this would amount to a stupendous redistribution of income from poor to rich, likely unprecedented in American history. The poor would see their taxes massively increased, while the rich would enjoy a corresponding decrease.
In Paul's dream world, other government departments get merely eviscerated. The Interior Department is cut by 78 percent, State by 71 percent, the General Services Administration by 85 percent, and the Transportation and Agriculture departments by a comparatively modest 49 percent cut each. The military was cut by 30 percent in early budgets, though Paul has since reversed himself on that.
But wait, there's more! Science gets gored by Paul, with 20 percent of funding taken from the National Institutes of Health, 25 percent from NASA, 20 percent from the U.S. Geological Survey, 62 percent from the National Science Foundation, and even 20 percent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which, you may recall, recently prevented an outbreak of Ebola in the U.S.).
These aggressive cuts to discretionary spending are the simple result of huge tax reductions combined with a balanced budget. But Paul also appears to be groping as far towards the libertarian "night watchman state" — limited to the police, military, and courts — as he dares. Though Paul's views, tainted by roots in his father's very long history of bigoted conspiracy nutbaggery, are far from the austere purity of Robert Nozick, it's clear Paul thinks most of what the government has done since the 1930s is illegitimate.
He's a supporter of the Lochner doctrine, named after a 1905 Supreme Court case that conveniently discovered an unwritten "liberty of contract" in the 14th Amendment and thus abolished most laws regulating working conditions. He's a fan of the Supreme Court decisions against the New Deal. His latest budget argues that anything but a flat tax is likely unconstitutional. It seems clear that if he had his druthers, he really would abolish everything but the police, the military, and the courts.
This extreme suspicion of federal government is only matched by his reverence for rich people and businesses; Paul does not touch property law, special legal protections for corporations, or even the wretched mortgage interest deduction. His position would fit reasonably well in the Gilded Age or the pre-World War I era, when "due process" for workers was often non-existent.
But it was Thomas Jefferson who made the most sustained effort to bring the libertarian utopia into being. Fighting against Alexander Hamilton and his allies, Jefferson did about all he could, especially early in his first term, to implement the night watchman state. It didn't work very well, and he began abandoning the effort by the end of his term — and he was living in an agrarian slave society. Trying it in 2016 is patently preposterous.