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05.17.11

Ron Paul, Hookers, and Heroin

The 2012 presidential candidate has gone off the deep end in defending the right to sell sex and drugs as personal liberty—and stretched libertarianism past the breaking point, writes Michael Medved.

How would you describe a perennial presidential candidate who insists in a televised debate that government has no more right to interfere with prostitution or heroin than it does to limit people’s right to “practice their religion and say their prayers”?

The phrase “crackpot” comes immediately to mind—and in any contemporary political dictionary that term would appear alongside a photograph of Congressman Ron Paul.

The Mad Doctor, who proudly consorts with 9/11 Truthers, announced his third race for the nation’s highest office on Friday the 13th (appropriately enough) by declaring that if he were president he never would have authorized a lethal strike against Osama bin Laden. The firestorm over this remark distracted attention from previous controversial comments just eight days earlier, when he used the first debate of the 2012 race to stake out exclusive territory on the lunatic libertarian fringe.

Asked by Chris Wallace of Fox News about his insistence that “the federal government should stay out of people’s personal habits,” and his specific opposition to restrictions on cocaine, heroin, and prostitution, the candidate claimed that social conservatives would nonetheless vote for him “if they understand my defense of liberty is the defense of their right to practice their religion and say their prayers where they want to practice their life. But if you do not protect liberty across the board it’s the First Amendment-type issue… You know, it’s amazing that we want freedom to pick our future in a spiritual way but not when it comes to our personal habits.”

In other words, as long we’re free to seek salvation in heaven, we must be free to enjoy drugs and hookers while we’re alive?

This addle-brained attempt to equate religious freedom with liberty to pursue profit as pimps or pushers counts as daft rather than deft. As a preening “Constitutionalist,” Paul ought to understand that the First Amendment explicitly protects “free exercise” of religion but says nothing about a right to operate bordellos or market recreational drugs.

As long we’re free to seek salvation in heaven, we must be free to enjoy drugs and hookers while we’re alive?

Wallace also asked the crotchety candidate if he was “suggesting that heroin and prostitution are an exercise in liberty?” In effect, Paul agreed that they were. “Well, you know, I’d probably never use those words, you put those words some place,” he stammered, “but yes, in essence, if I leave it to the states, it’s going to be up to the states.”

This suggestion of leaving regulation to local authorities makes no sense at all when it comes to the drug trade, which usually involves international (or, at the very least, interstate) commerce. Moreover, his invoking of the First Amendment in the need to “protect liberty across the board” means that the states would have no more right to outlaw bongs and brothels than the federal government. The Supreme Court has federalized Bill of Rights protections since 1925 ( Gitlow v. New York), meaning that First Amendment protections restrict state power (under the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection”) just as much as they limit the Washington bureaucracy. If the feds can’t interfere with selling smack or sex (under some bizarre misinterpretation of a constitutional right to free expression) then states can’t touch those activities either.

Reasonable people might disagree on the advisability of restrictive drug laws and the criminalization of prostitution; many thoughtful conservatives believe that society would benefit by decriminalizing recreational drugs (especially marijuana) and authorizing the sex trade under medically regulated circumstances. But the suggestion that such reforms amount to a sound shift in social policy isn’t the same as Paul’s provocative (and preposterous) claims.

The only possible argument for this constitutional interpretation would involve a sweeping expansion of the fictitious “right to privacy”—a whole-cloth invention of the Warren Court that conservatives (and originalists) generally hate. If the Constitution actually hints at a right to privacy so comprehensive that it protects a previously unrecognized right to sell sex, then how can it not guarantee the freedom to terminate your pregnancy? But Paul insists he remains fervently pro-life and speaks with (appropriate) contempt of Roe v. Wade.

Did the Founders ever intend to guard “personal habits” from governmental regulation? If so, then why did prior generations fail to employ Paul’s argument to challenge the long history of strict local, state, and federal supervision of the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages?

Enjoyment of booze (yes, I just poured myself a delicious Barleywine Ale from Full Sail brewery) represents perhaps the most commonly practiced “personal habit” in American culture, but that hasn’t stopped authorities from limiting the hours of bar service or, in numerous “dry” counties or states, prohibiting the marketing of liquor altogether, both before and after our ill-fated experiment with Prohibition.

At its rotten (in fact putrefying) core, the Paul logic obliterates the crucial distinction between private, intimate activity and commercial enterprise.

When it comes to alcohol, for instance, there’s a world of difference between enjoying ale in your dining room and operating a bar or liquor store. Even those who maintain that purely private activities (like sex between consenting adults) deserve constitutional protection can recognize that selling sex or drugs on street corners is hardly private, nor is setting up bordellos or pubs to lure customers.

Commercial transactions are by their very nature public, with an inevitable impact on the larger community. That’s why rules against growing and using weed in your own home seem far more intrusive and unreasonable than laws against mass marketing of marijuana.

In this context, one could argue that a “need to protect liberty across the board” should include a near absolute ability to do what you please in your own home, but it wouldn’t involve untrammeled freedom to make money in any way you choose. Building wealth inevitably involves others, and significant, impactful social interaction. Would anyone claim that protecting liberty guaranteed a right to advertise some phony, falsely packaged “miracle cure” for cancer that did significant harm to those who purchased it, or for a public market to offer dead cats labeled as ground sirloin?

Congressman Paul’s refusal to acknowledge any role for government in restricting drugs or prostitution—and his insistence that these “personal habits” deserve the same protection as prayer or worship—represents a sad caricature of conservative and libertarian ideology.

The good doctor added to the reckless pattern when announcing his candidacy on ABC’s Good Morning America by claiming that the successful raid against bin Laden represented the beginning of a planned “massive invasion” of Pakistan by the U.S. military. The Pakistani press will no doubt focus on his remarks, arousing an already alarmed public with reports that a “high American official” predicted the imminent occupation of their country.

Pakistanis don’t understand that Ron Paul isn’t a serious political figure, but most Americans do. Last time he ran for president, he raised and spent more than $28 million, but won far less than 1 percent of convention delegates (21 of 2,830). This time he’ll fare even worse, since his campaign rhetoric already seems to make less sense.

Dr. Paul will be 76 by the time of the election next year, so the good news is that 2012 will likely represent Dr. Demento’s Last Hurrah, or more precisely, his Last Harrumph.

Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show heard by more than 4 million listeners. He is also the author of 12 nonfiction books, most recently The 5 Big Lies About American Business.