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Parsing Ron Paul

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I have been reluctant to criticize presidential aspirant Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) on this blog due to his refreshing anti-war stance and overall views on individual liberty. Indeed, it seems the blogosphere is abuzz about this plain-spoken, anti-establishment candidate.

Instead of allowing my personal partisan leanings to automatically kick in (Republican=Elitist a**hole) I decided to take off my tin-foil hat, roll up my sleeves, and truly spelunk some of Mr. Paul's extensive writings.

On some issues I like where Ron Paul is coming from. On a great majority, however, I find myself in stark disagreement, and for the same reasons I have detested the Norquist-style Republicans that have flourished during Bush's unsteady presidency. It's the same ideas we've all been hearing from the Bush administration and its cronies in Congress; government cannot be effective, and free markets can cure cancer.

I am going to to select a few choice positions in the coming months of electoral frenzy and analyze what Representative Paul has to say. This first is...

Government Subsidies

Most Americans are completely acclimated to a government that subsidizes certain industries and programs. I'm sure everyone who reads this post can remember seeing the logo for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting preceding "Sesame Street" in the dim prehistory of childhood.

Ron Paul would do away with all such government-sponsored community services and subsidies. From "Texas Straight Talk," Paul's weekly column on the House website (emph. mine);

It is especially immoral to force Americans who oppose cloning and stem cell research to fund those activities with their tax dollars. Apparently Congress has not learned from the abortion debate that forcing taxpayers to fund very controversial programs creates tremendous resentment and dissension. In a free society, citizens are not forced to support practices that they abhor. Congress should remain neutral by following a strict policy of not subsidizing research, which encourages private funding while respecting the rights of those who do not want to pay for practices that offend their moral or religious sensibilities.

While the moral question he mentions surrounding the abortion and stem cell issues does raise a good point, it is not convincing enough to back up the argument for no federal research spending whatsoever.

Jared Berstein wrote a great piece for the Economic Policy Institute which perfectly illustrates why I think Ron Paul is dead wrong on this issue;
Such investments by governments to private firms are not only useful but also can be critically important to our welfare. New industries often need seed capital that is not forthcoming from financial markets, especially when large infrastructure needs mean steep start-up costs: Think of the Internet, which began as a Department of Defense project.

Because firms can't recoup all the benefits of their R&D investments, they tend to under-invest. If government took a pure hands-off approach, there would be less money put into medicine, technology, aviation and most other cutting-edge fields.

For a more concrete example, take aspirin as a case study;

The highest payoff to government spending on research may come from funding research in areas where it is prohibitively expensive to establish the system of property rights that makes private profit possible.

A prominent example of this phenomenon, mentioned above, is the discovery that aspirin can prevent heart attacks and death from heart attacks. It is difficult to conceive of realistic circumstances in which a producer of aspirin could gain exclusive rights to sell aspirin for this indication, and it is unlikely that the discovery that aspirin had such beneficial effects markedly increased the profits of its producers. Moreover, since aspirin is produced by many firms, no one of them had much to gain by financing this kind of research.
While some may consider Ron Paul's ultra-conservative policy positions exciting, I see as much room for disaster as I did when first hearing George Bush's small-government ideals. Consider a few of the things we all take for granted that government-funded research has provided;
  • Computers (ENIAC, the world's first all-electronic computer, funded by the DoD in 1946)
  • The Internet (DARPA, 1969)
  • Global Positioning Systems (DoD, 1973)
  • Chemotherapy (NIH, 50's and 60's)
Just to name a few.

Before voters decide to hand the reins to a true free-marketer like Paul (as opposed to the pseudo-conservative, big-budget Bush administration) they should take a moment to reflect on all the good done by government-funded research, and the possibilities that await us if we continue to properly subsidize research and development.
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Mike Kuykendall is a progressive, patriotic veteran of the U.S. Air Force, fighting hard to save our democracy.
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