Bryan Caplan  

What Could President Paul Actually Do?

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What would happen if Ron Paul actually became president? First, I'd have to write a $200 check to Walter Block. But what would happen next?

There are some major changes that Paul could make unilaterally. He really could recall U.S. troops from not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but all over the world. I believe he would really do so, and despite the radicalism of this change, I'm confident that these orders, however unpopular, would be obeyed. Perhaps there would be a 2% chance of a coup if he made the changes overnight, but that's about it.

Furthermore, there are a number of "executive order" policies that he could change with the stroke of a pen. If I understand the law correctly, the president could unilaterally end affirmative action in federal hiring (and the hiring of federal contractors). And he could probably stop federal prosecutions for the sale of medical marijuana.

So what else could President Paul do on his own? He certainly couldn't abolish the Federal Reserve or return to the gold standard on his own, so whatever you think about that plan, it's not going to happen. In fact, Paul could not abolish any law unless half of both houses of Congress went along with him. And since he is probably the most libertarian politician in either house, almost all of the laws Paul wants to abolish would survive his presidency.

What Paul could do is stop or dilute new laws, including the budget. If you want to abolish old laws, gridlock works against you; but if you want to stop new laws, gridlock works in your favor. No new law could pass unless 2/3 of both houses wanted it. Given Paul's extremism, his opponents would have to heavily moderate any new statist legislation to make it veto-proof. The same goes for the budget: Since Dr. No would probably veto any budget that Congress would pass, fiscal conservatives could and probably would hold out for substantial spending cuts. And this is on top of the massive peace dividend Paul's unilateral foreign policy changes would realize.

Bottom line: Even if, like Megan McArdle, you think that Paul is "utterly insane," anyone with moderate libertarian sympathies (and no desire to crusade against "Islamo-Fascism") would probably be pleased by the policy consequences of Paul's presidency. In fact, it would take a radical like Paul to get moderate libertarian change.

Gee, it's almost as if the Constitution had built-in checks and balances!


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
Patri Friedman writes:

Wow, you only lose $200 if he gets elected? I lose $10,500 if he even gets nominated!

The 200:1 odds you gave Walter block are terrible. You can give 25:1 on InTrade. So Walter can lay off all his action on InTrade and guarantee himself a profit from you suckers :).

Erich writes:

Patri, your action was intended an investment while I expect Bryan's was for publicity reasons.

Bryan & commenters,
I believe one power omitted above is the ability to nominate judges, ambassadors, and Fed Reserve presidents. Personally, I'm not sure what would be more interesting, the selected candidates themselves or the congressional approval processes.

David Thomson writes:

"...and no desire to crusade against "Islamo-Fascism")"

Desiring to crusade against Islamic nihilism has nothing to do with it. There is an old Russian saying: you may not be interested in war---but war is interested in you! The Muslims crazies are out to destroy the West. Ignoring these ideological thugs will not make them go away.

Josh H writes:

David, ignoring them may not make them go away, but it will take away their most powerful weapon.

Flip writes:

Here's what Harry Browne said he would do on his first day in office.

http://www.warbaby.com/dh2k/html/browne_office.html

Ross Levatter writes:

I think it's important to avoid comparing unrealistic apples to unrealistic oranges. To assume Paul gets the nomination and yet no Republican congressmen get on the band-wagon is not reasonable. To assume Paul actually wins the election but has NO coat-tails is also very unlikely. Most politicians simply want to get elected and re-elected. They would guess that a Paul win involved some message from the American people.

Tim writes:

Bryan raises an interesting point that many "public policy" libertarians overlook. To even get some modest changes in government, you would need to elect a radical president. I also think that this undermines the cliche that libertarian candidates should be "realistic" on the issues (read: Club For Growth) instead of just saying what they believe.

John Thacker writes:

Paul also could likely succeed in restricting immigration and in blocking free trade agreements, both things he wants to do. Those seem more likely than restricting congressional spending. Presidential vetoes of highway bills and other spending have been overridden quite consistently every time they've been proposed, because that sort of restriction is too "radical" to get the support of 1/3rd of a house of Congress.

Your "bottom line" seems to me to be quite incorrect. It is unnecessary to have a libertarian any more radical than what 1/3 of one house of Congress is able to support. Extra radicalism does not help at all-- in some cases it even hurts, because a President whose vetoes are always overridden may get ignored (and have party members willing to vote to override) more often than a President whose vetoes are often sustained.

John Thacker writes:

Bryan,

Someone of libertarian sympathies who agrees with your book might think that the most popular part of Paul's appeal is his appeals to "anti-foreign bias" against trade deals, immigration, etc. (Even his "libertarian" approach to defense and refusing to have allies tends to be couched in anti-foreign bias-- raising the possibility that his defense policy could actually be biased towards too little defense of other countries.)

Therefore, one might think that the most likely effects of a Paul presidency would be anti-libertarian ones, to restrict immigration and increase protectionism.

Ross Levatter writes:

JThacker: "raising the possibility that [Paul's] defense policy could actually be biased towards too little defense of other countries."

I'm thinking most libertarians would believe it impossible to spend too little for the defense of other countries...you can't spend less than zero.

What amount do other countries spend on the defense of America? How much SHOULD they spend on it? (For any who think the asymmetry is related to power asymmetries, how much should powerful foreign countries have spent on defending America in, say, 1880?)

TGGP writes:

I want Ron Paul to win (though I know it won't happen) just for the gridlock. I discussed that here.

Here is how Paul would stop terrorism, and it is ridiculous that people like Bush and Giuliani wrap themselves in the anti-terror flag while quashing bills that would actually do something like this one.

Protectionism would not increase, Paul would veto any protectionist bill because he believes in unilateral free-trade.

What are the limits of the presidential pardon? For example, could Paul unilaterally issue blanket pardons for all people convicted of non-violent drug offenses?

Gary Rogers writes:

We have always given presidents too much credit for the good things that happened during their administrations and too much blame for the bad. What really happens is that government changes very little and events are driven by other forces. Even someone as radically different as Ron Paul will have a difficult time making changes in government. What he can and I think will do is appoint people to cabinate positions and as judges that share his beliefs. I think this is a good thing.

John Thacker writes:

Protectionism would not increase, Paul would veto any protectionist bill because he believes in unilateral free-trade.

At the very least, it is fair to say that tariffs would most likely be higher than they otherwise would be under another President. He cannot repeal existing tariffs, some protectionist bills have passed by 2/3rds majorities, and he would refuse to negotiate any bilateral or multilateral reduction in tariffs with trading partners, at least according to his previous votes and principles. I'm naturally suspicious anyway of someone who claims to be for unilateral free trade when it will never pass yet always finds a reason to vote against any simple bilateral treaty with another country that lowers tariffs on net (certainly there's no Constitutional ban on treaties), and whose rhetoric is full of anti-foreigner tropes.

Lance writes:

A President may issue a full and unconditional pardon for any federal offense. However, it may put Paul in an ironic position: Either accept the duly-made conviction of a man by a jury under the procedures afforded by the Constitution, who was convicted under a law that enjoyed popular support during its passage, and not intervene the executive into the judiciary branch or free those convicted of federal drug offenses, for example.

I think that John Thacker is right in saying Paul suffers from anti-foreign bias. Paul's bill that would stop terrorism (how, I don't know) would restrict immigration from countries 'terrorist producing countries'. The reason for suicide bombers is not economic depravity. Alan Krueger has an excellent book exposing this myth; however, the drive is somewhere different. We can't stop the flow of immigration to a trickle in hopes of stopping terrorism.

The 200 federal judges that are likely to be replaced by the next president probably would not be filled by followers of Paul's ideology. If Mr. Bush's judicial nominees had trouble going through a Republican-held Congress (say nothing of a Democratic Congress), there's no reason to believe Paul would have an easier time. I'm not sure of many previous judges or legal experts that agree with Paul's views. Many judges who support that the Constitution limits the Congress's ability to regulate intrastate activities (i,e. Justice Thomas) support many interpretations (executive power) that go against Ron Paul's rantings about a usurpation by the Executive Branch.

Paul may be able to stagnate many Congressional excesses, but the opportunity cost of giving up many trade liberalization agreements or cooperation over regulation exceeds the benefit of having a 'principled' president, in regards to limited government. I don't see any additional benefit that Paul holds over the likes of Giuliani , Romney, or McCain for that matter. Unless, of course, you strongly support Paul's foreign policy stance.

TGGP writes:

At the very least, it is fair to say that tariffs would most likely be higher than they otherwise would be under another President. He cannot repeal existing tariffs, some protectionist bills have passed by 2/3rds majorities,
If more Congressmen were needed for bills to pass his veto they would have the leverage to make more demands, and these demands are things the original sponsors of the bills are not gung-ho for or they would have put them in the bill in the first place. Also, the existence of "some" bills is less important than all of such bills overall.

and he would refuse to negotiate any bilateral or multilateral reduction in tariffs with trading partners, at least according to his previous votes and principles.
He's not against bilateral or multilateral free-trade, he just thinks that most agreements are not actually "free trade" but "managed trade" that expand the government and violate the Constitution. That idea shouldn't be heresy to libertarians.

I'm naturally suspicious anyway of someone who claims to be for unilateral free trade when it will never pass yet always finds a reason to vote against any simple bilateral treaty with another country that lowers tariffs on net (certainly there's no Constitutional ban on treaties), and whose rhetoric is full of anti-foreigner tropes.
Ron Paul is the candidate who urges us not to bomb people, to remove sanctions, to talk and trade and travel, and with all the other GOP candidates you see calling for the opposite you think he's got anti-foreign bias?

Paul's bill that would stop terrorism (how, I don't know) would restrict immigration from countries 'terrorist producing countries'.
The U.S, unlike Britain, does not have a large "homegrown" terrorism problem. They have largely been foreigners granted visas, and they are nowhere near uniformly distributed across the world in their origins either. Clamping down on the sources of terrorists would do a hell of a lot more than the Department of Homeland Security or democracy-at-gunpoint foreign policy.

The reason for suicide bombers is not economic depravity.
Paul never claimed it was.

Alan Krueger has an excellent book exposing this myth;
Hah, Robert Pape had done that before Krueger even considered it. Ron Paul quotes Pape regularly, he understands the situation a lot better than Giuliani.

however, the drive is somewhere different.
Explain.

We can't stop the flow of immigration to a trickle in hopes of stopping terrorism.
Why not? Operation Wetback was quite succesful in stopping immigration from a country right across the border, and Paul's plan won't involve stopping immigration in general but just from countries producing terrorists that we give visas to anyway.

TGGP writes:

I don't see any additional benefit that Paul holds over the likes of Giuliani , Romney, or McCain for that matter. Unless, of course, you strongly support Paul's foreign policy stance.
He would veto bills expanding the state and violating the Constitution, which is most bills. The Executive has been given a lot of power, and he could revoke many executive orders. Anyone who prefers your three GOPers I would not consider a libertarian in any way, shape or form.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Why is it that nobody on any of the libertarian-oriented blogs is mentioning Paul's opposition to a woman's right to have an abortion?

TGGP writes:

Barkley, if Paul were President, how many fewer abortions do you think would take place than under Giuliani? My guess is 0.

Eric Crampton writes:

Barkley: it was discussed over at Austro-Athenian Empire. I can't understand why this is such a big issue for some libertarians. Paul would only support States having the right to set their own policies on abortion. The predictably nutty states would do the predictably nutty things, but nobody forces anybody to live there. I just don't understand a libertarian ethos that prefers that we all suffer further restrictions on liberty that can't be avoided (Giuliani) rather than having States have the right to do silly things that are easily avoided by renting a U-Haul and moving away.

8 writes:

Abortion is not an issue of rights, it is an issue of morality and science. If you are a libertarian and you believe a fetus is a clump of cells, you support abortion rights. If you are a libertarian and you believe the fetus is a human being, you support the human right to life.

Ross Levatter writes:

The MAIN thing a Paul presidency could do, not mentioned yet at all, is fill his administration with well spoken libertarian policy wonks that would be seen every Sunday bedeviling the likes of Tim Russert, routinely having press conferences where he says things that will cause conniptions in the White House Press Corps (and frequently followup stories providing people with info they never hear now).

Now THAT is an expectation possibly worth paying $200 for the even unlikely possibility of realizing...

8 writes:

Ross, I think Derb echoed those sentiments:

Here is Paul Johnson in Modern Times:

"Like FDR, he [i.e. John F. Kennedy] turned Washington into a city of hope; that is to say, a place where middle-class intellectuals flocked for employment."


What I am seeking is an anti-JFK — a candidate who will transform our nation’s capital from a city of hope for middle-class intellectuals, into a city of despair for them. The despair of those intellectuals, I am increasingly convinced, is the hope of our nation.

Dave writes:

If Paul becomes President I hope congress passes a bill with more than 2/3 support in each house banning the mass spamming of internet polls.

And then Paul, according to the constitution he loves so much would have to enforce it.

Heh

TGGP writes:

Dave, I think Paul would deny that the Constitution gives the federal government the power to enact such a law.

Kiel Stone writes:

Initially, I felt the problem with the assessment was that it ignored the fact that the only thing lower than Paul's chances of winning at all, are his chances of winning without creating a groundswell that ultimately leads to a decent number of Congressional converts. I thought that the kind of 'changing of the guards' type moment that would necessitate a Paul win would require that he has long and broad coattails. Upon further review, however, (mostly after considering the fact that Republican Revolution of ’94 didn’t ultimately unseat Clinton, admittedly a limited and imperfect instance to build a thought upon but in any event) I don’t feel that that would necessarily be the case and largely agree that gridlock could (and probably would) rule a potential Paul presidency.

I think the biggest impact would be seen in the court systems through his judicial nominations at all levels, to the extent that he has the opportunity to make them, and in more general terms it would be in the types of discussions we would be having as a nation. Something along the line of moving the thinking from how much and too what extent should the size and power of the federal government grow to are these growths even constitutional? That’s no small potatoes either.

Barkley Rosser writes:

OK, so I am going to confront this business of abortion rights head on. First of all, I see nothing "libertarian" about supporting the "right" of states to enact laws that restrict freedom. I view it as the responsibility of the federal government, among other things, to defend fundamental rights from the Bill of Rights, and so forth (I recognize that abortion rights are not spelled out there per se), against efforts by states to limit or violate them. This is one reason why I also find Paul's defense of the "property right" of an owner to violate the "civil right" of an African American to get served a meal. "States' rights" was long the rallying cry of southern racists.

Regarding abortion, I think too many people pussy foot around when some religious fanatic starts wailing on about the fully human status of the fetus. Sorry, this is nowhere in the Bible. The best one can do is a passage in Psalms that rather poetically has God saying "I knew you in the womb." Hardly a fully clear statement that one.

Regarding abortion itself, it is mentioned specifically exactly once in the entire Bible, Exodus 21-22, or thereabouts. The situation involves what should happen if a man violently attacks a pregnant woman and causes her to spontaneously abort as a result. Her relatives can levy a fine on him. First of all, such a violent attack alone should call for punishment, quite aside from causing an abortion. Second, this is a violent attack by another party, clearly violating the rights of the woman. It is not a discussion of a woman's own right to choose to control her own body, which is nowhere specifically addressed anywhere in the Bible. It is certainly not forbidden anywhere by anybody. And, even in this extreme case, the Bible clearly does not view the result as murder, which in the Old Testament calls for death. It is rather more a misdemeanor, calling for a fine. I would say to any Biblical inerratintist that the Bible does not even remotely support the idea that a fetus has any rights or standing remotely comparable to that of an actually born human being, and it nowhere calls for limiting a woman's right to choose to abort her fetus, if she so decides, period.

nick writes:

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gorak writes:

In California we have a wonderful requirement that requires a 2/3rds majority to pass spending, and it has done a lot to constrain the size of the budget. A 2/3rds Congressional requirement would certainly reign in the madness.

Scott writes:

There are many other things he could do as well.

Pardon all non-violent drug convicts.

End asset forfeiture.

If he really had balls, he could announce that he would henceforth pardon all tax violators. Congress would go nuts but this would unilaterally end the income tax for the duration of his presidency.

The pardon is a powerful weapon. Properly wielded, it could single-handedly accomplish most of what he wants to do.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Bryan,

And since he is probably the most libertarian politician in either house, almost all of the laws Paul wants to abolish would survive his presidency.

Couldn't Paul effectively neutralize many laws with a blanket pardon? It's true that he could not dissolve the IRS, but couldn't he pull the agency's fangs with a blanket pardon for income tax evaders?

Since Paul has likened tax evaders to MLK and Gandhi I'd like to see him asked whether he would pardon all tax evaders.

Bill Woolsey writes:

Paul proposes to remove the legal restrictions on the use of alternative currencies. If people want to move from the existing fiat currency to gold or silver, there would be no legal restrictions on making that move.

Because of the nature of money, I think that few people would make that switch in the absense of some kind of hyperinflationary disaster. That is, I don't think the legal restrictions are what keep people from switching to alternative monies.

Paul also proposes abolishing the Federal Reserve. It isn't clear how he intends to do that exactly, but I think he has in mind winding down the Fed as people freely to choose to move to alternative monies.

Perhaps there are now many libertarian economists who support a fiat currency with discretionary management. For the rest of us, Paul's "blame the Fed for everything" and no legal restrictions on the alternatives isn't so bad.

On these comment threads, you can find many comments that "defend" Paul by stating the Rothbardian line and describe it as "austrian." But that isn't what Paul is saying.

Brian Adams writes:

Well, you can now include yourselves into the group of elites and "neo-cons" that feel that a presidental candidate that advocates using the constitution as our "true north" is a radical. Amazing how far off our generation has gone from our true roots. You guys really need to think ourside of the box and not just repeat what others are telling you to say. Remember that there was a time without personal income tax and yes the poor were cared for without the massive spending like LBJ placed onto our middle class backs.....I think that we are still paying for that craziness. Please try and think about how George W. has lied to all of us continually, the congress cannot even get close to reducing spending (Pelosi needs a larger jet now to get across the country. Is that in the 400T budget?) We have to stop the craziness. I have homeschooled all of my kids, I have voted for both republicans and democrats and now with my vote going to Dr. Ron Paul I feel that I do not have to make a choice that indicates the lesser of two evils. Get with the program and lets get more freedom to all Americans. A Ron Paul presidency will indeed give more freedom to all Americans. Again, as he has told me, he is only the messenger........our government is of the people, for the people and by the people.

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