Rand Paul Speaks on Culture of Dependency, Hemp and the Farm Bill, the Racial Aspect of Drug War, and the Burdens of Being a Libertarian Poster Boy


I chatted with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) this morning via phone about his State of the Union response, the farm bill, and bearing the burden of presumed political spokesman for all libertarianism.

His speech last night, released independently via the Internet rather than being an official Republican or even "Tea Party" branded response, stressed a theme that hasn't been a particularly big deal in American politics since the Reagan years–and indeed Paul summoned Reagan's spirit right at the start.

That's the dangers of a culture of dependency, how government efforts to supposedly help can trap the poor while ignoring the real, free-market ways of lifting people up the economic ladder. (And it is worth noting, and you'll read more about this from Ronald Bailey in the forthcoming April issue of Reason [subscribe now!] that American economic mobility has not actually been particularly worse lately than historically.)

"People feel trapped and it's not their fault, the government doesn't provide them an exit," Paul said. "They don't have an easy way to get out of dependency and if we are trying to fight long term dependency or long term unemployment we have to figure a way out. And that has to be the creation of a vast numbers of jobs."

Paul believes that government attempts to target its (really, our) money to the places where jobs can or should be created will tend to be ill-aimed. "The marketplace sorts through  who are the good job creators," Paul says, through a process of creative destruction that weeds out many, many failures.

So it's better, Paul says, to "give money back in the form of tax reductions" since "the marketplace, consumers have already voted who are the good job creators" rather than funnelling money to Washington to take its skim and than back to local communities in the hopes good things happen. That generally just leads to cronyism and government trying to shape outcomes it, rather than consumers and citizens, choose.

Paul in his SOTU response sounded very Reaganesque when he told the story of Star Parker, a former welfare user–welfare abuser, in her own telling–who decided to eschew dependency on government and became a successful writer, pundit, and even congressional candidate. She is black, and Paul has talked in the past of the importance of the Republicans reaching out to black constituencies. Does he think talking "culture of dependence" can help with that?

"I think the message has to be there is a way out," Paul says. "People who have been on welfare are not bad people, they are not wanting to be there" so Republicans need to promote "a way to get out from under that and into the middle class. It is a message you haven't necessarily heard from Republicans," Paul says. "It's not that anyone is condemning anyone for being poor, but we have to have a debate" about the best ways to lift people from poverty, rather than "saying 'Hey, we are Democrats and we are against poverty, we are the Party to go for if you want alleviation of poverty.'"

"They had a chance in Detroit and Detroit is a disaster," Paul says. "For many years [Democratic policies] have run many cities" and those policies "aren't good for cities and aren't good for the poor."

Given that he said in his SOTU response that "I believe in an America with a strong safety net," what are more specifics about the sort of government aid programs that need to be changed, curtailed, or killed?

"There needs to be a gateway back into the job market," Paul says. "Things that are permanent need to be made temporary, things that are duplicative need to be gotten rid of." And his vision of a basic safety net from government, Paul says, "should be closer to home, state vs. federal" and should be "transitional to getting into the work force, not lifelong or even, many times, multigenerational."

Thus, Paul along with Sen. Mitch McConnell last month introduced his "Economic Freedom Zones" Act which would lower tax and regulatory burdens in areas that are particularly economically troubled, with Detroit as his leading example of an area that could use it. How's that going politically?

"It's tough," Paul says. His colleagues from Michigan, Paul says, even though his plan would likely leave $1.3 billion in the Detroit economy, aren't showing much interest in the plan. "We are at odds. Democrats tend to believe midnight basketball or afterschool programs or education grants" will be enough to ensure that "jobs will be better, and they tend not to understand money needs to get back in the hands of people in private marketplace," especially "those already voted upon by consumers as succeeding in business."

The farm bill up for consideration this week has a provision to allow limited experimentation with hemp, a cause dear to Paul's heart. What's he think of that?

"It's a step in the right direction," Paul says. His own state of Kentucky has "tried to normalize and regulate hemp, let farmers do it. But people are still worried about getting prosecuted by the federal government," so he's "afraid we have not as ambitious a program" as he'd like. "l have legislation to completely legalize [industrial] hemp across America" and he's asked the attorney general's office to issue a letter saying that they officially will not federally prosecute people on state level farming industrial hemp.

As for the farm bill as a whole, "it's hard to vote for a bill with $800 billion of food stamps, even with belief in some safety net, it's not a belief in a safety net that goes on and on and is not paid for by corresponding cuts somewhere else."

Obama avoided the drug issue in his SOTU, though he's publicly mellowed considerably on the issue. Do the changing politics of the issue allow Paul to openly advocate things like full legalization or targeting the DEA as a government agency we could do without for fiscal sanity reasons?

He didn't address that issue specifically–perhaps as part of his general lack of desire to be the public spokesman for radical libertarianism that some want him to be, more on which below–but did say that we need to "acknowledge the war on drugs had a racial outcome, it may be inadvertent but it's hard to argue there hasn't been a racial outcome with three out of four in jail for non-violent drug crimes being black or brown."

"My goal," Paul says, has been "to figure out a way to get rid of that racial outcome" and stress that "penalties have been too harsh for nonviolent crimes." He's trying to "do everything I can to lessen mandatory minimums and allow people to have rights restored" if imprisoned for non violent drug crimes, so he's chosen to stress "the criminal justice angle rather than the legalization angle."

Many reporters try to press Paul to publicly speak up for purist libertarian stances, as I did, as CNN tried about the minimum wage last night, or to link everything any libertarian has ever said about anything to Paul, as the New York Times tried in its big profile on him Sunday.

"I've got half the libertarians on the Internet beating up on me for not being pure enough," Paul says, "and the rest of the mainstream beating up on me for being too libertarian. It's a box they put me in."

"But I'm in the business of trying to advance a philosophy and advance an economic program that's better for the country. And I'm also in the business of winning elections and trying to convince people to come in the direction of smaller government and more individual liberty," Paul says. "I sometimes wish for a little more forebearance among the purists, but I'm trying to do the best I can to advance a philosophy and program that is more individual liberty for everyone and is pulling in the direction of what some of the purists might want" even if they "might not see it as pure as they'd like."