Rand Paul's Smedley Butler Dog Whistle to the Antiwar Libertarians


Amid lots and lots of interesting, and wonderful to hear on the floor of the Senate, stuff from Rand Paul in his just-concluded talk about all the reasons why the Patriot Act needs to go and the USA Freedom Act needs to be amended before it's passed was a quick quote from a name that doubtless most people hearing didn't recognize: Smedley Butler.

The quote was either a direct statement or paraphrase of Butler's "There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights."

But that Paul had the nerve to mention Butler in a positive way was a great, if obscure and possibly easy to overinterpret, sign for those who love Paul for his tendencies toward reining in America's tendencies toward war.

Butler, himself a highly honored major general in the Marine Corps, is author of an incendiary tract called War is a Racket in 1935, beloved of antiwar folk ever since. Christopher Coyne summed it up for us here at Reason nicely back in 2012:

"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."

So begins U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler's 1935 pamphlet War is a Racket. Butler, who had participated in many military interventions, came to realize that war allowed elites to gain while less powerful citizens and foreigners bore the conflict's financial, physical, and emotional costs. Citizens, policymakers, pundits, and scholars have yet to internalize Butler's warning.

Indeed they haven't, which is why it's great, even though the words "war is a racket" in their full Butlerian meaning likely never won't come from Rand Paul's lips, to hear Butler's name mentioned in the filibuster-ish peroration today. (Paul similarly named a more thoroughly libertarian secret hero, Lysander Spooner, in his 2013 anti-drone filibuster.) These sort of reminders that Rand Paul comes from the curious and unique background of radical anti-state and anti-war thinking are always nice for those of us who hope for a Rand Paul who doesn't forget the rich heritage of libertarian and libertarian-ish thought. And today's Rand Paul was a pretty pure hero.

Sheldon Richman wrote in praise of Butler for Reason last year, which also helps contextualize why it's delightful to find Butler is on Rand Paul and his team's mind. Butler's plan to rein in our military is bracing by anyone's standards and glad to see Paul not so afraid of any guilt by association that might be involved for daring to speak Butler's name:

in 1936 [Butler] formalized his opposition to war in his proposed constitutional "Amendment for Peace." It contained three provisions:

  • The removal of the members of the land armed forces from within the continental limits of the United States and the Panama Canal Zone for any cause whatsoever is prohibited.
  • The vessels of the United States Navy, or of the other branches of the armed service, are hereby prohibited from steaming, for any reason whatsoever except on an errand of mercy, more than five hundred miles from our coast.
  • Aircraft of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps is hereby prohibited from flying, for any reason whatsoever, more than seven hundred and fifty miles beyond the coast of the United States.

Of course, to the likes of Lee Fang, mentioning Butler is apparently a sneaky sign Paul is secretly planning a big-business-sponsored coup–the kind of thoughtless, malign guilt-by-association that even Fang likely isn't dumb enough to think means anything worth saying, though he hopes some of his readers might be. [UPDATE: Fang insists in tweets to me that I misread him and he meant nothing untoward toward Paul by tweeting: "Rand Paul bringing up Smedley Butler, who was recruited by businessmen to plot a coup against FDR, during Patriot Act filibuster speech"–his only direct tweet about the filibuster itself–and that he "wanted to flag just which Smedley Butler Rand Paul was mentioning, in case folks didnt get ref." I'm keeping the rest of the post below as written because I do believe that a left-leaning reader would very likely take his original tweet out of any understanding of any further context the way I took it.]

To the extent that Butler's story of being called upon by sinister big business interests for a coup is true, which is not adequately proven, he was the hero of it who refused the role and tried to expose it. (Butler had an anti-big-business streak that likely rubs many modern libertarians the wrong way, though his reasons were largely for its role in shifting state action to its own ends and working against those of the rest of us.)

But just waving your hands and linking Rand Paul to "businessmen" and "coup" will doubtless add to many thoughtless leftists hating Rand Paul even more (even as he's one of the few national politicians standing up foursquare for some of their alleged values).