January 11, 2008

Are libertarians incapable of being a racist?

I guess that Ron Paul is rattled. In a CNN interview responding to the many stories about the nasty stuff published over the years in his newsletters, he focused on his libertarian commitment to individual identity, apparently to the point of losing control of the singular/plural distinction entirely:

Libertarians are incapable
of being a racist, because uh racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in group,
a- a civil libertarian like myself see everybody is a core in- individual.

Or maybe it's "everybody is a important individual". In any event, that would be everybody except for those groups that he (or his paid ghostwriters) see as "animals" -- according to the Ron Paul Political Report for Oct. 1992:

Later in the CNN interview, Representative Paul became radically confused about percentages:

Now when ah- ah-
wh- when the-
if you want to look for discrimination, it's it- in the judicial system,
fourteen percent of the inner city blacks commit drug crime,
sixty seven percent of blacks are in prison.
That's discrimination
that's the judicial cro- code that I am attacking,
and that is not racism ...

There are surely race problems in the American criminal-justice system, but the idea that "67% of blacks are in prison" is preposterous on the face of it. According to a Human Rights Watch web page,

Blacks are incarcerated nationally at a rate of 1,547 per 100,000 black residents.

That covers jail as well as prison, and it's 1.5%, not 67%.

Thus Representative Paul was wrong by a factor of almost 50. This is not as great an exaggeration as Louann Brizendine's claim about relative how often guys think about sex, but it's getting up there. How could he have gone so far wrong? It's possible that he's just fond of pulling imaginary numbers out of the air -- he wouldn't be the first politician to do that. But my guess is that he meant to quote a statistic about the proportion of people incarcerated for drug crimes.

Another HRW page says:

Blacks have also been disproportionately affected by the national "war on drugs", carried out primarily through the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of street level drug offenders from inner city communities. In 1996, for example, blacks constituted 62.6 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons.

Thus the current proportion might well be 67%. I'm still puzzled about what Ron Paul's 14% was all about ("fourteen percent of the inner city blacks commit drug crime") -- was he trying to say that blacks commit 14% of the crimes but get 67% of the jail time? I'm not sure.

In any case, he got things so tangled up that he expressed what might have been a valid point (that 2/3 of drug offenders in prison are black) as a presposterous falsehood (that 2/3 of all blacks are in prison). Those who think that his newsletters reflect his core beliefs might see this as a Freudian slip. But probably he was just confused.

[If you want to see the quotes in context, here's the whole interview:


[Update -- Benjamin Zimmer points out that there are quite a few other strange race-related percentages in the old Ron Paul newsletters, as documented by Matt Welch in the Hit & Run blog at the libertarian online magazine Reason:

"95 percent of the black males in that city [Washington D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."
"Complex embezzling ... is 100 percent white and Asian."
"Only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions."


[Haukur Þorgeirsson sent a link to a Ron Paul interview that presents the argument about race and drug-crime incarceration in a coherent way:

Today, I think inner-city folks and minorities are punished unfairly in the war on drugs. For instance, Blacks make up 14% of those who use drugs, yet 36 percent of those arrested are Blacks and it ends up that 63% of those who finally end up in prison are Blacks.

Compare again what Representative Paul said to CNN:

if you want to look for discrimination, it's it- in the judicial system,
fourteen percent of the inner city blacks commit drug crime,
sixty seven percent of blacks are in prison.

Like I said, he was rattled. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 11, 2008 04:58 PM