Ron Paul: The Ghost in the Political Machine
The ghost in this lengthy Republican nomination process is Ron Paul. Few of his opponents know quite what to make of him, while in turn he pays little attention to his opponents. Indeed, he has less to say of President Barack Obama than his party rivals do. Having listened to his remarks in at least fifteen of these media jamborees, I have heard hardly a word about specific, concrete differences with the Democratic Party leader.
So what, then, prompts this dedicated "also ran" to stay the course? With the game of Ten Little Indians just about played out in the Republican primaries, the question remains: why is Ron Paul still standing? Better yet, what makes the good doctor run? The purpose of this brief overview is to provide some empirical answers to a metaphysical candidate.
To start with, the reasons for this curious situation do not so much reside in his political strategies to secure the nomination as they do in his philosophical premises. The campaign for the Republican Party is a special opportunity to present the libertarian point of view. Libertarianism operates with a series of premises that sharply distinguish Ron Paul from his presumably "moderate liberal" and "conservative" opponents for the nomination. He is indeed a medical doctor, but he is also a well-read ideological autodidact.
Paul's campaign stump messages are simple, arguably too much so. They include an emphasis on constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, honest money, and a carefully prescribed American foreign policy -- which translates in practice into broad-band isolationism, and the avoidance of foreign entanglements, especially if they involve military actions. Paul is emphatic and clear in distinguishing a strong defense policy from alliances that entail military obligations or actions. He is not necessarily in the mainstream even in his own ideological camp. It deserves mention that there are varieties of libertarian thought that move far beyond fortress America and into a pro-activist stance, such as that of the eminent sociologist Amitai Etzioni at George Washington University.
Ron Paul delivers a number of axiomatic messages. (1) Individuals are better able than governments to make decisions that impact their lives. (2) Issues of right to life, abortion, drug use, health care, etc. can be decided better in families, communities, and municipalities than at larger government levels. (3) Solutions to social threats such as crime can best be addressed by individuals who are directly affected, and not by authorities influencing events from the top down. This populist element performs a key role in giving Ron Paul a base of support among the deracinated, disengaged, and disenchanted.
There is consistency in Ron Paul's ideological position: he rarely displays a "flip-flop." Dogmatists are excellent in their consistency. Ron Paul is a proud member of the Auburn von Mises Institute, which has championed the work of Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School of economics. In a campaign video prepared especially for the South Carolina primary, he claims that the North should have paid to buy slaves from Southern slave owners to avoid the war, rather than the South renouncing slavery. It is interesting to note that his usual states' rights "federalist" defense of the Southern Confederacy is set aside in favor of blunt talk about the question of slavery. In a political party that is assiduous in avoiding racial issues, and insisting upon the singularity of the national interest, blunt talk on matters of race and religion are, to put it mildly, unusual.
One could easily extrapolate Paul's positions from his general libertarian premises: there should be no new taxes, and indeed old ones should be removed as well; the rights of property preempt the rules of governance; a balanced budget should be a goal, as should a return to the gold standard in the conduct of federal business. But these positions are well-known. What needs to be made plain is that the metaphysics of Ron Paul's politics are not simply strategies and tactics of the campaign trail; instead, they are strongly rooted in antipathy for both liberalism and conservatism. Plainly stated, serious issues exist in squaring the libertarianism as preached by Congressman Paul and the two master ideologies that characterize the two dominant parties. For that reason, the prospect of an independent candidacy is always a possibility, or at least the prospect of moving the political process in his direction.
His insistence on individual liberty is the most troublesome, because it comes close to John Stuart Mill's use of the term. Few deny the worthiness of private consciousness in the decision-making process. In a sense, this cornerstone of the liberal imagination is inviolable. The problem is that on closer inspection, it is also impenetrable. Personal liberty presupposes the capacity of the person to make decisions of a rational sort: in the imagination of Ron Paul, he sees rationality but no corresponding irrationality, optimal choices but not self-destruction, even less the potential liquidation of others. His ontology, like his economy, is predicated on motivations of self-interest rather than grand design.
As a result, the rugged individualism being offered by his libertarian view is no offer whatsoever, other than an inalienable right guaranteed by the Constitution. Whatever the condition of the world at large, personal proclivities cannot readily be violated or invaded. Thus, the idea of self-destructive acts, as in the case of drug addition, or the idea that some may lack the sheer mental capacity to operate in risky social contexts is essentially dismissed or derided as a political attempt to restrict individual behavior. We have an entire field of psychiatry that argues from just such premises, seeing every effort at remediation as nothing short of manipulation and interference aimed at individual liberties. In the case of Ron Paul as a politician, this allows him to disregard the need for anything resembling a social agenda. There is no need for such a category in a world where every individual is at liberty to make his or her own decision, with no government impediments -- indeed, with no need for federal funds to support a social infrastructure.
Without the need for social programs or, for that matter, supporting human rights beyond American borders -- the inevitable result of a return to the gold standard and the pre-1913 age of a nation without federal income taxation -- we are in a world in which taxes on land use and property constraints suffices. Again, behind this is a belief in laissez-faire, in which a utilitarian world of perfect selfishness prevails, and notions of sacrifice, choices between competing goods and services, are little more than familial decisions at most or individual propinquities for the most part. Speaking before college audiences and campaign stops of articulate voters, such a reductionism approach as put forth by Paul to larger issues may seem liberating. It certainly seems to insure a way to move beyond corruption of state bureaucrats, and also the worse incursion of nameless and faceless government lobbyists. The economy is seen in simplified von Misean terms as a self-regulating mechanism -- something that restores the essential economic engine of bilateral relations between the honest supplier and the needy recipients of products and services.
The area of medicine as it existed in the past seems to have fueled Ron Paul's ideological development. In the good old days of the 18th and 19th centuries (and indeed well into the post-World War Two era), doctors, out of the goodness of their hearts, performed services. When it was feasible, the recipient paid the physician sometimes in money, but at times in kind: chickens, eggs, or one's own services. It all comes across like a long-lost Hollywood film of Dr. Kildare or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the devout farmer who wants nothing more than to stake a claim on a fertile piece of land in Shenandoah, a place not subject to unwelcome encampment from Northern or Southern troop assaults, or from any part of a nation at Civil War. If the world of Ron Paul is locked into individualism, it is also one excluded from any sort of disparities and distinctions that have everywhere and nearly always been found in the contemporary social world, and that emphatically engulf present-day economics in the technology-driven agricultural universe. So his is a world that is locked out of any sort of communal connection, unless mutually and categorically agreed upon, and in which notions of law and justice are superfluous or at most rarely invoked at the national level.
That of course raises the third major paradigm of Ron Paul: the American nation as such. His notion of populism has become transformed into fanatical opposition to the idea of internationalism. If allegiance to the self is exclusive, and with a possible nod to some semblance of reality such as the family and community, than any sort of "One Worldism" is as remote from Paul as is the Republicanism of Wendell Wilkie today. For Paul, the United States has no inviolable enemies, no dangerous adversaries prepared to annihilate the nation. His country is simply a place that arguably has the right of self-defense if invaded or bombed. For Paul, the idea of defense is exclusively that of self-defense. Questions of how to handle terrorist incursions like 9/11 require painful twists and turns. He views this as a one-time event, a possible conspiracy from within, or worse, a deserved retaliation for aggressive thoughts expressed by American politicians about foreign powers that have been grievously managed; in the case of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and now the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So here too in the national sphere, as with the community and the individual, Ron Paul offers only a simplistic and dangerous model -- one that has no need for policy strategy or preparation. Indeed, he sees such internationalist thinking as needless and potentially reckless. The enemy is not in dictators who aim for our destruction, but in our democrats who seek world domination. All Paul can do is provide a framework of willful American suicide, disguised as self-interest. His is a campaign that, if victorious, would obviate the need for any future elections or competing parties. The social contract and the political compact would dissolve in endless claims of individuals against one another.
Those who choose to think of Ron Paul as a naïve, albeit respectable candidate for the highest political office in the land, whatever be their political or ideological affiliation, would do well to meditate on the exact messages of this ghost in the political machine. He is an anti-political politician who goes on and on -- not so much in the hope of an electoral victory, but as the libertarian flag-bearer who can derail the American purpose once and for all. Whether by design or accident, Paul as a candidate is intent on bringing about a nation with precious few liberties in the libertarian package. While at it, this is a candidacy without a useful public life or much happiness for a troubled nation.
Irving Louis Horowitz is Hannah Arendt distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and political science at Rutgers University. Among his relevant works are Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason, Winners and Losers: Social and Political Polarities in America; Ideology and Utopia in the United States, Behemoth: Main Currents in the History and Theory of Political Sociology; and, with Seymour Martin Lipset, Dialogues on American Politics.