March 11, 2011
The Curious Case of Ron Paul
He is kind of like a rock star, a nerdy professor, and your crazy uncle rolled into one. Ron Paul, a medical doctor and longtime Republican congressman from Texas, is a fundraising machine who, despite his quirkiness, should be considered a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. But according to the mainstream conservative press, he is nowhere in the equation.
In his recent editorial "The Fighters vs. the Fixers," appearing on National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg discussed what I suspect is his crop of contenders for the upcoming election: Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee. Considering that Paul smoked all of these candidates in the 2011 CPAC straw poll, where he garnered 30% of the vote, it was an odd choice to leave him out, and even more so when you account for the fact that Goldberg's recently edited book Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation featured several essays in which the authors expressed strong libertarian points of view.
But Goldberg is not alone; among his peers; it is difficult to find anyone who does not shrug off Paul as anything more than a nuisance. In my opinion, that is a big mistake. First and foremost, among contemporary politicians, Paul is the most zealous defender of individual liberty as it was classically defined and understood by the founders. In a country where 50% of the citizens pay no income tax and the redistribution of wealth has become standard operating procedure, conservatives should cheer when a politician has the courage to proclaim, "The government should not be able to do anything that an individual cannot do [without committing a crime]."
That was from Paul's recent CPAC speech, and it harkens back to the great classical liberal thinker Frederick Bastiat, who opposed redistributionist policies on moral grounds. In his famous work The Law, Bastiat defined legalized plunder as follows:
See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.1
At a time when the official Republican position against increasing taxes on the wealthy (those making greater than 250K per year) argues that doing so would harm the economic recovery -- which is true, but not the point -- it is refreshing to know that there is a politician who will speak to the morality of the issue.
Next, Paul is an outspoken advocate of Austrian economics. Without being an economist myself, I would say that this economic school of thought argues against econometric models, state planning, bailouts, economic stimulus, and the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. One of the hallmarks of Austrian economics, for which Hayek won a Nobel Prize, is the view that central banks create asset bubbles and hence the business cycle. Austrian economics predicted the recent housing collapse and economic recession when the mainstream economists and politicians, to whom we're still wedded, were telling us that everything was "A-okay."
In a 2007 address to the American Economic Association, Bernanke proclaimed, "The greatest external benefits of the Fed's supervisory activities are those related to the institution's role in preventing and managing financial crises. In other words, the Fed can prevent most crises and manage the ones that do occur." A year later, we were mired in the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. While the great majority of politicians today (Democrats and Republicans) are happy to heed the advice and inflationary policies of the Fed, such as QE2, Paul is a lone voice in the wilderness crying foul. Conservatives should welcome his dissent.
Finally, and most contentiously, Paul argues against the United States' current foreign policy. While I do not agree with his view that America is imperialistic, I do believe that conservatism in general would benefit by taking his point of view seriously. What we can learn most from Paul is that intervening in other countries carries with it many unintended consequences, even when the premise of the intervention is benevolent. Paul brought up an excellent point in his CPAC speech when discussing how in the past we assisted the Mubarak regime in Egypt because it was viewed as friendly toward the United States. Unfortunately, now that the people of Egypt are rebelling, they are angry at not just the dictatorial Mubarak regime, but also the United States for giving the former so much financial assistance ($70 billion to be specific) over the years. Paul decries the practice of providing foreign aid to other countries, arguing that "[it] is taking money from the poor people of a rich country to give it to the rich people of a poor country." If only this was not so true.
Paul vehemently opposes the practice of nation-building, arguing that we cannot hope to impose our system of government (or one close to it) on people with very different philosophical views and expect it to work. This is a logical position that can save us from wasting an untold amount of money on fruitless endeavors going forward. That being said, I agree with an offensive military strategy when the safety of our country and its citizens is threatened, whereas Dr. Paul seems to strictly believe in non-aggression unless we have already been attacked. However, I find myself having to concede that an offensive strategy carries with it a demand for nation-building to ensure that the same threat or one much worse does not recur in its place. Frankly, I cannot neatly reconcile my views in favor of an offensive strategy and against nation-building, and considering that we are currently borrowing the entire defense budget -- which, as Mitch Daniels pointed out in his CPAC speech, "is not a robust strategy" -- I am more amenable to Paul's point of view.
In my opinion, conservatism needs Dr. Paul, and more importantly, America needs him. For too long, conservatives have stood idle while the Democratic and Republican parties have begun to transform the United States from a constitutional republic into a social-democratic welfare state. The "tug-of-war," as Hayek called it, between conservatives and progressives has affected the speed but ultimately not the direction of contemporary political developments.
For the upcoming election, conservatives need to figure out what they are actually trying to conserve. If the answer is a European-style social democracy, then they should continue to ignore Dr. Paul. However, if it is the American Republic, whose original intent was the protection of individual liberty, then they should give him a listen.
Andrew Foy is a medical resident and writer whose work was recently included in Jonah Goldberg's book Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. He can be contacted at Andrew.Foy@gmail.com.