The Madness of Ron Paul

I believe that Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his followers have good intentions.  However, as any conservative can attest, having good intentions does not exempt a person from the consequences of his actions or views.  Given that, by diverting and dividing the right at a time when we can ill afford to be distracted, the extremist views held by Paul and his merry band of libertarian Bolsheviks are very dangerous.  Libertarianism is an important strand of conservative thought, and to have its principal representative at a moment such as this be as extreme a figure as Representative Paul is, in truth, destructive to the ideals that he claims to hold dear.

This is not to deplore the libertarian creed in its entirety.  On the contrary, almost all examples of government intervention in both public and private life have results that fall somewhere between unproductive and destructive.  However, on a practical level, anyone with any long-term exposure to human beings ought to understand that a fully libertarian society is as impossible as a fully communist one.  To wit, if everyone were willing to intelligently pursue his self-interest (or, indeed, were capable of doing it), then we could have a fully libertarian society.  If everyone were willing to set aside self-interest in the name of the common good, then we could have a communist society.  Since neither is possible, we can have neither.

This is where Paul and his followers go astray.  On one issue after another, they take wholly unrealistic positions rooted in an ideologically perfected and entirely imaginary alternative to reality and then assail any who disagree with them as being in opposition to human liberty, the Constitution, and all of the other fine things that they claim to be upholding.

Consider the matter of drug legalization.  Most libertarians believe that individuals have a right to put whatever they want into their own bodies provided that they do not harm others in the process.  Therefore, they would favor the legalization of most (or all) presently illegal drugs.  This would be a perfectly defensible position except for the obvious fact that one of the primary reasons why many drugs are illegal is because their prolonged usage places people into a state of desiccated decrepitude that renders them utterly unfit to support themselves.  Without first seeing to it that the mechanisms by which money would then be extracted from the general public to pay for such individuals are abolished, the libertarian position could, in practice, result in an increase in the size of government.

Still, that does not mean that there is no place for libertarian views in public discourse.  Truly, there are too many federal laws and too many unjustified intrusions by the government into private life.  By creating a culture of self-reliance, we can, step by step, transition into a more libertarian society.  Perhaps we could call this strain of thought "democratic libertarianism," or something like that.  Congressman Paul, however, seems to be disinterested in such practical matters.  In fact, although he and his followers self-identify as libertarians, the fact is that the issues that he seems to care most deeply about are far removed from the main currents of libertarian thought and are instead deeply tied to two of the worst ideas to ever pollute American public life.

Consider, for example, the matter of the Federal Reserve in particular and modern central banking more generally.  Believing, admittedly with some justice, that central banks are an example of unjustified government intervention in the economy, Paul and his supporters wish to abolish the Federal Reserve, end fiat currency, and return to the gold standard.  Indeed, here Paul has managed to revive one of the oldest debates in American political life -- one that defined careers as diverse as those of William Jennings Bryan, William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, Andrew Jackson, and Alexander Hamilton.  Distrust of a national bank is a tradition that extends as far back as to the days of Thomas Jefferson and helped General Jackson wrest control of the White House from John Quincy Adams in 1828.  That this debate spans centuries does not, however, change the fact that Paul's position on the issue is dangerously disconnected from corporeal reality.

The primary virtue of the Federal Reserve and its printing presses is its flexibility.  By maintaining control of the money supply, the Fed is able to exercise broad control over the direction of the economy.  Lower interest rates can help to spur business activity during a downturn, and higher ones can be used to help reduce inflation.  Additionally, as we have seen during the recent crisis, the Fed also has a number of ways in which it might directly inject liquidity into the economy or serve as a lender of last resort in an emergency.  Obviously this gives the Fed immense power over the economy, and certainly that power has been, is being, and will continue to be abused from time to time.  However, that does not change the fact that these powers are vitally necessary.

Compare the economic performance of the United States before and after the establishment of the Federal Reserve.  Throughout the 19th century, the country -- as was much of the world in the era before the establishment of modern central banking -- was subject to much more frequent and sharp economic downturns than we have seen in our lifetimes.  Much of this can be attributed to the lack of an institution to play the role that the Federal Reserve presently holds as a backstop to the rest of the system.  It was just a feature of life in the 19th century that periodic cascading panics would bring much of the economy to a halt.

Let us suppose for a moment that, by some strange alchemy, Paul or someone like him were to gain the power to actually abolish the Federal Reserve (more on that in a moment).  What do you think would happen next?  We have to turn only to our history books to make an educated guess.  In 1836 President Jackson, who distrusted the Second Bank of the United States because he believed that the existence of a national bank was injurious to individual liberty, managed to prevent that bank's charter from being renewed.  The result was a series of bank failures and a recession that lasted for most of the decade that followed.

Now, one may very well argue that the panics and recessions of the 19th century were simply the ordinary operations of a free and unfettered market and that any true capitalist ought to welcome such periodic turmoil as simply another example of the sort of creative destruction to be allowed in any free society.  However, would the electorate tolerate such a state of affairs?

The Founders instituted a government made for men, not for philosophical constructs.  Whether or not a system such as that advocated by Paul and his followers might be more ideologically pure is totally irrelevant in view of the impossibility of its acceptance by the actual public.  Thus the characterization of Paul and his followers as "Bolsheviks": it is frankly hard to conceive of how they would ever enact or maintain any of their policies by any means other than dictatorship.

Similarly, on foreign policy, the position that Congressman Paul holds is actually a very old one.  While his lengthy paeans to the virtues of non-engagement have largely found an audience among those weary after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Paul is less the heir of the 1960s peace protesters and more the inheritor of an older and more disreputable strain of antiwar activism akin to that of those in the "America First" movement.  These are the people who opposed the entry of the United States into the Second World War and who, before that, kept the United States out of the Great War for two and a half years as much of Western civilization engaged in an act of collective murder-suicide upon the battlefields of Europe.

In other words, the American people have taken the counsel of Paul and his ilk before, and each time, it has had disastrous consequences for the world.  Had the United States been actively engaged in world affairs throughout the whole span of the 20th century, both world wars might have been avoided -- or, at least, they might have seen both their magnitude and duration reduced.  In either case, millions of lives would have been saved.  It was only when the lessons of the first two world wars were fully absorbed by the American people that the United States made the decision to remain permanently engaged in world affairs -- and thus, admittedly at a cost of nearly 100,000 American lives, did we not see a Third World War during the 20th century.

The time has come for a libertarian voice to make itself heard on national affairs.  Ron Paul, however, does not represent that cause.  He is little more than a cranky old man espousing failed ideas that were obsolescent even when he was born.  Paul's supporters would be better-served to take some time to contemplate the nature of free nations and free people.  A culture of liberty is not something that can be created overnight, and allowing the "zap, you're free!" vision of liberty espoused by most of Paul's supporters to define what libertarianism is can only be destructive to the cause.