Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Ron Paul's Libertarian Roots
On December 16, 2007, on the two-hundred-and-thirty-fourth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Ron Paul, congressman and Presidential candidate, presided over a nationwide fund-raiser. This was a new tea party, with a new slogan: “Liberty is brewing.” In Boston, hundreds of Paul’s supporters marched to Faneuil Hall. Paul himself appeared in Freeport, Texas, where organizers had prepared barrels for him to dump into the Brazos River. One barrel read “United Nations”; another read “I.R.S.” The campaign raised more than six million dollars in one day, which was a record, and the event prefigured the protests that became common as the Tea Party movement coalesced, in 2009. The movement, with its focus on economic liberty and small government, sometimes seemed like a continuation of Paul’s campaign for the Republican nomination, during which he won a great deal of attention and a modest number of votes. It’s not much of a stretch to call him the “Godfather of the Tea Party,” as his campaign literature does, quoting Fox News. Ron Paul was ahead of his time.
Paul is running for President again this year, in a field that many Republicans find disappointing. And yet, while Paul is doing better, state by state, than he did in 2008, he has conspicuously failed to establish himself as this year’s Tea Party candidate. Polls have shown that voters who support the Tea Party are actually less likely to support Paul—some have gone for Newt Gingrich, whose denunciations of Obama are pithier, or for Rick Santorum, who is more forthright in his defense of “traditional American values.” In South Carolina, where Paul received thirteen per cent of the vote, behind Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Santorum, he did his best among voters opposed to the Tea Party. The Ron Paul movement has grown, but the events of recent years—the rise of the Tea Party, the fights over corporate bailouts, the messy passage of Obama’s health-care reform bill—have done surprisingly little to raise Paul’s standing among Republicans. Last summer, Jon Stewart mocked cable news channels for “pretending Ron Paul doesn’t exist,” and asked, “How did libertarian Ron Paul become the thirteenth floor in a hotel?” The answer is embedded in the question. People don’t think of Paul as a top-tier Republican candidate partly because they think of him as a libertarian: anti-tax and anti-bailout, but also antiwar, anti-empire, and, sometimes, anti-Republican.
“I think parties are pretty irrelevant,” Paul says, and he doesn’t go out of his way to convince Republicans that he is one of them. He firmly opposed Obama’s health-care plan, and he might win a few more votes if he made this opposition the centerpiece of his stump speech. Instead, he tends toward arguments that are almost perversely nonpartisan—elaborating, say, the similarities between Bush’s war on terror and Obama’s. He asks, “Have you ever noticed that we change parties sometimes, but the policies never change?” Even during that first Tea Party appearance, in Texas in 2007, Paul passed up a chance to reassure Republican voters. Skipping over the “United Nations” and “I.R.S.” barrels, he picked up one marked “Iraq War” and heaved it into the river. He was seventy-two at the time, and surely relished the physical act as much as the symbolic one. “Start with that, and then we can solve the rest of the problems,” he said.
The same vigor and attitude were on display on a recent Friday morning, when he arrived, amid heavy snow, at the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor, Maine. “We came where the action is,” he said, and hundreds of supporters—packed into the pews, squatting in the aisles, wedged along the walls—hollered their approval. That day, most of the action was, in fact, in balmy Florida, where Gingrich and Romney were leading reporters on a mad dash, campaigning for the Florida primary, which was less than a week away. But Florida is a big, expensive state, and Paul is running a tactical, grassroots campaign, and so he had come to Maine instead, in the hope of picking up some of the state’s twenty-four delegates.
He is an invigorating speaker, unflappable and good-humored despite the severity of his message, which is that a wide range of institutions and policies must be abolished if liberty is to survive. His toughest verdicts emerge as astonished squeaks, and he keeps cynicism at bay by affecting mild political amnesia: every day, in every speech, he is surprised anew at what is happening around him. In Bangor, Paul called for a moratorium on “illegal” airport searches and for the dissolution of the Department of Education (along with the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of the Interior); he called for the repeal of the Patriot Act and the repatriation of American troops stationed overseas; he called for an immediate end to bailouts and an eventual end to the federal income tax; he called for a trillion-dollar cut to the federal budget. Most pressing of all, he called for the eradication of the Federal Reserve, the rejection of paper money, and a return to the gold standard—in his view, most economic threats can be traced, often directly, to the government’s insistence on devaluing the currency by creating more of it. He asked, “What’s wrong with the idea of taking away the power, from a secret group of individuals, to print money at will”—and before he could say more he was overtaken by the sound of his supporters, who were not just cheering but also chuckling at the insanity of our monetary system. When he finished speaking, Paul posed for a hundred and ninety-seven photographs with supporters; a volunteer uploaded the images onto the Internet. As he left the stage, a local chapter of Youth for Ron Paul serenaded him with “God Bless America.” He listened appreciatively, posed for one last photograph, and then shuffled out, to the sound of a familiar chant: “President! Paul! President! Paul!”
The next day, on the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine, outside Portland, Paul wistfully recalled the American Revolution and the days before the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. “We’ve had this great experiment,” he said. “The best results, ever, in the history of the world, and we’re losing it, these last hundred years. It’s drifting away.” During a debate in January, when Wolf Blitzer mentioned that Paul is seventy-six (in the context of a question about his medical records), Paul challenged his rivals to a bicycle race “in the heat of Texas,” adding, “There are laws against age discrimination.” But sometimes he likes to describe himself as part of “the remnant”—a keeper of the old faith, holding on for a new age. Albert Jay Nock, a libertarian essayist, used the term in “Isaiah’s Job,” an influential essay from 1936, in which he imagined “the remnant” as a network of enlightened souls capable of saving and transforming civilization. This is what Paul offers his followers: a chance to get past the insipid illusion of everyday life and join the struggle against an enemy most people can’t even see.
Last summer, Paul announced that he wouldn’t run for reëlection to Congress this fall. In all likelihood, this campaign (his eighteenth) will be his last, although it won’t mark the end of the Paul legacy. His son Rand Paul, a newly elected senator from Kentucky—a libertarian, too, but a smoother political operator—is his political heir. Between now and the Republican Convention, in August, Ron Paul is hoping to capture as many delegates as he can—even though there’s no telling whether he’ll even vote Republican in November.
Paul likes to tell the tale of his political awakening as a conversion narrative, or perhaps a love story. “I thought I was all alone, until I discovered Austrian economics,” he says. He grew up in Pittsburgh, in a German-American family, the son of practical-minded parents who ran a dairy, and who sometimes told stories about hyperinflation in the old country. Paul went to Gettysburg College, and to Duke Medical School, and then, after being drafted in 1962, into the Air Force. When he was discharged, he set up a practice in obstetrics and gynecology (his campaign likes to remind voters that Paul “has delivered more than four thousand babies”), and eventually settled in Brazoria County, on Texas’s Gulf Coast, with his wife, Carol. His interest in economics led him to Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist and philosopher and the author of “The Road to Serfdom,” a polemic on the dangers of government-directed economies. Through Hayek, Paul found his way to Hayek’s teacher, Ludwig von Mises, and to Mises’s American protégé, Murray Rothbard, who grew up in the Bronx and converted to Austrianism at New York University, where Mises led seminars. Rothbard, an original thinker and a tireless polemicist, would also become one of Paul’s political mentors: he was an antiwar libertarian who sometimes styled himself an anarchist, and who eventually found common cause with what he called the “populist right.”
The Austrians, especially Mises and Rothbard, were—and remain—dissidents among orthodox economists. They viewed markets as highly sensitive data transmitters, and they argued that the government, by manipulating interest rates and the money supply, was corrupting the data, making it harder for financial actors to behave sensibly. Policymakers who tried to muffle booms and busts always ended up amplifying them instead. The Austrians insisted that they were in the business of description, not judgment, but their theory was appealing partly because it resembled a moral fable. Even now, when Paul talks economics, he often sounds as if he were drawing a spiritual distinction between the dubious bureaucratic trickery that might damn us and the hard, productive work—no bailouts, no subsidies, no easy credit—that will redeem us.
In 1971, when President Richard Nixon announced that American dollars would no longer be redeemable for gold, Paul saw disaster, and when he ran out of friends and family members and patients to warn, he became a political candidate, which gave him an excuse to warn strangers. For Austrian economists, the appeal of gold is obvious: it is a precious metal that has been precious for a long time, which makes it relatively immune to government manipulation. And for Paul, talking about gold is a way to talk about inflation, which tends to inspire a visceral reaction in voters. Our hard-earned money decays a little bit every day, just as we do. Most orthodox economists have concluded that eternal inflation isn’t necessarily harmful, as long as it can be kept mild. (They disagree, of course, on how, or even if, this can be done.) And while some of them might prefer the gold standard to our current system, few would want to risk the potentially ruinous transition away from fiat currency. Even so, there is something seductive about Paul’s vision of a gold-pegged dollar, holding its value across the centuries—glittering instead of moldering.
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