What You Should Think About Ron Paul

October 26, 2007

“Once we roared like lions for liberty; now we bleat like sheep for security!”

–Norman Vincent Peale

If anyone doubts my assertions about a growing disconnect between the halls of power and the voice of the people, the Ron Paul campaign provides ample illustration of my point. Day by day, the list of media organizations and polling institutions that have implemented special provisions to cope with Ron Paul’s activist base of support grows longer. Though the Internet serves as a lens to focus this support, its raw intensity is about something much bigger than any blogging network or discussion group.

Libertarian thinking provides a valid, often insightful, perspective on governance. Honest and orthodox libertarians are at heart economic conservatives and social liberals. Yet many find themselves caught in an uncomfortable quandary. The media offers few voices that dignify libertarian narratives entirely. Wholly conservative media does address a portion of libertarian economic thought while also spinning social liberalism as hostile to “smaller government.” Faced with the choice between having no popular media validation or dealing with unprincipled purveyors of political hate, some have made the latter compromise.

Yet this does not sit squarely on the shoulders of a thoughtful libertarian. Economically, the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh set never met a high tech weapons system they didn’t like. Declaring an end to an arms race no other nation presently runs may not be top of every libertarian’s agenda, but in terms of real fiscal conservatism it is a bountiful field. There are good arguments for maintaining or even improving the funding for pay, benefits, and training of military personnel. However, the arguments for a whole new generation of high tech gizmos rest on outdated Cold War thinking. Radically reducing spending, the only approach that has any real prospect of enabling a sustained radical reduction in taxation, demands a new spending paradigm at the Pentagon.

The elders of the Republican Party, not to mention their house organs in conservative media, are deeply committed to continuity of defense planning as established with an eye toward a thriving 21st century Soviet menace. Some libertarians understand that America’s economic competitiveness is undermined by every additional expenditure on military hardware that is only trivially more effective in a modern context. Others simply despise government waste on such an epic scale.

Be it because of better relations or better historical perspective among leaders, China’s approach to prosperity has involved spending restraint on the kinds of hardware emergent from the science fiction fantasies of Cold War military planners. It is one of many nations that has been able to change with the times. Between much hype and some actual policy to improve counterterrorism and peacekeeping capabilities, there have been no voices on the political right (and few enough on the left) calling to put the non-functional missile defense project back in R&D or to slash spending on replacements for already unbeatable air superiority warplanes.

Enter Ron Paul. When he speaks of a radical rethinking of government expenditures, he isn’t just talking about the kind that actually do some good for real working Americans. He speaks credibly when claiming he is as hostile to corporate welfare as poverty relief. His agenda cuts foreign aid to support corrupt plutocrats just as much as it cuts foreign aid to support humanitarian efforts. If you really believe in hardcore fiscal conservatism, in Ron Paul you find a principled advocate making promises in earnest. Elsewhere, as history has shown again and again and again, mainstream Republicans exploit demand for fiscal conservatism only to later use their Presidencies as a means to bloat the least useful components of the public sector.

Yet the long string of disappointing economic stewardship from Republican leaders is only half the story. Real libertarians don’t much care if gay couples have access to the same body of family law that clarifies troubled situations for heterosexual couples. Real libertarians do care if the government mines databases containing information on every book you’ve ever borrowed from a library or bought with a credit card. Real libertarians don’t want to see the U.S. Senate convening to perpetuate life support for one Floridian locked into a persistent vegetative state. Real libertarians do care if new policies authorize a secret police force to conduct warrantless surveillance then extract information from criminal suspects by means resembling torture.

The false narrative of social conservatism as a call for smaller government has worn thin. Libertarians understand that institutionalized school prayer is not essential to the free practice of Christianity. Libertarians understand that a daily loyalty oath, with or without any reference to God, is not an instrument of liberation. Censorship of music and television . . . well, that’s not exactly libertarian thinking either. The louder conservative pundits become about these issues, the more uncomfortable the always-uneasy alliance between libertarians and conservatives becomes.

Again, Ron Paul serves to address a problem. At present he works from inside the proverbial system, contending for the Republican party’s Presidential nomination. Yet he does not compromise by supporting the advance of the police state or the financial sinkholes of outmoded Pentagon procurement policies. By standing in nationally televised debates, he gives voice to a group of earnest thoughtful Americans who have never previously seen their ideas resonate beyond third party efforts.

Yet the Ron Paul phenomenon is a small part of a much bigger thing. For a full generation now, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in no significant national discussion regarding a number of issues that merit much more consideration. Environmentalists, socialists, isolationists, even theocrats — there are many perspectives in this nation that are denied a voice beyond the fringe. Personally I believe an isolationist theocracy would be a truly horrible direction for the United States. Yet that does not mean I believe isolationists and theocrats should be prevented from making the best possible case for their beliefs.

If any single factor had to be cited as the foremost cause of our nation’s greatness, I would focus on political diversity. Our revolution launched a new era in human governance — an era in which new ways of thinking would rise up from the people rather than trickling down from aristocrats. The process that gives us this strength functions at its best when ideas are allowed to rise or fall based on their intrinsic merits. A bipartisan oligarchy, distilling everything down into political narratives that focus clash on a few highly divisive issues, shuts out a wealth of great political ideas.

By authentically clashing with the dominant narratives while remaining affiliated with a dominant party, Ron Paul shines a light on the general failure of the system to acknowledge real wisdom that is not also conventional wisdom. Both in terms of the growing lockout of Ron Paul’s supporters from online activities and in terms of the pundits’ “of course he can’t win” mantra, tension is building between believers in a coherent ideology of principled libertarians and believers in the contrived ideology of Bush-style political conservatism.

Personally I have no interest in closing the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, etc. In fact, I advocate new initiatives in areas like that. However, I also advocate an open civic process in which ideas about new social services must overcome opposition from believers in social service cutbacks or even pure anarcho-capitalism. One of the most sound applications of free market thinking is in the context of “a marketplace of ideas.”

John Milton’s Areopagitica contains the text, “though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” It takes more than basic freedom of speech to preserve a political process in which these free and open encounters are commonplace. That passionate support Ron Paul’s candidacy enjoys is at least as much a longing for such openness as it is a craving for tax cuts. Whether or not you agree much with the man, he gives us cause to respect the process and any principled public figure who should happen to somehow find prominence within it.