Ron Paul‘s bid for the U.S. presidency ranks among the most heroic anyone has ever undertaken. We live in emergency times, with a choice between forms of socialism or fascism. The parties’ leadership have embraced this decrepit old model, despite all evidence of the bankruptcy of statism. Ron alone dared pose a challenge. His bid has also been the most unusual in modern history. Its main energy has come not from a political machine, but from millions of volunteers, most of them young and most of them exposed to new political and economic truths for the first time.
In that sense, and in addition to garnering more primary votes than any libertarian candidate in American history, Ron has accomplished precisely what he set out to do. He has re-founded the libertarian movement on a principled basis, liberated the ideas of peace and free enterprise from monopolistic control, exposed the political apparatus for the fraud that it is, and laid the groundwork for a future flowering of liberty.
Let us consider why this is so.
One of the cruelest traits of democracy is that its politics takes on the role of teacher to the nation, the force by which people are trained what to believe about virtually every subject that matters for the future of civilization. And mostly what they learn is wrong.
They learn that robbing people is fine and perfectly legal so long as the machinery of democracy cranks out that result. They learn that killing foreign peoples is an appropriate path to creating national unity. They learn that demagoguery and lies are successful paths toward getting your way.
Not only do they learn: they also participate in this by voting and are then led to the belief that they must accept the results, lest they question the very basis of modern life. This is why people who believe in politics as an ideology — that it is an excellent mechanism for the management of society — end up adopting a moral code that contradicts all teachings of all the world’s religions and ethical systems. Neither Aristotle, nor Moses, nor Jesus, nor Confucius, nor Mohammed, nor Buddha, nor Gandhi, nor any other revered figure in history conditioned moral teaching with majority rule (or rule by well-organized factions).
So in a hyper-politicized society, where all principles seem ephemeral and truth is relentlessly manipulated by our political masters and their allies, what is the way out? We can take a cue from Ludwig von Mises. He believed that the only way to fight bad ideas is with good ideas, stated plainly and courageously. To him, the obligation of a defender of freedom is to be an intellectual dissident, then embrace the truth of human liberty and its consistent application to all political issues, and then let that truth be known.
Notice that Mises did not say that error and fallacy should be combated through putting the right people in charge, through lobbying pressure, through manipulating the process, or even participating in it. Indeed, he rightly saw that modern political parties do not represent the general interest but, in fact, are gloried lobbying groups for particular state-granted favors; the same applies to the think tanks and magazines connected to them. In contrast, he believed that the most direct path to cutting through the thicket of the democratic nation state was simply to embrace and then tell the truth.
His rationale is that all societies in all times and places are ruled by the ideas that people hold about themselves, about right and wrong, and about issues such as liberty vs. slavery, freedom vs. despotism, and individualism vs. collectivism. Mises took great pains to show, for example, in his book Omnipotent Government, that the roots of Nazism dated back to the middle of the 19th century with the overthrow of liberalism, which German intellectuals once revered. It was displaced by a growing reverence for the state that culminated in a horror that few foresaw.
And so what is the way to combat this tendency? The only way to set about on a different course, wrote Mises, is to change the reigning philosophy concerning government, economics, property, and ethics. (See Guido Hülsmann’s biography to see how this approach explains Mises’s entire life.) As examples, look to the periods in which civilization took great strides forward: the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the end of slavery, the repeal of prohibition, the collapse of socialism in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China. Each event began with an idea and evidence of failure from a contrary idea.
If you want to understand how a person like Ron Paul comes to be, you must understand that he believes what Mises says. Yes, he is a statesman, a man with a calling to civic life. But that is not the end for him. His purpose in entering politics was not to manipulate the system toward ends of which he approves. His purpose has been to teach. He teaches through speeches, writings, voting patterns, bills he has introduced, or any other means that his office permits. His goal has been to spread what he calls the freedom philosophy: that principle that a free people should govern themselves rather than let political establishments manage their lives.
You could see it in his interviews and speeches. His campaign has been a long-running seminar. He has been glad to talk about specific policies, but much happier to talk about the philosophy of freedom. He has urged his listeners to let go of the idea that they need government to protect them, provide for them, and manage their lives. He has told those who wanted lower taxes that they must also live without government benefits.
He has told those who wanted peace rather than war that they must give up the longing for a state that rules the domestic arena. He has reminded people about the true ideals of this country, which are rooted in the idea that society needs no central management to thrive. He has spoken about the true source of wealth, which is not the state but private enterprise. He has urged listeners to give up their belligerent nationalism and think of foreign peoples as human beings just like themselves. He has said things that American political culture bars us from thinking about: such as considering how we would react if some foreign state did to us what the U.S. government routinely does to foreign nations.
He has challenged those on the right who like free enterprise to see how the ideology of war makes their economic position inconsistent and unstable. He has challenged those on the left who dislike war to see how their support of big government at home has the unintended consequence of shoring up military empire. In doing this, he has confronted the most maddening aspect of American political culture, and demanded honesty, truth, and consistency.
The blogosphere filled up with evidence of the intellectual contortions wrought by Ron’s political positions. The anti-war people couldn’t stomach his support for free enterprise. They have so long demonized “corporate capitalism” and implausibly believed that it, and not government as such, is the cause of the war, they wondered how they could support his domestic program. The champions of free enterprise choked on his war position and his view on civil liberties, which include ideas conventionally attributed to the left. They couldn’t understand how a person who wants government out of the domestic economy might look with doubt on global imperialism.
- You Like Ron Paul, Except on Foreign Policy?
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The frenzy was particularly evident on the abortion issue. His view is the purely libertarian/decentralist one. That is, he wants the federal government completely out of the issue: repeal Roe, or have Congress bar the involvement of the federal courts, and leave it to states and localities. Ron’s medical and ethical view is that abortion is grossly immoral. But he is not there to enforce a universal solution to the problem. States and localities could ban it, restrict it, or make it completely legal. This is a solution that leads to social peace.
In a hyper-politicized nation, however, in which there is a tendency for whatever is not forbidden to be required, people demanded to know whether he was for or against abortion, or for or against choice, making no distinction between personal morality and legal enforcement and/or the level of government charged with deciding the issue. Similar convulsions occurred on gay rights and marriage, prayer in school, and many other issues.
In the course of his speaking, he has raised a topic that is complicated but enormously important to our well-being: the monetary system. I’m not sure when the last time a national political figure raised this topic. It’s been generations. But the core problem has been there for a century. The problem is that our money consists of nothing of substance. It is made of paper that can be printed in infinite quantities by a government-created monopoly called the Fed. This reality has led to a constantly falling value of the dollar, an endless round of bubbles and business cycles, and, most dangerously, a government that believes there are no limits to its ability to spend and issue debt.
Ron knows that until the dollar is made sound again, there will be little hope of restraining the government. The problem is that neither party has an interest in doing this. Whether the party supports welfare or warfare, it ultimately depends on the power of the government to finance itself through financial trickery. In the 19th century, this was a huge issue in American politics and classic books like W. Gouge’s Short History of Money and Banking, and C.H. Carroll’s Organization of Debt into Currency, demonstrate just how important it was to this generation that understood the relationship between paper money and tyranny. (Actually Alan Greenspan once said that he understood this too.) Ron’s own contributions are also classic: The Case for Gold.
Think about it. Every other candidate has pandered to the uninformed audience, the lowest common denominator, to say things that people will like to hear. Ron constantly has raised a topic that is on hardly anyone’s mind. He has sought to enlighten, not pander.
Several events stand out during the campaign. Early on, he was in a debate with Giuliani, who staged a protest about Ron’s foreign policy, suggesting that he was supportive of terrorism. Ron shot back that we would be foolish not to listen to what the terrorists themselves are saying: they hate us because our military is in their countries. This is the great and completely undeniable truth that had been un-utterable in American politics, despite the fact that foreign policy experts have been saying this for decades. There are some truths that the establishment thinks the American people can’t handle, and this is one of them.
In those days, many people thought that Giuliani had the nomination sewn up. He didn’t. In fact, Giuliani flopped terribly. In this great struggle, Ron was the victor. But it was not just a personal victory. It was a great victory for understanding and public consciousness. He has said what no other political figure since 9-11 has dared to say. (The Mises Institute was making this point even in the early days after the attacks.)
Another event stands out: the arrest of the founder and CEO of Liberty Dollar, a private mintage that produced a Ron Paul coin. The entire event was timed to put a stop to the Paul effort, since sales were going through the roof. I take no position on the company itself, but there can be little doubt that the attack was designed to hurt Ron. The idea was to taint the movement by hinting that his monetary program is suspect.
Ironically, the attack backfired, since it only ended up showing the absurdity of laws that prohibit monetary freedom. In a free society, people would be free to mint and use any money they want. In fact, it strikes me that the attention given to this event shows us a way forward on monetary reform. Rather than trusting the political establishment to give us sound money, we should favor a complete repeal of all restrictions on minting and contracts, and see what happens, as Ron Paul does.
Another attack came from a surprising source, or perhaps not so surprising since they were never supporters of Ron Paul nor supporters of a consistent or principled form of libertarianism to begin with: the upper reaches of the D.C.-allied libertarian movement (Libertarians of the Chair, we might say). Together with a journalist working for a left-neocon fortnightly, and using information provided by the most unseemly sources in American life, including a real-life neo-Nazi, they plotted a coordinated attack on Ron. Forging a Big Lie, they attempted to portray Ron as a racist and a proto-Nazi, which is just about the most implausible thing one could say about him other than claiming that he is a member of the beltway establishment. Once the dust settled, it was the smearbund and not Paul that suffered. Now, to be sure, many good people at these institutions called and wrote privately to separate themselves from the attacks by their bosses. But activists involved at all levels got a solid education about who will defend liberty when the times get tough.
Oh yes, and there was one other wacky claim made in this assault: that the Mises Institute is dedicated to supporting the Confederate government, on grounds that the Institute has backed the right of all peoples to secede (as did Mises, Acton, Spooner, Jefferson, and the whole classical liberal tradition). In this claim, the core anti-intellectualism of the political circus was on display in its most disgusting form. And that was before some of the same people vandalized Wikipedia entries of anyone connected with Ron, and otherwise spent vast amounts of time attacking and attempting to undermine the greatest swell of libertarian political organization in more than a century, even as these people were writing in favor of open-ended government surveillance power or perpetual war. (Those who would like to know the historical roots of the envy directed at the Mises Institute need only look at Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.)
What about Ron’s standing in the polls? It has been a victory when considering the radical message he pushed for the entire campaign, in times when liberty is not deemed an option. In fact, his support grew through the entire time emerging from 0%, moving to 3% nationally and finally to up to 10% nationally. His showing in such independent hotbeds as Montana was remarkable, just behind the front-runner. And he did well in North Dakota, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington State too. His showing was lower in the South, except Lousiana, where the warmongers dominate Republican politics. In short, he was the most successful radical libertarian to run for national office in a century or more — possibly since 1800.
Is this progress? Who can doubt it? But remember too that winning the race has not been the only goal of the campaign. It has also been to educate, to tell the truth, to get issues out there and get them talked about. This he has done remarkably well, and never better than when Ron himself was speaking.
No matter where he goes in politics, as a presidential candidate and a congressman — and both vibrant campaigns aim for victory — the future for Ron as a movement leader is secure, and of that there can be no question. After a lifetime of principled statesmanship, a long shelf of books that he has written and nationwide respect for being the one man who dares speak against the status quo, he has made his mark on history. What it shows is that even in dark times such as ours, there are people who are willing to stand up and hold a candle and light the way to the future. To them we owe the whole of our civilization.
But the legacy of the Ron Paul campaign means more than that. Ron has taken our national tendency to see politics as a teacher and turned it to good. He has told us about liberty. He has told us that if we are to secure it, we must reject the welfare and warfare states. He has told us that we cannot ignore issues of economics, even those that touch on technical subjects such as monetary affairs. He has inspired us with his courage and his willingness to say what is true, even in the face of terrible danger and attacks.
In doing this, he has given us an example and a body of ideas around which we can rebuild for the future. In this way, Ron’s greatest legacy has nothing to do with with politics but with human liberty itself, the greatest idea ever imagined by the intellect. Its prospects will always be bright so long as the idea burns in the hearts of those passionate enough to defend it with their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
We can call them the Ron Paul Nation.
February 12, 2008
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com.
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