The good Benjamin David first invited me to Beyond the GOP to provide a view less sympathetic to libertarianism, and particularly to Ron Paul, then is often represented on this site. Indeed, Ben himself has eloquently defended Paul in the past, and it is certainly a testament to his intellectual character to invite some friendly opposition. I have been meaning to join in here for some time anyway, and now is as good a time as any. Though I apologize in advance for being a little long winded and inadequately substantive at times. The medium of blogging is always prohibitive!
First and foremost, I concede that there is more to admire about Ron Paul than there is to dismiss. This is a man who does what he says and lives what he preaches. Such integrity commands my respect, as does his courage to resist the rapid departure in Washington and elsewhere from anything even resembling conservatism. Indeed, resistance is the very foundation of conservatism – as well as constitutionalism. Ron has also been a relentless defender of individual liberty, limited government, and advocates a monetary policy that actually acknowledges reality. Furthermore – and this is where I depart from many of his usual critics—I think he is ultimately right about most of his foreign policy. For some, he seems to be an isolationist and weak; as someone waving the white flag. Yet when one looks more carefully at his position, this is not the case. Ron recognizes—as the imperialistic and ideological neo-conservatives and many liberals do not—that America’s faux-imperialism is doing more harm to our economy than good and is increasingly devastating to civil liberties. This is particularly true with the increasing and terrifying use of drones—something which no person with a historical sense should support.
Still, I voted for Mitt Romney. Why? For self-defense and self-preservation. Romney is not very conservative, nor would he have been able to clean up the devastation wrought by the reckless and ideological Obama administration. But Obama’s government is, I would argue, the worst presidential administration in American history. Anything I could do to help resist his assault on liberty, limited government, and religious freedom was worth doing. I realize that a vote for someone like Ron Paul would be in principle the same thing, but in a practical sense and in a manner cognizant of efficacious political morality, I chose the lesser of two evils. In an imperfect world, that is often the best we can do.
This brings me to my first major objection to Ron Paul. He is neither an ideologue nor a narcissist like Obama is, but his uncompromising commitment to his principles is politically objectionable in my view. Yes, the current political landscape is littered by people who live in a dream world in which money grows on trees and democracy never fails, but you cannot simply ignore such things. The “games” of American politics are utterly corrupt and broken, but the game is the game. It is not a concession to choose to play it when you know you can’t win everything. Compromise is not a dirty word – it is a necessary element of a just and enduring order. The Constitution was a compromise on multiple levels, and this need has never changed.
Ron Paul does not strike me as someone willing to make this concession to the “game,” but he would do well to learn some lessons from Machiavelli and Aristotle. Machiavelli taught us essentially that when we stick to our principles, to moralism in an imperfect world, and ignore mankind’s fallen nature we lose both our principles and ourselves and accomplish nothing. But when we account for human nature as it is, for fortuna, necessity, and historical examples and circumstances, we can achieve greater virtù—a more efficacious political sensibility and morality. Of course, Machiavelli is famous for suggesting rather sinister and violent ways in which this may be realized in principalities and republics—so we need an Aristotle. Aristotle encouraged us to look for a golden mean between two extremes, and to always choose our actions and recognize virtue as doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, and so on. Yet, unlike Machiavelli, there were certain lines one ought never cross irrespective of means and ends. Certain means and ends would always be evil no matter the circumstances, and I am suspicious of whether or not Machiavelli ever admitted that.
In other words, Ron Paul rightly sticks to honorable principles, but would ultimately find them undermined at every turn should he ever make it to the Oval Office. This is why Clinton was so brilliant. He understood better than most that political success was more about playing well than about principles. Of course, we do not “play” for the sake of playing—but for the sake of those very principles. The ends do justify the means in politics (though not always). Obama is learning this the hard way, stubbornly blaming everyone else, arrogantly refusing to compromise, and failing in every way to lead. His principles mean more than the game, and though he has had some rather unfortunate victories, it is the game that has kept even worse successes from becoming a reality. Ron Paul would have to work miracles in Washington to acquire the necessary political coalitions behind his efforts—coalitions unlikely to be realized at present.
My second objection to Ron Paul resides in my suspicion of capitalism. Now I do not object to capitalism as such, and though I have been tempted by distributism, I have not given in. I believe in economic freedom and have no objection to private property or free markets. Yet capitalism must be restrained by a healthy dose of suspicion: that it is the least worst option and must always be checked by other forces. Ron Paul, and especially his son Rand, seem to me (based on reading his book The Revolution, his campaign websites, and TV appearances) to subscribe to a free-market fundamentalism that I cannot embrace. Markets will not save us, and an economic arrangement elevated to the position of a moral absolute can become an end in itself, instead of a means. We see this constantly in the utilitarian justifications of morally reprehensible policies advanced on purely economic grounds. There is also a tendency in capitalism to treat people as less human, and more like mere wallets and consumers. Furthermore, big business can be just as hostile to liberty as big government.
A conservative economics then is a reluctant capitalism which resists the exploitation of local communities and rural resources for the benefit of distant and impersonal large corporations. It’s one which favors small businesses, a workforce that accommodates multiple levels of skills, less distance between the producer and consumer, opposes outsourcing, and favors the least amount of regulation possible. Ultimately if limited government is to become a reality, it must be replaced by something, by strong local communities, families, and churches. Government is not merely huge because of top-down power grabbing, but because the intermediary associations formerly disincentivizing big-government have broken down. Ron and Rand Paul’s enthusiasm for economic liberty, though welcome, would be better received if it made these qualifications.
In sum, Ron Paul is an exceptional man and politician worthy of our attention. But his political morality and excessive enthusiasm for capitalism bother me. So when you comment below in defense of him, I hope you will comment on these grounds. Is he more politically effective than I am letting on? Does he qualify his love for free-markets in a meaningful way that I have overlooked? I could have also mentioned the objectionable positions of libertarianism when it comes to drugs and the environment…but that is for another blog.