The man who likely has done more than anyone to put the libertarian philosophy of freedom and small government on the political agenda probably will make another run for the presidency: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
Paul is always upbeat, but lately he's had more reason to be, as he sees libertarian ideas bubbling up from the grass roots.
"People outside of Washington are waking up," he told me, "and they're getting the attention of a few in Washington."
Paul has been in Congress more than 20 years, and much of that time he's played a lonely role, often being the only representative to cast "no" vote on bills to expand government.
"Twenty years ago, there weren't very many people around that would endorse these views. So ... I'm very pleased with what's happening. There are more now, but the problems are so much greater."
Because bigger government creates built-in resistance to cuts.
"Everybody has their bailiwick they want to protect: 'We know the spending is bad. But don't touch my stuff.'"
The biggest growth is in entitlements. Recently, after constituents yelled at them, Republicans backed off on their reasonable plan to try to make Medicare sustainable.
"This is one of the places where good conservatives and good libertarians have come up short. ... We get a bad rap that we lack compassion. A liberal who wants to take your money and give it to somebody else ... grab(s) the moral high ground."
At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, Paul floated a novel idea: "Would you consider opting out of the whole system under one condition? You pay 10 percent of your income, but you take care of yourself—don't ask the government for anything."
The CPAC crowed applauded. But liberals like MSNBC's Chris Matthews mocked him, sneering that anyone who accepted Paul's offer would have no access to federal highways, air safety, food inspection, cancer research, or defense.
Paul laughs at Matthews' shallow criticism. Ever the constitutionalist, he'd like to privatize the federal highways someday, but he notes that even now they are largely financed by the gasoline tax—essentially a user fee. As for air and food safety, he's sure the airlines and food companies have no desire to kill their customers and that careless companies would be disciplined by competition and the tort system. He claims that government stands in the way of a lot of cancer research.
In other words, it's foolish to assume that just because the government doesn't do something, that it wouldn't be done at all.
"(Matthews is) using fear," Paul said. "They all do that ... use fear to intimidate."
A member of my studio audience asked Paul about the coming vote to raise the debt ceiling.
"They're probably going to ... (but) we shouldn't raise it. We should put pressure on them. If you took away the privilege of the Federal Reserve to buy debt, this thing would all come to an end because if you couldn't print the money to pay for the Treasury bills, interest rates would go up and Congress then would be forced (to cut spending)."
But smart people say we need the Fed to keep the economy going.
"The people who benefit from big government spending love the Fed. ... The Fed is very, very detrimental. You cannot have big, runaway government—you cannot have these deficits—if you don't have the Fed."
We libertarians say government is too big, but one thing it is supposed to do is provide for the common defense. Paul criticizes conservatives who support an aggressive foreign policy and says much of what is called "defense" is really offense. "I don't want to cut any defense," he said.
He added: "You could cut (the military budget) in half and even (more) later on because there's nobody likely to attack us. Who's going to invade this country?"
Ever the optimist, Paul says, "We have a tremendous opportunity now because most people realize government's failing ... ."
Yet he's a realist: "I think ... our problems are going to get worse ... before we correct them."
John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.
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