Ron Paul by now is well-known for many things, yet he remains an underrated retail politician. Paul has the extraordinary distinction of having won a seat in Congress as a nonincumbent on three separate occasions. After fighting his own Republican Party to regain a House seat in 1996 (the GOP establishment preferred a turncoat Democrat in the primary), Dr. No has won re-election in the 14th Congressional District of Texas by progressively larger margins in every campaign but one. In 2004 and 2008 the Democratic Party didn’t bother running a candidate against him. All this even though Paul eschews such fail-safe political gambits as co-sponsoring (or even voting for) spending bills that benefit his constituents and makes a point of directly challenging such modern Republican notions as an ever-expanding warfare state—all while representing what he characterizes as a Bible Belt conservative stronghold.
Paul’s newsmaking 2008 presidential run emphasized a noninterventionist foreign policy that made him anathema to the rest of his party. But those views helped inspire a ragtag, young, and surprisingly large political movement that shows few signs of dissipating three years later. Animated by this unlikely coalition, Paul’s career-long crusade to shed light on, rein in, and ultimately destroy the Federal Reserve became a mass populist cause. Provisions of his perennial “audit the Fed” bill were incorporated into a bill the House passed in 2009 (although it did not become law). To the surprise of many, after Republicans retook the House of Representatives in November 2010, he became chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy, which oversees the Federal Reserve.
As I write, the man who earned the fourth-highest delegate count in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries seems to be preparing for another run in 2012. An official exploratory committee was launched in April, and Paul was on stage making his pitch at the first Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina in early May 2011. His public profile and continued relevance were buoyed in 2010 when his son and (for the most part) ideological heir, Rand Paul, became the gadfly superstar of the anti-government side of the Tea Party movement by winning election as a U.S. senator from Kentucky.
In conventional political terms, Ron Paul has not done much to exploit his considerable fan base and reputational juice. He has a political action committee (LibertyPAC), which in a show of strength pulled off a $700,000 one-day fundraising “money bomb” in February for no particular reason. But befitting his very exacting political philosophy, Paul is a reticent endorser. In the 2010 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) figures gathered at OpenSecrets.org, LibertyPAC gave just $17,220 to eight federal candidates. (Year-end papers filed with the FEC for 2010 also show LibertyPAC giving to a handful of state candidates, most in the early-caucus state of Iowa.)
Since Paul first threw his hat in the GOP ring he has published three books. The first, The Revolution: A Manifesto, hit No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in May 2008. A slim but thorough map of Paul’s political beliefs, The Revolution is suffused with that particularly Paulian mix of the frightening and the hopeful. Government has lost its way, the book argues, on everything from foreign policy to entitlements. Any way out of the mess is likely to wend through dark moments of economic and civil crisis. America can only be saved if enough good citizens get the message, understand the precipice to which reckless and unconstitutional fiscal and foreign policy have brought us, and demand that politicians hew to the proper path.
Paul’s second post-campaign book, End the Fed, debuted in the Times top 10 in 2009. It is what it sounds like, explaining why giving a gang of unaccountable, secretive bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve the power to manipulate interest rates and the money supply is unconstitutional, inflationary, and responsible for both a murderously expansionist foreign policy and an economic crash.
Paul’s newest book, Liberty Defined, issued at the dawn of what is looking like another presidential run, makes no mention of White House campaigns, past or future, except in its jacket bio. It’s an “A to Z” exercise, a collection of 50 short essays on policy and philosophical issues arranged alphabetically. It is mercifully not titled thusly, or else we’d be talking about “50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom, From Abortion to Zionism.”
Those two bookends are among Paul’s more controversial stances, even among many of his admirers, and thus worth discussing. Paul believes abortion is murder and as such a matter for states and localities to regulate. Paul would strip federal courts of jurisdiction over the question. He does not object to the morning-after pill, which undercuts his argument that it’s impossible to draw a line on where life begins once sperm meets egg.
As for Zionism: While the movement has produced cultural gains for Jews, Paul argues, it also has sparked a wave of unjust land grabbing based on dubious historical precedent. Washington would do well for itself and its friends in Jerusalem by ceasing aid to Israel and everyone else in the Middle East.
Liberty Defined underscores one of the enduring peculiarities of Ron Paul. On one hand he is a Republican, an Air Force veteran, a family man, a culturally old-fashioned grandfather type. Prior to 2008, he was identified with the populist right wing of the larger libertarian coalition. When he ran for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1988, Paul was the man of the right against the culturally and politically left-leaning Indian activist Russell Means, who fought the feds at Wounded Knee.
On the other hand, the Ron Paul of Liberty Defined seems in many ways designed to antagonize the standard right wing while emphasizing areas of affinity with the progressive left. This is not some centrist “liberaltarian” project of selling liberty to pundits and intellectuals of the Democratic mainstream. Ever the rebel, Ron Paul sounds more like a “left-libertarian,” reaching out to the far reaches of the progressive left and the downtrodden to challenge concentrations of statist power.
Paul consistently criticizes the welfare and corporatist state as privileging the privileged instead of helping the poor. He never talks like his own party is better than the other. When he attacks Barack Obama—which is not that often—it is almost always in the context of pointing out that the president is just as bad as George W. Bush on questions of civil liberties or foreign policy. When criticizing restrictions on commercial speech, he uses the Utne Reader–friendly example of nutritional supplements. When talking health care, he gives a shout-out to homeopathy.
These progressive-friendly trappings extend to issues of deadly force. In Liberty Defined, Paul admits to one of the very few policy changes of his political career: He is now against the federal death penalty, citing its disproportionate effect on the poor. He attacks the drug war on similar grounds. He adores civil disobedience, praising Martin Luther King for his peaceful fight against “state-enforced segregation,” even while objecting to King’s leftist economics.
Paul attacks the military draft and the CIA. In a discussion of why democracy can never be the highest political value, he is brave enough to defend a retarded man arrested for having child pornography on his computer. When it comes to foreign policy, he goes straight for empathy: Can’t we understand why people in the Middle East might want to fight and kill us when we invade their countries, blow up their cities, support their dictators, and kill their families?
You would expect someone with presidential ambitions and Ron Paul’s set of small-government views to co-opt the energies of the Tea Party movement, as his son Rand decidedly has. But Paul père mentions the movement only a few times, and he upbraids Tea Partiers for not understanding that being against tax-and-spend socialism entails embracing a noninterventionist, peaceful foreign policy. When he mentions the political party whose presidential nomination he seeks, it is often while criticizing the GOP for “despicable” demagoguery on issues like flag burning or the Pledge of Allegiance.
But while Liberty Defined has a leftish tinge, Paul is not afraid to send the typical liberal reader screaming for the exits by expressing skepticism about global warming, advocating the Second Amendment as a defense against tyranny, and insisting that there is no right to medical care. Paul believes a free market produces so much wealth that we need not choose between freedom and the amelioration of poverty. But he says he would be for freedom anyway.
Why? He is not the kind of political philosopher who wants to argue why. He believes in natural rights in the classic sense and thus thinks no one has a right to take our life or property. He likes the Constitution, pretty much, although he suggests we probably would have been better off sticking with the Articles of Confederation, that Lysander Spooner may have been right that no American owes the Constitution allegiance anyway, and that Texas might have done well to not even join our parlous, more perfect union.
For longtime students of the libertarian movement, Ron Paul and his followers represent something several libertarians have predicted but is still very hard to believe has actually arisen: an eager mass populist movement of almost-anarchist Middle Americans. (Paul never gets explicit about it, but you can easily glean from this book a complete opposition to any taxation on the grounds that it is essentially theft and a belief that a free market can meet every conceivable human social need.) While very different in polemical style and approach, in ideas Ron Paul is the successor to the controversial libertarian economist, philosopher, journalist, and activist Murray Rothbard, to whom he frequently tips his hat.
Given how radical Rothbard could be, it is surprising that the biggest sparkplug in the present or foreseeable future of libertarianism would be a politician pushing a largely Rothbardian vision. It’s an exhilarating development. One need not agree with every polemic Paul writes, every argument he makes, or every example he uses to cheer his rise to prominence. He is a bizarre phenomenon, this politician who as he gets closer to mass influence sticks to his philosophical principles, seemingly untempted by any desire to grab the main chance on any terms other than saying what he believes.
Liberty Defined’s chapter on “Slavery” reveals a lot about Paul’s current self-image and intent. He praises abolitionist Wendell Phillips for showing “how one individual with determination and truth on his side can influence an entire nation,” adding that “his unyielding efforts based on strong beliefs in pursuing justice are an example of character rarely found in today’s society.” Paul writes that Phillips “knew the importance of the agitator,” and that “the purpose of the agitator is to change people’s opinions so that great and significant social change can be achieved.” He backhands the politician who “tinkers around the edges while the revolutionaries…work to change the fundamentals of the political structure once the agitators have prepared the way.”
Ron Paul is a politician who has chosen to be an agitator and imagines his fans as potential revolutionaries. Although conditions have become considerably more favorable for his brand of libertarianism, Paul clearly and appropriately prefers agitating from the outside. It does not seem likely today that Ron Paul will take the GOP nomination in 2012, despite his rising influence.
In all three of his books and much of his public commentary, Paul has exuded a frequent and sometimes disturbing sense of impending apocalyptic doom. He comes by it honestly. Paul’s understanding of politics and economics leads him to think that necessary changes are more likely to follow, rather than prevent, a terrible crisis.
But the agitator isn’t letting that get him down, no matter how despondent his fans might get contemplating his predicted economic chaos and collapse of the dollar. The task is hard, because “the idea of liberty is not a natural condition of mankind.” Freedom’s victory, Paul writes, “could happen in our time”; then again, “it might happen after we are gone from this earth.” But he is sure it will happen, and both despite and because of Paul’s peculiarities, his work is moving that victory closer.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of This Is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (Public Affairs), and Gun Control on Trial (Cato). This column first appeared at Reason.com.