Ron Paul, Fool’s Gold


A version of this story ran in the February 2012 issue.

Before I rip on Ron Paul, let’s get some things out of the way:

1) The libertarian congressman from Texas is one of the few prominent politicians unapologetically defending the beliefs of a good many Americans on core civil liberties—like, say, the old-fashioned idea that the president shouldn’t have the power to lock you up indefinitely solely on his say-so. That’s more than you can say for the Republicans. Or the majority of Democrats.

Crusading Salon essayist Glenn Greenwald, a strident Obama critic from the left, is correct that Paul’s “nomination would mean that it is the Republican candidate—not the Democrat—who would be the anti-war, pro-due-process, pro-transparency, anti-Fed, anti-Wall-Street-bailout, anti-Drug-War advocate.”

2) He’s a welcome presence in the GOP presidential campaign. Watch the way he made his fellow Republicans squirm when he asked if they were willing to “condemn Ronald Reagan for exchanging weapons for hostages” with Iran. He reminds us that there is a conservative case against imperial adventures and never-ending warfare.

3) At the level of raw emotional appeal, Paul is an attractive alternative to the cynical hustlers on Capitol Hill, K Street, and Wall Street. Despite his squeaky voice, Paul shouts truth to power. He’s an outsider. He has passionate grassroots support. As a youthful Nader supporter in 2000, I get it.

And so do many lefties. Paul has seduced many otherwise progressive-leaning people. Especially susceptible, from my observation, are young, white, college-educated males. Austin—notoriously liberal, keepin’ it weird Austin—is teeming with strident Paulistas. You’ll see them with “Ron Paul rEVOLution” signs taped to their recumbent bikes. You’ll run into them at Occupy Austin events with hand-lettered “End the Fed” signs. There’s even a car tooling around downtown with “Democrats for Ron Paul” lettering.

Many people are attracted to half of what Ron Paul has to say. The problem is the other half—the bat-shit-crazy half.

Paul Krugman recently quipped that Newt Gingrich is a stupid man’s idea of what a smart man sounds like. On economic issues, Ron Paul is a stoned man’s idea of what a genius sounds like.

A Ron Paul Revolution would mean the abolition of every New Deal program, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the return of the gold standard. He’d do away with federal air traffic controllers, federal food inspectors, federal enforcement of environmental laws. It would be up to the “free market” to decide which drugs are safe, to weed out lead toys from China, and presumably to help land planes.

Paul opposes the war in Iraq and the minimum wage for the same reason: He believes government is inherently parasitical.

Where do Paul’s principles lead? In 2008, they led him to vote against emergency aid for the victims of Hurricane Ike, a storm that devastated communities in his district, including Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The man has that “foolish consistency” that Emerson called the “hobgoblin of little minds,” a zealotry impervious to new information or fresh revelation.

The cause of the financial crisis? Debt linked to “an inflationary climate, which is created by the Federal Reserve.” Indeed, Paul’s singular obsession is the Fed—or more specifically, Ending It!™. Paul has repeatedly predicted runaway inflation, a huge run-up in what Americans pay for fuel and food as a result of the Fed “printing money out of thin air.”

Is it inconvenient to point out that inflation and interest rates are at historic lows? Of course with Paul and his acolytes, the predicted crisis is always juuuust around the corner.

There is more than just a tinge of conspiracy to Paul’s worldview. “The New World Order is certainly looking at this monetary crisis,” Paul told Austin-based conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones in April. “[T]he internationalists are planning for their international fiat currency through the IMF.”

By this time you’re thinking, Paul is never going to be president, so why should we care? Because this is about more than Ron Paul. It’s about a philosophy—libertarianism—that has an enduring grip on American life. If anything, the Republican Party has moved closer to Ron Paul on economic matters, even as it treats him as an apostate on matters of national security and foreign policy.

His supporters are right: There’s something wrong with our politics. But Ron Paul is selling fool’s gold.