[This book review appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 116-122.]

Book Review 

The Revolution: A Manifesto

Ron Paul

Grand Central Publishing, 2008 

 

          This book is of particular interest because Ron Paul is the leading U.S. political spokesman for a “libertarian” philosophy of strict-constructionist Constitutionalism, including limited government and the decentralization of governmental power to the states; the free market and free trade, consistently with the doctrines of the Austrian School of economics; and nonintervention into the affairs of other nations.  He has served two lengthy stints as a Congressman from Texas, while still continuing some professional practice as a doctor specializing in obstetrics/gynecology.  In 1988, he was the Libertarian Party candidate for President of the United States, and in 2008 was among those seeking the Republican nomination.  His philosophy, which resonates with so much of what was long a part of the American tradition, generates considerable excitement and devotion among his many followers.  Because this short 181-page book reflects the political thought of many American libertarians, it is well worth examining its contents.

          In international affairs:

          Citing the views of early Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay, Paul favors “the noninterventionist foreign policy recommended by our Founding Fathers.”  By contrast, Ron Paul strongly opposes the world-meliorist outlook that is so strongly associated with Woodrow Wilson, who took the United States into World War I “to make the world safe for democracy.”

          Accordingly, Paul would reverse America’s “bloated overseas presence,” which, he says, includes “troops in 130 countries” at 700 bases and a cost of $1 trillion per year.  He sees foreign aid as counterproductive (as well as immoral, which follows from his adherence to the nineteenth century French economist Frederic Bastiat’s philosophy that it is “plunder” to take from some people to give to others).  Paul opposed the war in Iraq, and is critical of any pugnacity toward Iran, pointing out that “there is no evidence that Iran… has ever violated the terms” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.  He agrees with Michael Scheuer’s book Marching Toward Hell, which painted the United States’ own Middle East interventionist policies as largely responsible for its confrontation with Islamism.  Paul claims that the U.S. “government’s foreign policy has put the American people in greater danger and made us more vulnerable to attack.”  Among world-intervention’s deleterious effects, he asserts that the United States has built “an empire of lies,” in which “truth is [considered] treason.”   And to him it is self-evident that “the dangers of a world government speak for themselves.”

          In this context, Paul’s position toward Israel is especially significant.   He says “I  see no reason that our friendship with Israel cannot continue,” but adds that the U.S. should grant “no special privileges like foreign aid,” pointing out that this is “a position I maintain vis-à-vis all other countries as well.”  Even though it is friendly in tone and no doubt in intention, this “hands off” preference that arises out of his philosophical consistency is far removed from what U.S. policy has been over the years.

          In domestic affairs:

          Paul would “get the government out of the business of meddling in health care,” but argues that “short of that… medical savings accounts… with patients negotiating directly with the physicians of their choice” would be the best approach.  He is highly critical of the health care system that has existed, thinking that health insurance should be uncoupled from employment, that the third-party payer system and high malpractice liability cause doctors to escalate costs by “ordering all possible tests and treatments,” and that “health maintenance organizations” (HMOs) have become “corporate, bureaucratic middlemen.”  He charges that veterans’ hospitals, which are the main example of government-provided health care, “are a national disgrace.”

          Paul sees the nation’s major entitlement programs as “insolvent,” adding that “it is simply impossible to fulfill those promises,” noting that the officially-recognized U.S. national debt doesn’t include the unfunded liabilities “of another $50 trillion.”

          He goes on to say that the Constitution is abused by such enhancements of presidential power as the illegitimate use of “executive orders,” by which presidents “exert powers that our Constitution never intended them to have”; by “presidential signing statements,” which the George W. Bush administration used to indicate its intention either to refuse to enforce the legislation being signed or to reinterpret it; and by the expansion of the war-making power.  It is Congress, Paul says, that under the Constitution should decide whether the United States goes to war.

          Consistently with both his libertarian individualism and his support for the traditional dispersion of governmental power to the states within a federal system, Paul would leave the question of drug abuse to the states, which he hopes will adopt his view that “drug abuse is a medical problem, not a problem for courts and policemen.”  He sees highly damaging consequences from the decades-long “war on drugs,” and calls for “decriminalization.” 

          In economic policy: 

          Paul opposed the U.S. “bailout package” as “socialism for the rich,” and argues that “more regulation of the already heavily regulated financial sector won’t solve a thing.”  The two large federally-funded housing agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “should have been put into receivership and their assets liquidated.”  He puts the blame on government for having created the “moral hazard” (the expectation by those acting in a market economy of a government bailout) that led to the extraordinary risk-taking that “led us to this crisis.”

          These positions are best understood as exemplifying two premises of the Austrian School and of much free-market thinking in general.  One is that government is to blame for most economic problems; if it stood aside and allowed the market to work, those problems would not arise in the first place.  The second premise is that the best way to address financial panics and economic downturns is to “let the economy hit bottom quickly,” so that it will cast off the “malinvestments” that have built up during a boom and start its climb back up on a much sounder foundation.  These two ideas are central to much of the opposition to the “bank bailout” and the “stimulus package” pursued together by the Bush and Obama administrations since the crash in the fall of 2008.  (Both the bailout and the stimulus program can be, and are, criticized of course on other grounds, as well.)

          Paul is a strong proponent of the gold standard, and stands against the system of managed money that has guided monetary policy for much of the past century.  He says the Federal Reserve “creates money out of thin air” and “by increasing the money supply… lowers the value of every dollar that already exists.”

          Like other libertarians, Ron Paul is a member of the prevailing “free trade” school and opposes protectionism.  The implications of these positions are enormous, and we might well wish that Paul had given attention to such issues as the deindustrialization of the United States and the undercutting of American wage-earners through out-sourcing and importation.  Although he is silent on those things, he points out that he opposed both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), considering each an unwelcome transfer of sovereign power and a “government-managed trade scheme.”  

          In American politics:  

          Paul’s identification is with mainstream America.  This makes him critical of the elites that have come to dominate American life.  He refers to his antipathy toward “our current political class,” which he speaks of as “the political establishment.”

          It would be a mistake (born out of a shallow understanding of political and economic philosophy) to think that because he is a thorough-going supporter of a market economy he is automatically favorable to the business elite: “The rich,” he observes, “are more than happy to secure for themselves a share of the loot – for example, in the form of subsidized low-interest loans…, bailouts… or regulatory schemes that hurt their smaller competitors.”  This isn’t true simply of “the rich,” but describes the venal, interest-group politics that has the political system in its grip; he speaks of “interest groups that have grown accustomed to treating the people as a resource to be drained for private gain.”

          But neither do “the chattering classes” earn his respect.  He tells how Madeleine Albright, as U.S. Secretary of State under the Clinton administration, said in an interview “that half a million dead Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions on that country during the 1990s were ‘worth it.’”  (This reminds us of the official in the Woodrow Wilson administration who argued during World War I that five million U.S. soldiers killed would be acceptable in light of the importance, as he perceived it, of the war.)  The “mainstream media,” for their part, “focus on trivialities and phony debates,” introducing “no matters of substance.”  He says “the American media were derelict in their duty during the Iraq war” and with regard to Iran have been “uncritical mouthpieces of administration war propaganda.”

          The "conservative movement,” he believes, is a hollow shell.  “A substantial portion of the conservative movement has become a parody of its former self,” featuring “anti-intellectualism and jingoism” and a “toothless, soporific agenda.”  He describes the “neoconservatives” as “Wilson’s main defenders” and calls them “the false conservatives who got us into the Iraq mess.”

          From all of this, it is easy to see why Ron Paul is cheered enthusiastically by so many young idealists who are inspired by his libertarian sympathies – and why he stands virtually alone in the contemporary vortex of American politics and ideology.

 

Each of Ron Paul’s comments deserves more attention than a book review can give it, but let’s look at a few of them just the same.

          American society has moved so far from its traditional moorings that multiple obstacles stand in the way of Paul’s remaining on anything but the margin, calling out to his country and colleagues in Congress that there are principles worth reclaiming.  Thus, his role is best understood as philosophical rather than political.

          Part of the current American “predicament” is that there is a cacophony of voices, each amounting to less than a realistic, constructive way out of the country’s various dilemmas.  The “establishment” that defines and towers over virtually all “respectable” opinion shares a consensus, but it is one that would lead the country further into its problems, not out of them.  (These problems include such things as the deindustrialization of the economy, the demographic invasion that promises to continue the now decades-long process of changing the national identity, the yearning to see every problem among the world’s peoples as something for the United States to address, the “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” crony capitalism and crony politics – and so on ad infinitum.)   

          A question we need to consider is whether Paul’s thinking points a way out of this intellectual stew.  Unfortunately, it does little in that regard: 

                   . His stalwart adherence to “free trade” bars him from addressing the deindustrialization and the polarization of income and wealth that is so much undercutting the middle class (which is the heart of a free society). 

                    . His discussion of the immigration-invasion is, at least in this book, directed entirely toward economic, not cultural and demographic, objections. 

                    . His advocacy of the gold standard and of a “let the bottom fall out” solution to economic crises accepts a proposition that has long seemed problematic to this reviewer: that a market economy can accept, and ultimately survive, periodic panics in which millions of people are dumped out of their livelihoods and life savings without any fault of their own.  Surely the various forms of “managed money,” for their part, have fallen far short of a reasonable stabilization, so we are left with a radically open question about monetary and banking institutions, a question that cries out for an entirely new paradigm.

                   . His unquestioning support for a free market (with, as we’ve noted, some criticism of the cupidity of the rich) and anxiousness to focus blame on government for problems that arise mean that he misses entirely an apprehension of the self-serving, impersonal unconcern that permeates so much behavior at all levels and in so many organizations.  The ethical common denominator is much lower than it needs to be for a free people.  This should be a central concern for libertarians, but is mostly blocked from view by their various articles of faith.

                   . Paul may not realize it, but his principled adherence to the U.S. Constitution poses many ambiguities, precisely for those who share that adherence.  One of the choices for “conservative justices” appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in the years following the liberal-left ascendancy was to seek a return to the pre-New Deal classical liberal interpretation of “due process” and the “interstate commerce clause.”  But any conscientious judge must ask whether that is at all feasible, partly because it would involve overturning countless precedents established during the past seventy years.  In place of that, the “conservative judges” of recent years have chosen expressly to repudiate that classical liberal heritage and have proclaimed themselves members of an “original intent” school.  Where does Paul stand on all this?  And there is no hint that he is aware of the famous “Footnote Four” in the Carolene Products case (1938), which carved out a special protected status for minorities and gave the federal government almost unconstrained power over everything else, establishing the scaffolding for the post-World War II interpretations of the Constitution.  It isn’t enough just to be “for the Constitution” without grappling with such things.

          As part of his advocacy of decriminalizing drugs, Paul argues that making them legal “will take the profit out of drugs.”  It is worth pausing to think about this.  A mere decriminalization will allow a market in the sale of the now-illegal drugs, with sellers actively seeking consumers in their pursuit of profit.  If all profit is to be removed, it would seem necessary for drugs to be offered, either by government or some non-profit agency, free to those who want them.  This could be accompanied by addiction treatment and an educational program to inform people of the dangers of drugs.  It would be well for Paul to explain how, short of that, a decriminalization would remove the profit motive (and hence the “pushing” and the vast systems of supply from around the world).   

          Where Paul is soundest, his message is philosophical, to be sure; but it falls mostly on deaf ears.  (That is, however, certainly not Paul’s fault.)  While he is correct in pointing to the dangers and presumption of America’s worldwide intervention, that intervention is rooted in the sentimentality of the average American.  This well-intentioned emotion creates a mentality that gives virtually no chance of moving away from one form or another of Wilsonianism.  It is a sentimentality that has long existed in major religious and social movements during the history of the United States.

          Finally, among the matters we will mention, it must be noted that the combined power of the establishment consensus and of the “everything’s for sale” interest-group politics stands unscathed.  Unless those power-centers are deflated or transcended, Paul’s mission will remain quixotic.    

                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey