The principled consistency of Ron Paul

Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., October 23, 2011—Ron Paul is a consistent man. He’s been preaching the same economic gospel for two generations, a gospel based on the teachings of economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, leavened by the objectivism of Ayn Rand. He’s been convinced for decades of the dangers of fiat money (money backed only by confidence in the government that creates it), the supreme importance of the individual, the primacy of personal liberty as a political principle, and a laissez faire approach to the economy.

Paul believes and says the same things now that he said 40 years ago, but that’s a minor type of consistency. People learn and change over the decades, and that’s usually praiseworthy, not a sign of moral weakness. If Paul came to political and economic principles 40 years ago that are as true and bright to him today as they were then, that’s fine, but that’s not what’s admirable or important about his consistency.

What’s important about Paul is that his ideas are ideologically consistent. They spring from a set of principles, and he’s not afraid to let his ideas go where his principles take them.

Ron Paul has the courage of his convictions.

Republicans say that they oppose the growth of the federal government. They want federal power devolved to the states. If you believe them, ask them about same sex marriage, drug legalization, and abortion. Scarcely a Republican in Washington wants those issues left to the states. They want them federalized, just as they wanted to federalize medical decisions in the case of Terri Schiavo. Republicans like to talk about individual liberty, but they don’t trust you to do the “right” thing with it any more than Democrats do.

The difference between Republicans and Democrats lies in which aspects of your life they want to control. They don’t disagree that you need to be controlled.

Paul does. It isn’t that he thinks we should have no laws - he favors a minimal government, not zero government - but rather that he thinks your sphere of personal autonomy should be as large as it can be without damaging the autonomy of others. What control there must be should be as local as possible. If there are to be laws against drug use, they should be state, not federal. There’s no constitutional reason that you shouldn’t be able to watch porn in your living room while smoking a joint. That your neighbors think it’s sleazy is no excuse to create a DEA.

Paul’s foreign policy ideas spring from the same laissez faire logic as his economics. What foreign leaders do to their citizens may be appalling, but it isn’t the role of the United States government to impose virtue on the world. Its job is to do what the Constitution says it should do - establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. Our military power should be defensive, not imperial, leaving to other nations the right and responsibility to act in their own borders for good or ill.

Republicans and Democrats are rarely pure on issues of life, liberty, defense and foreign policy. There are ideological influences on their positions, but both are swayed as much by the possible as by the ideal. Perhaps we ought not interfere in Libya, but we can, we can do it successfully, and we can enhance our power and prestige in the world by doing it, so why not do it?

Paul’s response would be, “because it’s wrong.” He doesn’t make the mistake of confusing “right” and “wrong” with “successful” and “unsuccessful,” or “useful” and “not useful.” His political and economic views aren’t based on utilitarian foundations, but on the idea that some things are right, others are wrong.

Hence the murder of Anwar al-Awlaki was murder, that is, an unlawful killing. The Constitution doesn’t allow summary execution of American citizens, not even for treason, setting rules for how treason is charged. Our laws set rules for how charges are prosecuted. Killing al-Awlaki because we could and he was bad and it might have saved lives and was popular didn’t make it lawful or right, else we might justify slaughtering Wall Street bankers and harvesting their organs. Paul’s view on this isn’t a liberal aberration from conservatism, nor are his views on the use of American power abroad.

Like his views on drug laws and the Fed, Paul’s views on foreign policy don’t boil down neatly to liberal-conservative. That dichotomy isn’t a part of his approach to America’s problems. Rather, they flow honestly from core principles that are only incidentally political.

Ron Paul’s ideological consistency is remarkable, almost unheard of in modern politics. It isn’t the hobgoblin consistency of small minds, but the intellectual consistency of an honest mind. If you don’t share his principles, you won’t agree with his conclusions, but the consistency he displays is still remarkable.

Pragmatism is also a moral value, in my opinion, and Paul’s idealism is certainly terrifying to political pragmatists. A state might well do better with Machiavelli at its helm than Mother Theresa, and idealists are as able to inflict mass suffering on the world as pragmatists, just with better conscience. In a world of competing values, though, Paul’s ideals of minimal intrusion on individual decisions are far more compelling and justifiable than many competing values.

Due to some reasonable comments by readers, I feel obliged to modify an earlier conclusion: Ron Paul probably won’t win the GOP nomination, and the odds are very small that he will ever be president, but life is full of wild improbabilities. At any rate, he deserves a loud voice in our public life. Our national politics is better for his participation.

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the French professor, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He once had lunch with Friedrich Hayek. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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