Politics & Policy

That Old-Time Religion

The Ron Paul temptation.

Go on, admit it: you have felt the Ron Paul temptation, haven’t you? And it’s not just the thrill of imagining another president named Ron, is it? Ron Paul believes a lot of what you believe, and what I believe. You don’t imagine he’s going to be the 44th POTUS, but you kind of hope he does well none the less.

And why not? Look at those policy positions! Abolish the IRS and Federal Reserve; balance the budget; go back to the gold standard; pull out of the U.N. and NATO; end the War on Drugs; overturn Roe v. Wade; repeal federal restrictions on gun ownership; fence the borders; deport illegals; stop lecturing foreign governments about human rights; let the Middle East go hang. What’s not to like?

We-e-ell. We all have nits to pick, though we wouldn’t all pick the same ones. The gold standard? Wasn’t it going off the gold standard that gave us full control over the wilder swings of the business cycle? Which was, like, a good idea? I am by no means as willing to surrender to the collective wisdom of modern economists as Bryan Caplan wants me to be, but — the gold standard? Come on. And stopping the War on Drugs? Where would that take us? — Philip Morris brands of crack cocaine available over the counter at Walgreens? You pick your own nits.

That’s not the point, though. Nits aside, the broad outlook there is conservative in a way we don’t often see from a presidential candidate. It is, in fact, conservatism of exceptional purity. Reading through those policy positions, an American conservative can hear the mystic chords of memory sounding in the distance, and hear the call of ancestral voices wafted on the breeze: Hayek, von Mises, Rothbart, Nock, Kirk, John Chamberlain… Unlike the product in that automobile commercial, this is your father’s conservatism — the Old-Time Religion. What is there among Ron Paul’s policy prescriptions that the young William F. Buckley would have disagreed with?

So why aren’t we all piling into the wagon behind Dr. Ron? It’s not that the guy is personally unacceptable in any way. A pious family man, he has worked in an honorable profession — Ob/Gyn medical practice — all his life. (Paul has the slight political advantage of having brought several hundred of his constituents into the world.) He is personally charming and likeable. If not exactly eloquent in the florid, gassy manner American voters are used to from their politicians, he speaks clearly and well, keeps his wits about him, minds his temper, and holds his own in debate. With the positions he has, it’s easy to see why he’s not ahead with the media or the polls, but why isn’t he leading the pack among conservatives?

I doubt it’s his anti-war stand. Outside a dwindling band of administration loyalists in the wagons circled around George W. Bush, I can’t detect much enthusiasm for the Iraq war among conservative commentators and e-mailers. “We gave the Iraqis a fair shot, now let’s leave them to it and concentrate on chasing down worldwide terrorism,” is the dominant sentiment. I’m not clear about Ron Paul’s position on routine counterterrorism and covert ops, but on the war in Iraq, I don’t see much of a problem for him base-wise.

And so far as domestic counterterrorism is concerned, his robust attitude to our nation’s borders and to illegal immigrants is likely to do far more for our security than W’s lackadaisical ethnic pandering. It is hard to imagine that under a Paul presidency, gatecrashers would still be streaming in across an undefended border six years after 9/11.

Is it the fact that the Ron Paul campaign has attracted a lot of loonies that cools our ardor? I don’t think so. For sure, Ron Paul has attracted loonies to his cause. Christopher Caldwell’s piece on Paul in the July 22 New York Times describes one such:

Victor Carey, a 45-year-old, muscular, mustachioed self-described “patriot” who wears a black baseball cap with a skull and crossbones on it, drove up from Sykesville, Md., to show his support for Paul. He laid out some of his concerns. “The people who own the Federal Reserve own the oil companies, they own the mass media, they own the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, they’re part of the Bilderbergers [?? — JD], and unfortunately their spiritual practices are very wicked and diabolical as well,” Carey said. “They go to a place out in California known as the Bohemian Grove, and there’s been footage obtained by infiltration of what their practices are. And they do mock human sacrifices to an owl-god called Moloch. This is true. Go research it yourself.”

(That word “unfortunately” is a rhetorical master stroke.) But Caldwell is being very unfair to Paul here. You could turn up people like that among the camp followers of any candidate, from any party. Send me out to poke among activists for Giuliani, Clinton, Edwards, or — for sure! — Obama: I’ll come up with worse than that. And around the hard core of Venusians there is always a penumbra of people who are just not quite right in the head. I got talking to a local Ron Paul activist here in my home town the other day. She is a very pleasant and charming lady, but I could hear the distinct rustle of bats in the belfry.

It is a fact, a sad but a true one, that grassroots political activism, the heart and soul of any democracy, attracts a lot of lunatics. I used to be a constituency activist for the Tory party in Kings Cross, London. Of the twenty or so people who turned up regularly to meetings, four or five were noticeably deranged (or, as an elderly fellow-Tory was wont to murmur in my ear when one of these cranks sought the meeting’s attention, “not quite sixteen annas to the rupee”). One or two were barking mad. My favorite was a gent with an Albert Einstein hairstyle and a permanent ferocious glare who, at every darn meeting, would try to advance his pet project for a law against class discrimination. (This was at a time, in the early 1980s, when laws against racial discrimination were being passed, to much controversy.)

If it’s like that in the Tory party, one of the Anglosphere’s oldest and solidest, at the heart of an ancient metropolis, I can imagine how thing are further away from the political center. A friend of mine, a brilliant, charming, and highly civilized man I shall call X, runs a fringe political group here in the U.S. He invited me to one of the group’s annual conferences. Not sure what to expect, I asked a mutual friend, name of Y, who had attended a previous year’s conference. “Well,” said Y, “there are a dozen or so people like X, thoughtful and well-informed — people you’d be happy to hang out with. And around them buzzes this big cloud of latrine flies.” I decided not to take up X’s invitation.

So, I ask again, if it’s not the man, or the war, or the latrine flies, why aren’t we conservatives all on board with Ron?

By way of an answer, let me introduce you to my friend Zhang (not his real name). Zhang came here from China after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. An energetic and clever young man, he worked at odd jobs around New York City while looking for an opportunity to make his fortune. The opportunity soon arrived. He happened upon a business opportunity — a new method of engraving on stone, the patent held by a fellow-exile with whom he had struck up a friendship. The two of them were sure they’d be rich in no time. They struggled for a couple of years to bring the thing to market. At last, defeated, they gave up. Zhang took a desk job as a clerk for a credit card company.

What was the cause of the failure? I asked him. He: “We didn’t realize this is a mature economy. So many permits, regulations, accounting rules, taxes! In China, we could have got this off the ground in no time, working out of back rooms and sticking up poster ads. Here — forget it! You’re killed by lawyers’ and accountants’ and agents’ fees before you get started. Stick up an ad, the city comes after you.”

Something analogous applies to politics. If Washington, D.C. were the drowsy southern town that Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge rode into, Ron Paul would have a chance. Washington’s not like that nowadays, though. It is a vast megalopolis, every nook and cranny stuffed with lobbyists, lawyers, and a hundred thousand species of tax-eater. The sleepy old boulevards of the 1920s are now shadowed between great glittering ziggurats of glass and marble, where millions of administrative assistants to the Department of Administrative Assistance toil away at sending memos to each other.

Few of these laborers in the vineyards of government do anything useful. (In my experience — I used to have to deal with them — few do anything much at all.) Some of what they do is actually harmful to the nation. On the whole, though, we have settled in with this system. We are used to it. It’s not going away, absent a revolution; and conservatives are — duh! — not, by temperament, revolutionaries.

Imagine, for example, President Ron II trying to push his bill to abolish the IRS through Congress. Congress! — whose members eat, drink, breathe and live for the wrinkles they can add to the tax code on behalf of their favored interest groups! Or imagine him trying to kick the U.N. parasites out of our country. Think of the howls of outrage on behalf of suffering humanity from all the lefty academics, MSM bleeding hearts, love-the-world flower children, Eleanor Roosevelt worshippers, and bureaucratic globalizers!

Ain’t gonna happen. It was, after all, a conservative who said that politics is the art of the possible. Ron Paul is not possible. His candidacy belongs to the realm of dreams, not practical politics. But, oh, what sweet dreams!

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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