Who is Ron Paul?

Published in The Drum ABC Online on 14 December 2011 under the title “Who is Ron Paul?”.

In November next year, Barack Obama will go up against a Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States, and defacto leader of Planet Earth.

But before then, the Grand Old Party (GOP) of the Republicans will need to pick their candidate, which involves an eight-month marathon of rolling mini-elections in 55 states and territories (including Guam and American Samoa) starting in Iowa on January 3, 2012.

While sane people have been ignoring the political circus, election junkies have been closely watching the long campaign as various candidates have come and gone. At the beginning of the year the pundits pontificated as a string of potential candidates – Donald TrumpSarah PalinChris ChristieRudy GiulianiJeb BushPaul RyanMitch DanielsHaley Barbour, and Mike Huckabee – all opted out of the race. Tim Pawlenty said “yes” then “no”. Tease.

And so when debate season rolled around, the field had been narrowed to a rag-tag bunch of about a dozen, with the most prominent being the millionaire Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts – Mitt Romney. From the start, Romney has consistently been 1st or 2nd in national polls among GOP voters with about 20-30 per cent support, and he has been seen as the frontrunner due to his decent polling, wealthy friends, establishment support, and high media profile. The race has then been seen as a contest between Romney and “anti-Romney”, a mythical creature who has so far taken four human forms – Michele BachmannRick PerryHerman Cain and now Newt Gingrich. Cain has since dropped out of the race.

(Sadly, the self-described vampire Jonathon Sharkey has also dropped out… and the “rent-is-too-damn-high” candidate Jimmy McMillan has failed to get into the early primaries.)

Now that we’re getting close to voting, the Australian mainstream media (MSM) is starting to pay attention. If you look at news.com.au or the ABC or the SMH or The Australian or the Herald Sun you will see them talking about Gingrich and Romney. Occasionally the chatterati will mention Bachmann or Perry or even Jon Huntsman. But in Australia, just like in the USA, the MSM is strangely silent about the man coming third.

Who is Ron Paul?

Ironically, Ron Paul is perhaps most famous for being the guy that the MSM loves to ignore. Comedian Jon Stewart brilliantly roasted the mainstream media for their blind spot, and see if you can guess who is missing in this headline: “Poll: Romney leads New Hampshire, Huntsman in third, Perry in fourth“.

Back in August the Pew Research Centre showed that Ron Paul was only the 10th highest election news-maker, behind many candidates who at the time trailed him in the polls (Pawlenty, Huntsman, Gingrich) and behind people who weren’t even running (Donald Trump, Sarah Palin).

In Australia, there have only been a handful of MSM mentions of Ron Paul – a dismissive reference in The Australian and being called a “kook” by a Young Liberal. Tom Switzer names eight other options, but neglects Ron Paul. The SMH has done marginally better, noting that Ron Paul does well in the twittersphere “even though he’s received relatively little press coverage”, and writing Australia’s only MSM article about the man and his views on banking. Even then, the SMH felt the need to refer to Paul as a “minor candidate”.

If Ron Paul was polling at near 0 per cent (Gary Johnson) or 2 per cent (Jon Huntsman) or 3 per cent (Rick Santorum) then this would be understandable.

If Ron Paul was polling at around 6 per cent (Michele Bachmann) or 7 per cent (Rick Perry) it would be a bit strange, but forgivable.

But Ron Paul is polling at about 10 per cent nationally, and closer to 20 per cent in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he wins many straw polls, and has raised the third-most in donations (more than Gingrich). There is now a very real possibility that Ron Paul could win in Iowa, given that the state uses the caucus system that rewards candidates with passionate followers (and Ron Paul supporters are by far the most passionate). While Gingrich (~35 per cent) and Romney (~22 per cent) are leading in the national polls, after Iowa and New Hampshire it is possible that Ron Paul will be leading the pack in terms of delegates, and still have money in the bank. And then it’s anybody’s game.

So who is this strange invisible candidate?

Ron Paul is easy to like at a personal level due to his obvious sincerity and his unwillingness to change his message to suit his audience. However, his consistent libertarianism means that most people can find an area of strong disagreement. If he was a real politician, he’d learn to sell-out more and use buzz words like “moving forward with real action for working families – yes we can”.

The most contentious issue for Republicans is Ron Paul’s views on foreign policy and civil liberties. He voted against the Iraq war, he voted against the Patriot Act, he wants to stop the current wars, bring American troops home from their bases in ~150 countries around the world, close Guantanamo Bay, end government torture, and stop the war-mongering against Iran (see his three-minute “what if” speech here). His opponents accuse him of “isolationism”, to which Paul responds that he believes in friendship and trade with the world, but a non-interventionist foreign policy, with the obvious hat-tip to Thomas Jefferson. And then he hits the Republicans where it hurts – and points out that America simply can’t afford to maintain its current empire.

The reason Ron Paul is most liked by conservatives is the reason why lefties object – his belief in small government. While nearly all Republicans talk about “small government” the facts are that nearly all Republicans (and Liberals and Nationals in Australia) vote to increase the size of government. George “Dubya” Bush increased real government spending, even when you remove the absurd trillions wasted on perpetual war. Ron Paul is the only congressman in America who has voted against every tax increase and unconstitutional spending bill. He represents a district with more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline, but is against federal-funded flood insurance. He represents a district with many farms, but is against farm subsidies. In response, his district has elected him 12 times since 1976. While other candidates offer catchy slogans and empty promises of unfunded tax cuts, Ron Paul released an economic plan that is honest enough to clearly outline unpopular spending cuts to get the budget out of deficit. Lefties and crony-capitalists won’t like his plan of cutting federal spending on housing, bureaucracy, energy, militarism, foreign aid (including Israel), education, and commerce… but for those worried about US debt and deficits it is the best (only?) solution available.

Besides being anti-war, Ron Paul is perhaps best known for his views on monetary policy. This is often shortened to something catchy like “sound money”, or “gold standard”, or “audit the fed” or “end the fed” (where “fed” = Federal Reserve, the US equivalent of the Reserve Bank of Australia), but the important point about Ron Paul’s monetary policy is that he believes that the government has printed too much money which is devaluing the currency and driving up prices. Paul’s concern is that printing too much money (artificially low interest rates and quantitative easing) will result in a “boom” of bad investments that will ultimately lead to a “bust” such as the recession of recent years. Still confused? It’s all explained in this “Hayek v Keynes” rap battle. This is a debate that is entirely lacking in Australia since effectively all economic writers in the Australian MSM are Keynesians, and most have never heard of Austrian economics.

One consequence from Paul’s belief in small government and sound money is that he was opposed to the government bail-outs of the banks. He has been a vocal critic of the current policy (supported by Dubya, Obama, Romney & Gringrich) where banks keep their profits, but taxpayers subsidise their losses. This is the reason you can see Ron Paul posters both at Tea Party rallies and also at Occupy Wall Street rallies, where people are protesting (in very different ways) against crony-capitalism.

Like most Republicans, Ron Paul is a committed Christian, personally very conservative, and anti-abortion. But this doesn’t prevent his libertarian and constitutional positions on civil liberties. Paul opposes the “war on drugs” as an unconstitutional, failed, massively expensive, and intrusive violation of civil liberties and state rights. He also rejects the idea that the federal government should define marriage. On both issues Paul allows that US states should be allowed to make their own laws, but he insists that the federal government should have no role. This makes him the second most progressive candidate running for president (behind Gary Johnson who openly campaigns on marijuana legalisation and gay marriage, but more progressive that Obama).

People who have never heard of “libertarians” (or “classical liberals”) are sometimes confused by the above list of policies. How can somebody want to cut tax and legalise drugs? How can somebody fight against government money manipulation and also be against war? How can somebody be against hand-outs for the poor and also against hand-outs for the rich? Of course, the consistent thread through all of Ron Paul’s policies is that the government should get out of the way, and leave people to interact with each other however we like, so long as it is voluntary. This is a philosophy with a long and strong tradition going back to the dawn of the enlightenment, but it has little popular or media support in the Western world today.

Despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, the last century has seen the Western world steadily move towards more tax and spending, more bureaucracy, more regulation, more nanny-state rules, more police-state controls, and generally a much bigger and more intrusive government. The classical liberal ideas of “free markets, peace and civil liberties” are now so alien to our political discussion that even a supposedly free-market commentator calls them “kooky”, and no Australian politician will stand up for the principles.

This is why the rise of Ron Paul is both important and newsworthy.

Even if Ron Paul does not win the nomination and go on to become the 45th President of the United States, he is changing the discussion, and that may be more important. There are now dozens of libertarians elected around the USA, including Ron’s son Senator Rand Paul. While not mainstream, the libertarian position is now part of the policy debate and people are paying attention. There is a growing, young, and passionate voting block out there who are changing the debate in the USA, and perhaps around the world. It’s about time the MSM started to pay attention.

Author: John Humphreys

Chief Economist at The Australian Taxpayers Alliance, Sessional Lecturer at the University of Queensland, and National President of the Liberal Democrats.

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