You Won't Fool the Children of the rEVOLution
Why Ron Paul rises and Chuck Hagel faded
Before there was Ron Paul the New York Times best-selling author—go on, keep rolling that around on your tongue—there was Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who made floor statements in the House of Representatives when no one was listening. Before that there was Ron Paul, the roving libertarian politico and the publisher of countless monthly newsletters written in a voice curiously wittier than his own. And before that there was Ron Paul, founder of the Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, table-pounding advocate for the gold standard, a lecturer to anyone who would listen.
Paul is 72 years old. He has been reading libertarian philosophy for close to 50 years and writing it for more than 30. That his labors should finally bear fruit now, at the end of a presidential bid where he succeeded beyond a fool's dream by simply reiterating all those decades' worth of opinions, carries a kind of irony. All of the quirks of his presidential bid make more sense. Why did he give the same dense, 40-minute speech at every stop? Why didn't he get into the muck with the rest of the GOP candidates, even when he started to out-fundraise them? Hey, he was trying to tell you people: He wasn't running for president; he was spreading a message.
It is impossible to imagine his new book, The Revolution: A Manifesto, selling in droves, or even being published at all, if Paul had not run his quixotic presidential race. We have proof. Sharing the shelves with Paul's book is another political tome that, if you based your judgments on the elite-media love machine, you'd assume would be racing up the charts. Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's policy sheaf-cum-memoir, America: Our Next Chapter, (with the additional and aggrandizing subtitle Tough Questions, Straight Answers) comes after three fat years of Sunday show bookings, warm profiles in magazines such as GQ, and unkillable rumors that he was about to announce a presidential bid. Released two months ago, the book is already forgotten.
Hagel was supposed to be the Republicans' anti-war presidential candidate. Failing that, he was supposed to be the natural vice-presidential candidate of a third party "unity" candidacy. The praise and hopes cascaded because Hagel, who voted for the 2002 Iraq resolution, was nonetheless the highest-profile and most-credible (by dint of his service in Vietnam) Republican critic of the war in Iraq.
High-profile does not necessarily mean high-minded. In an early, critical profile of Hagel, National Review's John J. Miller bitingly labeled the senator's attacks on Bush policy as "Hagelian dialect" and "declamations that may sound weighty when spoken but become insubstantial on the printed page." God only knows why Hagel decided to prove this by putting words on a page. There are two recurring motifs in America: Our Next Chapter, and both are devastating to Hagel's image as a deep political thinker.
The first is simple banality. There is enough corn in these pages to solve the world food crisis and forge ethanol with the leftovers. "I remember the first time that I had a real sense of the stakes in global power politics," Hagel writes. "I was in Mr. Sheridan's history class at St. Bonaventure High School, in Columbus, Nebraska." How does he view the Senate? "The floor…is a more majestic setting than a crab bucket, but the behavior of the inhabitants is quite similar."
The second Hagelian device is what I'd call the "outsight"—the opposite of an insight, already quite obvious to readers but thuddingly profound for him. Yes, Hagel was right about Iraq, but the way he writes about foreign policy starts you wondering if he just lucked out this time. "Like its rival India," he writes, "Pakistan is an enormous, sprawling, chaotic land." Albeit one-quarter the size of India and the victim of four successful military coups to India's none. When Hagel isn't thumbing a world almanac, he's recounting the meetings he's held with world leaders, diplomats—people who, in their wisdom, agree with him about most things.
Hagel writes like this because his ideas are not powerful enough to inspire much more. He is not a non-interventionist; his big insight about America's proper place in the world is that the world is changing. "Of course I want our country to 'win,'" Hagel writes, "but we must ask precisely what does 'winning' mean and we need to ask that question before the first shot is fired." But this is the only problem Hagel sees with intervention. He has nothing to say about the interventions of the 1990s, even though he voted against them after entering the Senate in 1997. Hagel is a big believer in soft power. But if pushed, he says, "We would mount preemptive strikes against our enemy." The problem with the Iraqi preemptive strike was that the enemy we should have been preempting was stateless. This isn't much of an ideology. It's John Kerry's 2004 platform.
By contrast, Ron Paul's The Revolution could have been written if the congressman had passed on 2008. Paul's arguments about the money supply, foreign policy, and the Constitution have been honed for decades. The only new thing between these covers is confidence. "I have never seen such a diverse coalition rallying to a single banner," Paul writes of his campaign. "Republicans, Democrats, independents, Greens, constitutionalists, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, antiwar activists, homeschoolers, religious conservatives, freethinkers…these folks typically found, to their surprise, that they rather liked each other."
The Revolution is filled with long quotes from Paul's favored philosophers and economists. It is one giant annotation to his campaign speeches. It's also a correction to some parts of his campaign. The people who thought Paul's aggressive Tom Tancredo-esque push against illegal immigration was a mistake are proven right: There is almost nothing about immigration here. There is nothing you could call right-wing populism, and while this will probably become the most popular work of Murray Rothbard-inspired libertarianism, it rejects Rothbard's late-life strategizing about the benefits of resentment politics. The Revolution is as colorblind and class-blind as any Sesame Street script. The only people readers are told to resent are the politicians and the media bosses—whom Paul compares to Pravda editors—who tell Americans there is no alternative to fiat currency and American empire.
Hagel and Paul both confront readers who, like the rest of the country, have absolutely no confidence in their leaders and no trust in what they say. Hagel tells them to buck up: "The urgency of our unsettled times demands that America acts wisely, with resolve and a common purpose." Paul tells them that they're being lied to, and he's here to tell the truth. "Few Americans realize just how costly our foreign policy is," Paul writes, referring to human lives as well as trillions of dollars. "The terrorists have played us like a fiddle." Americans are also misinformed about how our current health care system evolved, or why their dollar is worth less. They're being lied to about trade: "True free trade occurs in the absence of government intervention in the free flow of goods across borders." Paul attacks the World Trade Organization because it "makes trade relations worse by providing our foreign competitors with a collective means to attack U.S. trade interests." In each case, a foreign or elite power is hoodwinking Americans into trading the system of the Founders for a system making them less free.
Paul never sounds as certain as when he gets to link this all to monetary policy. He's rarely less convincing. Paul sees a direct link between central banking, fiat currency, and the economic crises that he argues wreck the average American's prosperity and empower thugs. A financial collapse, he prophesies, "becomes more likely every day." He proposes legalizing precious metals as currency and killing sales and capital gains taxes on metals to stave off the crisis. It's all packaged as a monetary twist on Pascal's wager: "If we're wrong, then all we've done is eliminate some taxes on gold and silver. No harm done." This is awfully optimistic. The 19th century's booms and busts were far more damaging to livelihoods and to economic systems than anything in the fiat money era. They provided much steadier footing for radical movements. Paul's overheated worry about a Weimar Republic-style collapse kicks the legs out from underneath the argument.
That's what doesn't work. Paul's narrow-eyed certainty about the elites' concealment of the truth can be irritating, especially when he marshalls so many libertarian thinkers—Nozick, Hayek, Mises—to undergird an occasionally specious ideology. But it is an ideology. Paul has a grand unified theory to offer readers, knowing full well that he's opening minds, not programming them. Hagel offers his readers safe ideas and easy paeans to "leadership." Paul offers readers, first and foremost, the lesson that "leaders" and universally accepted concepts shouldn't be trusted. It is worried and informed neostructuralists who can change things, not historical "great men." If Ron Paul doesn't provide perfect solutions, he certainly provides a blueprint.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.