Rand Paul

The Anarchist Who Became President

Which occupant of the Oval Office flirted with anti-authoritarian ideas in his youth?


The Kentucky senator and Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul tweeted this last night:


"Rothbard" refers to Murray Rothbard, the founding father of the "anarcho-capitalist" school of libertarianism. Rand Paul's years as a teen old enough to drive would have lasted from 1979 to 1982, so this would be well before Rothbard's retreat late in life to the paleo right; the future senator would have been getting a full blast of Radical Caucus-era Rothbardianism. I would have liked to have heard those conversations.

Several presidential candidates, and even presidents, have had close encounters in their youth with one sort of radicalism or another. (Barack Obama, for example, has written about his days in the student left.) But setting aside Paul, who didn't necessarily agree with everything the economist in the back seat was saying, I am aware of just one major American politician who ever took an interest in anarchism, though as far as I know he never used the a-word to describe the worldview he was exploring. The writer who inspired him was Leo Tolstoy, who in addition to being a novelist was a radical pacifist and anti-statist who believed "the anarchists are right in everything."

Here's how the politician described his phase years later:

The Big Chill

At the end of my junior year [Albert Upton] told me that my education would not be complete until I read Tolstoy and the other great Russian novelists. That summer I read little else. My favorite was Resurrection, Tolstoy's last major novel. I was even more deeply affected by the philosophical works of his later years. His program for a peaceful revolution for the downtrodden Russian masses, his passionate opposition to war, and his emphasis on the spiritual elements in all aspects of life left a more lasting impression on me than his novels. At that time in my life I became a Tolstoyan.

That's a passage from RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. It's always the fellow you least suspect, isn't it?

Nixon wasn't the only world leader of the 1960s and '70s to have flirted once with anti-authoritarian ideas. The young Mao Zedong fell in with a group of anarchists who introduced him to the works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, and, yes, Tolstoy. The old pacifist's body must have been spinning at an accelerated rate in the Nixon/Mao era.