Ron Paul and American Conservatism

Robert Maynard

I got a message from a TNR reader the other day asking me to do a book report on an audio reading of Ron Paul’s biography entitled “Ron Paul: A Biography“, written by Carter Phillips and narrated by Dan Treat.  Being quite familiar with Dr. Paul’s political career, I eagerly accepted.  Ron Paul was active in the movement for constitutionally limited government long before there was a Tea Party and has been referred to the Tea Party’s grandfather by some.  With the past election confusing European style populism for American Conservatism, a look at what Dr. Paul stands for is a needed corrective.

Dr. Paul is originally from the Pittsburgh suburb of Green Tree, Pennsylvania.  He studied medicine at Gettysburg College and the Duke University School of Medicine, and served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force from 1963 to 1968. He is best known for his political career as the Representative from Texas in the U.S. Congress, where he earned the nickname Dr. No, because he refused to vote for Congressional bills that violated the U.S. Constitution.  Dr. Paul ran for the office of the Presidency of the United States in 1988 as a Libertarian and in 2008 and 2012 as a Republican.

He is a senior fellow at the Mises Institute, named after the famed Austrian economist Ludvig Von Mises.  For those who are not familiar with early 20th Century American conservatism, Dr. Paul’s position on issues can be a bit confusing as he tends to link the concerns of the activist left with those of the activist right.  The confusion is due ot the fact that Dr. Paul is a rare political breed.  He takes ideological principles seriously and any attempt to understand where he is coming from must start with a look at early 20th Century American Conservatism.

This movement came about as a conscious rejection of the social engineering approach of modern American Progressivism.  Progressivism started out as an intellectual movement that rejected the Natural Law, limited government based approach of the American founding.  The December 31st 2009 edition of the National Review contains an article entitled: John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America”. The article details how this intellectual movement aimed at correcting the imperfections in American society following the Civil War:

“It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead. From this foundation, the progressives then criticized virtually every aspect of our traditional way of life, recommending reforms or “social reorganization” on a sweeping scale, the primary engine of which was to be a new, “positive” role for the state.”…

As the progressives’ influence in the academy increased, and growing numbers of their students sallied forth into all aspects of endeavor, this intellectual transformation gradually began to reshape the broader American mind, and, in time, American political practice. “A new regime in thought,” as Eldon Eisenach writes, “began to become a new regime in power.”

The 20th Century saw the rise of Progressivism as a political force, or a “new regime in power.”  In its essence, Progressivism was a philosophy of rule by experts.  Here is a short section from an August 2011 Foundation for Economic Education article entitled: “Taylorism, Progressivism, and Rule by Experts.”

The Progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century—the doctrine from which the main current of modern liberalism developed—is sometimes erroneously viewed as an “anti-business” philosophy. It was anti-market to be sure, but by no means necessarily anti-business. Progressivism was, more than anything, managerialist.

The American economy after the Civil War became increasingly dominated by large organizations. I’ve written in The Freeman before about the role of the government in the growth of the centralized corporate economy: the railroad land grants and subsidies, which tipped the balance toward large manufacturing firms serving a national market (“The Distorting Effects of Transportation Subsidies,” November 2010), and the patent system, which was a primary tool of consolidation and cartelization in a number of industries (“How ‘Intellectual Property’ Impedes Competition,” October 2009,

These giant corporations were followed by large government agencies whose mission was to support and stabilize the corporate economy, and then by large bureaucratic universities, centralized school systems, and assorted “helping professionals” to process the “human resources” the corporations and State fed on. These interlocking bureaucracies required a large managerial class to administer them.

Progressives were the real corporatists, they saw the future as lying in the hands of a small cadre of elite who would socially engineer the perfect society.  That is where the name socialism came from.  It employs rhetoric that seems to put them on the side of the people against the elite, but that is only because they seek to create a new elite with the reigns of political power in their hands in order to centrally manage the society.

American conservatism rose in reaction to this and sought to return to the Natural Law basis of a free citizenry, a renewed Civil Society and a limited government that characterized our founding.  The idea that a few elites could run a society better than the people themselves was seen as a threat to our experiment in ordered liberty.  This is the ideological clash that we need to understand if we want to make sense out of the political actions of someone like Dr. Ron Paul.

Early progressivism was interventionist in both domestic and foreign affairs and thought that it could impose political democracy from the top down.  Early 20th Century conservatives fought such conceit on both the domestic front and the political front.  The big crackup in conservatism came with the Cold War.  Early Progressives were anti-communist and dedicated to spreading American democracy.  The progressives of the 1960s did not buy into this proposition and that caused a split on the left, which led to a slpit on the right.  Anti-communist Progressives joined the conservative side and were then dubbed “neo-coonservatives.”  Their desire to defeat communism and spread democracy was not always matched by a similar desire to maintain liberty and a constitutionally limited government.  This worried older conservatives, because the so-called “neo-cons” were seen as missing the bigger point.  Matters were made worse when the ideological principle of opposing social engineering was replaced as the central tenent of the conservative movement with the political goal of winning the Cold War.  That ended up including the goal of shaping the world political order so that it was compatible with U.S. interests.  This was the kind of social engineering that conservatives had come to oppose and they became skeptical of foreign adventures undertaken in the name of American security so as to gain the consent of the American people while our treasury and the blood of our men and women in the armed forces were spent.  The contention was the such adventures did not serve the security interests of the U.S., but the conceit of the would be social engineers.

The proper role of government in both foreign and domestic affairs is a subject that we all need pay more attention and a good step is to gave a hearing to experienced voices in this debate like Dr. Paul.