The Retirement of Ron Paul

Once in a generation, America encounters a non-traditional politician like Ron Paul.

As a presidential candidate, Ron Paul was principled, but unelectable. Most of his ideas involved taking a sledgehammer to voters’ most cherished assumptions. Most of his political proposals, such as shuttering the Department of Education, were too radical for the average voter to contemplate. He offered a vision that was abstract, futuristic, and conditional on America pursuing a path far different from the one it has pursued for the past four decades.

Ron Paul didn’t have the tools to appeal to most voters. Most voters do not have the inclination to develop complex or unorthodox political opinions, which require significant investments of time, energy, and intellectual effort. Rather, most people base their votes on instinct or emotion. In the process, they usually treat voting as an act of consumption—a way to signal one’s tastes, preferences, and identities.

This is why most voters are susceptible to sound bites, smears, and 30 second ads. This is also why most voters gravitate towards politicians who exude optimism, charm, dynamism, and youthful energy.

But Ron Paul was not an optimist. Indeed, it didn’t help that he often spoke of economic catastrophe and systemic collapse.

“Our present monetary system is failing. The time is ripe for fundamental monetary reform,” Ron Paul wrote in his 1982 book, The Case for Gold.

But Ron Paul had spoken too soon. In the years that have followed, America experienced booms under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II. The Dow soared from 1,000 points in 1982 to 14,000 in 2007. And for decades, Ron Paul has been dismissed as a crank by most voters, pundits, and the mainstream media.

That being said, Ron Paul’s ideas still contain a grain of truth. Basically, he thinks that the Fed prints too much currency, and that because of the resulting inflationary effect, the U.S. dollar is beginning to resemble Monopoly money.

That’s not crazy. It’s a defensible economic argument.

This does not mean that America should abolish the Fed. But it should be said that Ron Paul, a man who kept most of his investments in gold and silver mining stocks, has prospered by sticking to his principles. Seven years ago, you could buy gold for $420 an ounce and silver for $7. But today, gold has soared over $1,600, and silver over $32. That’s an annual rate of return exceeding 20 percent for both metals for the past seven years. How many stocks, bonds, or bank accounts pay that sort of rate?

No doubt some of Ron Paul’s ideas are impractical, like his suggestion that America leave the United Nations and NATO. However, a number of his basic points are based on defensible premises. For instance, he thinks that too many Americans have died fighting other people’s wars—a perfectly respectable anti-war position. He also thinks that the government wastes too much money—a perfectly respectable anti-debt position.

Ron Paul was not destined to become president because he lacked the pragmatism to build a winning political coalition. However, he is a principled politician who has thought deeply about America’s future, and some of his ideas could be integrated into a credible platform for future national elections. And even as Ron Paul steps into retirement, he leaves behind a comprehensive philosophical legacy and millions of energetic followers.

Plus, his son Rand is in the Senate. Apples don’t fall far from trees.

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

HLS Alum Fails Con Law Exam

At one of the January presidential debates, moderator George Stephanopoulos posed the single best legal hypo of the entire Republican primary campaign to Willard M. Romney, Harvard Law Class of ’75: “Do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

Before we see how the HLS alum did on this exam question, let’s establish a very basic idea that I think just about everyone agrees on: There are unconstitutional good ideas and constitutional bad ideas. To use non-partisan examples, the Smoot-Hawley tariff was a thoroughly constitutional bad idea. The line-item veto was a thoroughly unconstitutional good idea.

The Constitution says nothing about contraception, making its proscription a constitutional bad idea. However, if you are a proponent of magical substantive due process, all bad ideas suddenly become unconstitutional. Thus, the entire purpose of the contraception question is to establish whether Romney believes in substantive due process, something that any Republican who cares about getting good justices on the Supreme Court should be deeply interested in.

So, how did ol’ Willard do?  Did he stand up for originalism?  Did he say something logical like, “States can do that constitutionally, but it would be a terrible idea that I would never support”?

Not so much.  Romney played dumb, insisting that because no state was trying to ban contraception, he couldn’t possibly answer the hypothetical.  Flummoxed by Romney’s obtuse failure to comprehend the nature of a hypothetical question, Stephanopoulos noted dryly, “You went to Harvard Law School.”

The crowd, very Romney-friendly voters, booed the line of questioning, presumably because they didn’t want their preferred candidate to have to break tradition by saying something that is simultaneously (a) true and (b) unpopular.

This wasn’t the only time Romney flunked a Con Law exam.  Perhaps more egregious than the contraception example is his repeated claim that people should not criticize him for Romneycare because the Tenth Amendment allows states to do things that the federal government can’t.  No one has yet pressed home the objection that while his plan was undoubtedly constitutional, that does not make it a good idea.

It should be noted in Romney’s defense that politicians regularly betray total ignorance regarding the Constitution. No candidate is guiltier in this regard than Ron Paul.

At another presidential forum, Paul was asked which amendments he considered to be mistakes. The moderator, perhaps anticipating an attack on the income tax or direct election of senator amendments, suggested Paul should limit his response to only a few amendments.  He needn’t have bothered with the hortatory admonition.  The only amendment Paul could come up with was the prohibition amendment, which was already, er, repealed before Paul was born.

He’s not much better when talking about the original Constitution. He talks endlessly about Afghanistan and Iraq being unconstitutional wars, but Congress authorized both of those actions. He voted against NAFTA because of the supposedly unconstitutional creation of a regulatory body to oversee cross-border trade (which is the third enumerated power in Article I, Section 8).

Since Paul didn’t go to law school, I would normally go easy on him for not knowing all that much about the Constitution. However, since Paul declares himself a “constitutionalist” (whatever that means) and Romney explicitly deferred to him as part of his evasion of the contraception question, Paul also warrants a failing grade in Con Law.

The common theme in Paul and Romney’s Con Law failures is the refusal to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a constitutional bad idea. I understand the temptation to think that the Constitution solves all problems.  If that were the case, no Republican politician would ever have to make difficult policy arguments. However, if you’re running for president, you should at least be able to articulate the benefits of limited government without waving a spurious constitutional canard at the voters every fifteen seconds.

John Thorlin is a 3L. His column runs Thursdays.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.