I learned some interesting things from this NYT profile of Ron Paul. I did not realize that his family, descendants of German immigrants, lived by the myth of the destructive power of hyperinflation, based on what had happened in Germany? (By “myth,” I don’t mean something that’s untrue; obviously, hyperinflation was a real historical phenomenon. I mean a story — true or not — around which people build their worldviews). You read a lot in the papers these days about how contemporary Germans are profoundly driven in their views on European monetary policy by the cultural memory of catastrophic hyperinflation. It was startling to me to learn that the same cultural memory animates the fundamental views of an American presidential candidate. (N.B., Paul’s German ancestor came to the US before the 1920s hyperinflation, but had been ruined by a previous episode in German history; given that Paul’s parents spoke German at home, it’s not unreasonable to think that they were deeply aware of events in postwar Germany that confirmed the family myth.)
Supporters and detractors often marvel at his consistency since entering politics in 1974, citing it as evidence of either levelheadedness or lunacy. It contrasts sharply with some of the rivals he is trailing in the Republican primaries, including Mitt Romney, who is often accused of ideological flip-flopping.
While the Austrian economists who deeply influenced Mr. Paul have gone in and out of fashion among conservatives, his own fidelity to them has never wavered. Even his investment portfolio, nearly two-thirds of which is in gold and precious-metal stocks, shows the same commitment to principle — not to mention preparation for a financial catastrophe.
This article helped me understand why in the debates, Paul seems to bring every other question back to the need, in his view, for a sound currency based on gold. It’s not surprising that Ron Paul sees this as the fundamental problem. What is surprising, at least to me, is to learn how long he has believed this, and how nothing has affected his views.
So, how do you tell the difference between someone who is admirably principled, and someone who is so given over to a theory that he doesn’t allow any contrary evidence to change his mind? As a conservative, I believe in certain firm principles, but also a certain flexibility in applying them, given the historical and cultural contexts. There is no abstract formula for governance that is eternally and universally applicable. It seems to me that the prudent conservative deals with the world as it is, even as he has a clear idea of how he would like the world to be. The art of governance requires the prudential management of the tension between idealism and practicality.
This is the main thing that keeps me from having too much enthusiasm for Ron Paul. He strikes me as such a true believer in his own economic ideals that he would be an imprudent, radical executive. He might just be the most principled man in contemporary politics. But does that guarantee good judgment? I think the whole business with the racist newsletters is important, not because it reveals Ron Paul to have been a racist — I have a hard time believing that he is, or ever was, a racist — but that he is so fixated on his economic ideals that all he could think of was finding allies who shared his apocalyptic views. He was extremely unwise in the service of his Big Idea.
There’s also an anecdote, familiar to Paul supporters, about how and why he became pro-life. Also, this:
Mr. Paul continues to invest according to his principles, and he has outperformed the stock market. From 2001 to 2011, his holdings in gold, silver, mining companies and other bets on an economic collapse more than doubled in value, an analysis of his Congressional disclosures suggests, to between $1.6 million and $3.5 million. His entire portfolio is now worth between $2.4 million and $5.4 million.
He also continues to maintain his medical license, for the same apocalyptic reason that he urges young people to learn a trade. “That is the ultimate protection,” he said, even safer than stockpiling gold. “Even if you have to live in a totalitarian society, somebody’s going to want your skills.”
I’d say that last line is wise, prudent advice.
Please, in the comments, understand that I’m not going to post any generic defenses of Ron Paul, or hysterical denunciations of those who don’t support him. Confine your remarks to the issues discussed in this post, especially the question of how you can tell whether a politician is principled, or an ideologue. In practice, this usually comes down to whether or not you approve of the principles the politician stands for. But I’d like to talk about it from the point of view of prudence, which is supposed to be a virtue prized by conservatives.
I’m also particularly interested in the power of the past to illuminate the present. For Paul, the historical fact of German hyperinflation helps him understand how things go bad, and how we can prevent that. History — that particular history — is a sound guide to what we should do in our current historical situation. How do we know, though, when to decided that history is a reliable teacher, or when to conclude that we are so tightly bound to history that we have corrupted our judgment?