And it shouldn’t come as a shock that [Ron Paul’s] son found himself publicly undone, in what should have been his moment of triumph, because he was too proud to acknowledge the limits of ideology, and to admit that a principle can be pushed too far.
When I first read Ross’ column, it seemed to be a reasonably fair and effective critique of “paleo” flaws, but something about it kept bothering me. Some of this has to do with Ross’ references to ideology. Most conservatives sympathetic to Rand Paul abhor ideology as such and not only recognize its limits, but are acutely aware of its distorting powers and flaws. Indeed, it has been the “paleo” right that has been relentless in criticizing the ideological mentality that dominates so much of conservative thought today. It has been one of our main themes for the last decade. If anyone has been aware of the limits of ideology, it has been people like Rand Paul. If anyone has been oblivious to those limits, it has been the people on the right who acknowledge Paul and his supporters only by way of belittling and dismissing them.
Something else that has not been discussed very much in response to Rand Paul’s controversial remarks is that Paul’s main error derives mostly from an overconfidence in the rationality and morality of both markets and democracy. This is arguably the product of an unduly optimistic assessment of human behavior. No one would normally accuse paleoconservatives of any of these things, since we are normally considered excessively pessimistic and skeptical of both the market and mass democracy. Put another other way, Paul has been subjected to particularly intense scrutiny because he has expressed confidence in markets and democracy in a way similar to, but less naive than, the ideologues who championed the inevitable triumph of democratic capitalism and promoted the ideas of Near Eastern regional transformation by force and the failed “freedom agenda.” The rather obvious difference is that Paul’s remarks had and will have no effect on policy whatever, but he could very well be politically punished more than all the people who helped wreck entire countries and provided the justification for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
For the most part, when “paleos” err we err because we are very concerned to prevent abuses of government power and because we want to keep the government from using its coercive powers unnecessarily and arbitrarily. Given their deference to the national security and warfare state, our critics on the right cannot say the same. This may lead us to go to extremes or to take the wrong position in a particular debate on occasion. Nonetheless, the alternative to this is a conservative movement that has obviously “sold out to both big government and the military-industrial complex.” We are all well-acquainted with what this means for our country, and generally speaking it has been a disaster. Rand Paul’s success so far offers the possibility of something different and better. It is simply foolish to try to destroy that.
Update: I’m afraid that Max Fisher has misunderstood my second paragraph. The point I was trying to make, and which I apparently did not make very clearly, was that Paul is being raked over the coals for being overly confident in the rationality and morality of markets and democracy in a way that resembles democratist ideologues, but the latter are never held accountable for being even more hubristic and unreasonable in their ideological convictions that have had disastrous consequences in the real world. Paul made some controversial remarks on a cable news show that he has since clarified. Democratist ideologues helped destroy whole countries in the name of democratic capitalist triumph. If we believed Ross, they were well-intentioned do-gooders who just made a few mistakes, and Rand Paul is a proud ideologue blind to complexities of the real world. I was criticizing the dramatic difference in how Paul is being treated and the way that ideologues who are actually responsible for enabling mass destruction and death have been treated.