Time Unripe

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Libertarians were cheered when Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. But Paul started his speech to the conference with three unsalable proposals: end the Federal Reserve, end the federal income tax, and withdraw from the United Nations. Any one of these would prevent him from being nominated, let alone elected.

Paul is a candidate of radical ideas, some libertarian and some hard-right conservative. If your aim is to pro- mote those ideas, Paul is the irreplaceable man. And that’s fine. Think of him as a long-term investment. But he is not a man who can be elected president.

Consider the three positions above. There are arguments for them, but all are inside-the-church arguments. Theoretical arguments. They may be ripe at some other time and place, but not now.

Take, for instance, gold-backed money, which is the real point of ending the Federal Reserve. There is a theoretical argument for it. It also has an aesthetic and emotional appeal. But for 75 years gold has not been a circulating medium anywhere in the world. Leaders of banking and finance, who were once the gold standard’s core supporters, no longer believe in it. To bring it back requires that they be convinced that it would be better for modern commerce than a system of floating fiat currencies. It’s a thing I’m not convinced of, myself, but that is not my point here. Gold standard advocates have to change the minds of financial leaders — and they have not done it.

A serious candidate for national office has to pick fruit already ripe. For example, George W. Bush supported the idea of private accounts in Social Security. It wasn’t what got him elected in 2000, but he was for it, and it seemed like an idea that might be ripe. Twenty years of intellectual watering and pruning had been done for that idea, including the work of the Cato Institute. It had gotten support from a commission appointed by President Clinton. The predicted funding shortfall created a problem that private accounts were supposed to solve. There was also a powerful case that money invested over a lifetime, rather than passed immediately from one pocket to another, offered a far more comfortable retirement for the average investor. Still, there was no sale. The Democrats stressed the risk to the below-average investor, which was true, and branded the idea a Wall Street plot, which was not. They turned people against it, and so thoroughly that Republicans are still being accused of wanting to take away people’s Social Security.

Gold money is an even more radical proposal than Social Security private accounts, and the political spade- work has not been done for it. As an idea, it is not ripe. If the United States goes to 20% inflation, that may change. Not now.

One idea that may be ripe, and that Paul championed during his CPAC speech, is a less interventionist, more America-first foreign policy. This is distinctly a minority view among Republicans, but Americans generally are ready for it. If Paul can get a large number of Republicans to think of war as another power-wielding, life-and-wealth- destroying program rather than hoo-ah and support-our- troops, he will have done a lot.

I love him for standing up to the neocons. But for national office, libertarians need a candidate with positions that immediately make sense to people less ideological than they are. That might be a candidate for a strong dollar without specifying a gold dollar; for cutting spend- ing rather than proposing to cancel the federal income tax at the time of trillion-dollar deficits; and for a foreign policy of minding America’s business without needing to ditch the UN. The UN doesn’t have any power. Why worry about it?

That is why in last month’s issue of Liberty I did the interview with former Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico. I am not sure he is the man to win the presidency. But one could imagine, if the stars lined up just right, someone with his ideas winning it.

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