A Cheerful Anachronism

Some rice farmers from congressman Ron Paul's district were in his office the other day, asking for this and that from the federal government. The affable Republican from south Texas listened nicely, then forwarded their requests to the appropriate House committee. It may or may not satisfy their requests in some bill dispensing largesse to agricultural interests. Then Paul will vote against the bill.

He believes, with more stubbornness than evidence, that the federal government is a government of strictly enumerated powers, and nowhere in the Constitution's enumeration (Article I, Section 8) can he find any reference to rice. So there. "Farm organizations fight me tooth and nail," he says, "but the farmers are with me." Of course they can afford to indulge their congressman's philosophical eccentricity because lots of other House members represent rice farmers, so rice gets its share of gravy. Still, Paul is a likable eccentric, partly because he likes his constituents while disliking what he considers their incontinent appetite for government. Why, "If you ignore what they say about rice, they are nice people." He would help them by ending the trade embargo with Cuba, to which they used to sell a lot of rice.

The 71-year-old Ob-Gyn doctor has delivered more than 4,000 babies and (it must seem to other House members) an even larger number of speeches in the House deploring most of what the government does. This week he will be in New Hampshire announcing his second presidential candidacy.

In 1988, during a 12-year sabbatical from Congress, he was the Libertarian Party's nominee, and finished third. He received just 0.47 percent of the popular vote, but his 432,179 votes were four times more than the total that elected President John Quincy Adams in 1824, so there. This time he is seeking the Republican nomination, so he will be on the Manchester, N.H., stage April 4 for the first Republican candidates' debate.

There, like Longfellow's youth "who bore,'mid snow and ice, a banner with the strange device, Excelsior!" Paul will unfurl his banner emblazoned with James Madison's Federalist Paper No. 45: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined." Paul, who really believes in limited government, will infiltrate that confabulation of sedate candidates in order, he says, to find out "how many real Republicans are left." This could be entertaining, meaning embarrassing.

Do any other House Republicans agree with him? "Every one of them, at times. But none of them all the time." Paul relishes his role as The Least Malleable Republican. Last week Paul, who voted not only against the 2002 authorization for war but the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act (he thinks "regime change" and its inevitable aftermath, "nation-building," are optional follies) was vehemently supporting the House resolution disapproving of the president's Iraq policy.

Most congressional offices are decorated with photos of representatives gripping and grinning with presidents and other eminences. Paul, who thinks the presidency has swollen to anticonstitutional proportions, has photos of two Austrian School economists, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who warned against what Hayek called "the fatal conceit" of governments thinking they can allocate wealth and opportunity more reasonably than can markets. Paul's office has a picture of one president--Grover Cleveland, the conservative Democrat who asked, "What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?"

Paul thinks everyone is born an instinctive libertarian, "wanting to be let alone." Unfortunately, "the school system beats it out of you." Paul voted both for the ban on partial-birth abortion (a fetus is alive, leave it alone) and against the ban on same-sex marriage (none of the federal government's business). He refused to allow any of his five children (three of whom are doctors) to accept federal student loans, and he will not accept his congressional pension. He voted against campaign-finance regulation in 2002 and the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act in 2006, denouncing the former as the left's attack on free speech and the latter as the right's attack. Because they are "not authorized within the enumerated powers of the Constitution," he regularly votes against awarding gold medals to distinguished figures, including--gasp--the Gipper.

Even before the Founders' generation passed from the scene, the government was slipping off the leash that Madison said--and Paul says--the Constitution puts on it. (Where did Jefferson find constitutional authority for making the Louisiana Purchase?) Still, Paul is not only a cheerful anachronism but a useful one. He forces us to consider the continuing relevance of some old arguments, and he reminds us that much of the reverence for the Founders is more rhetorical than operational.