Vision of Small

Evaluating the libertarian view of government’s role.


What could happen to American government if conservatives build on their 2010 electoral triumph by winning the White House in 2012? Answers to that question have emerged in the GOP presidential nominating contest. And the clearest vision has come from Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. 

Pundits say the Republican candidates this year are more conservative than those in the field in 2008. They in fact have been pulled to starboard on social issues, although “values” campaigners like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum want more government—to outlaw abortions and to enact statutes like the federal Defense of Marriage Act. As to the size and role of government in our lives, the candidates don’t offer detailed plans for radical change, with the exception of Paul.

Paul’s candidacy, which is centered on issues, not sound bites, is significant because he is pulling the other candidates toward his positions—and amassing enough delegates to help shape the party platform that’s to be drafted at the GOP convention in August. 

At heart, Paul is a libertarian; he ran as the Libertarian Party candidate in the 1988 presidential race. Running as a Republican now, he’s softened some of the harder edged libertarian philosophy, but he is the only challenger with a true vision of a much smaller government.  

Seeking to answer the question I posed at the outset, I came across a new book by former Federal Reserve economist David Barker titled Welcome to Free America (, 2011). Barker takes the libertarian philosophy to its limit—writing about how our country would function if the current federal government lost all legitimacy and were replaced by a true free enterprise society where key functions like policing and national defense would be financed through voluntary private associations. 

Paul doesn’t go that far. But he has emphasized his consistency on the issues, and he has a long record of writing, and voting in Congress, to protest the current shape of government. I read one of his foundational treatises, The Revolution: A Manifesto (Grand Central Publishing, 2008), which became a New York Times No. 1 best-seller; after which he published two more books, including End the Fed (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). An up-to-date rundown of his campaign platform is found at

Nick Gillespie, longtime editor at Reason magazine, the bible of the libertarian movement, says the time has come for Paul in light of the huge expansion of government since the 21st century began and the unpopularity of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He notes that federal spending has grown from $1.8 trillion in 2000 to $3.8 trillion in 2011, driven by the wars, Medicare drug benefit, reaction to the recession and other factors. Ten years hence, he says, Obama’s program will cost $5.7 trillion and the Republican House of Representatives’ plan developed by Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., $4.7 trillion, while Paul,
if elected, would spend only $3 trillion. Gillespie is co-author of another book for one’s libertarian library: The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America (PublicAffairs, 2011). 

Paul advocates phasing out the income, capital gains and death taxes, with the eventual goal of replacing them with a flat tax. He says he would veto any unbalanced budget Congress sends across his desk. He rails against foreign adventurism he says costs $1 trillion a year. He would radically cut international commitments that now have us deployed in 135 countries abroad. When other Republicans attack these policies as isolationism, Paul responds (in his “manifesto”) that “the real isolationists are those who isolate their country in the court of world opinion by pursuing needless belligerence and wars that have nothing to do with legitimate national security concerns.” He would wage no more war without a declaration by Congress. He would end foreign aid, saying most of it ends up in the pockets of corrupt dictators. He would apply national security savings to fund the transition to a Social Security system relying more on private savings. When not calling for “ending” the Federal Reserve, he would seek to audit it—a position shared by fellow presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. Paul would do away with the “misnamed” Patriot Act on the grounds that it’s unconstitutionally intrusive in American life. A medical doctor, he would repeal Obamacare, deregulate the health care market and support individuals with medical tax breaks. 

In its periodic typology of American voters, the Pew Research Center in 2011 identified 9 percent of the public as sharing libertarian views. In most instances, these views matched up with conservative or Republican positions. But it doesn’t take much of a historian to see that Paul’s positions also can appeal to young people, including some on the liberal side of the political spectrum. End the wars? Audit the Fed? Curtail Patriot Act surveillance? Get government out of the bedroom? Aren’t these “conservative” ideas floating toward the mainstream?

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