By Matt Stoller
The views expressed are his own.
The most perplexing character in Congress, ideologically speaking, is Ron Paul. This is a guy who exists in the Republican Party as a staunch opponent of American empire and big finance. His ideas on the Federal Reserve have taken some hold recently, and he has taken powerful runs at the Presidency on the obscure topic of monetary policy. He doesn’t play by standard political rules, so while old newsletters bearing his name showcase obvious white supremacy, he is also the only prominent politician, let alone Presidential candidate, saying that the drug war has racist origins. You cannot honestly look at this figure without acknowledging both elements, as well as his opposition to war, the Federal government, and the Federal Reserve. And as I’ve drilled into Paul’s ideas, his ideas forced me to acknowledge some deep contradictions in American liberalism (pointed out years ago by Christopher Laesch) and what is a long-standing, disturbing, and unacknowledged affinity liberals have with centralized war financing. So while I have my views of Ron Paul, I believe that the anger he inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.
My perspective of Paul comes from working with his staff in 2009-2010 on issues of war and the Federal Reserve. Paul was one of my then-boss Alan Grayson’s key allies in Congress on these issues, though on most issues of course he and Paul were diametrically opposed. How Paul operated his office was different than most Republicans, and Democrats. An old Congressional hand once told me, and then drilled into my head, that every Congressional office is motivated by three overlapping forces – policy, politics, and procedure. And this is true as far as it goes. An obscure redistricting of two Democrats into one district that will take place in three years could be the motivating horse-trade in a decision about whether an important amendment makes it to the floor, or a possible opening of a highly coveted committee slot on Appropriations due to a retirement might cause a policy breach among leadership. Depending on committee rules, a Sub-Committee chairman might have to get permission from a ranking member or Committee Chairman to issue a subpoena, sometimes he might not, and sometimes he doesn’t even have to tell his political opposition about it. Congress is endlessly complex, because complexity can be a useful tool in wielding power without scrutiny. And every office has a different informal matrix, so you have to approach each of them differently.
Paul’s office was dedicated, first and foremost, to his political principles, and his work with his grassroots base reflects that. Politics and procedure simply didn’t matter to him. My main contact in Paul’s office even had his voicemail set up with special instructions for those calling about HR 1207, which was the number of the House bill to audit the Federal Reserve. But it wasn’t just the Fed audit – any competent liberal Democratic staffer in Congress can tell you that Paul will work with anyone who seeks his ends of rolling back American Empire and its reach into foreign countries, auditing the Federal Reserve, and stopping the drug war.
Paul is deeply conservative, of course, and there are reasons he believes in those end goals that have nothing to do with creating a more socially just and equitable society. But then, when considering questions about Ron Paul, you have to ask yourself whether you prefer a libertarian who will tell you upfront about his opposition to civil rights statutes, or authoritarian Democratic leaders who will expand healthcare to children and then aggressively enforce a racist war on drugs and shield multi-trillion dollar transactions from public scrutiny. I can see merits in both approaches, and of course, neither is ideal. Perhaps it’s worthy to argue that lives saved by presumed expanded health care coverage in 2013 are worth the lives lost in the drug war. It is potentially a tough calculation (depending on whether you think coverage will in fact expand in 2013). When I worked with Paul’s staff, they pursued our joint end goals with vigor and principle, and because of their work, we got to force central banking practices into a more public and democratic light.
But this obscures the real question, of why Paul disdains the Fed (and implicitly, why liberals do not), and the relationship between the Federal Reserve and American empire. If you go back and look at some of libertarian allies, like Fox News’s Judge Napolitano, they will answer that question for you. Napolitano hates, absolutely hates, Abraham Lincoln. He sometimes slyly refers to Lincoln as America’s first dictator. Libertarians also detest Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
What connects all three of these Presidents is one thing – big ass wars, and specifically, war financing. If you think today’s deficits are bad, well, Abraham Lincoln financed the Civil War pretty much entirely by money printing and debt creation, taking America off the gold standard. He oversaw the founding of the nation’s first national financial regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which chartered national banks and forced them to hold government debt to back currency they issued. The dollar then became the national currency, and Lincoln didn’t even back those dollars by gold (and gold is written into the Constitution). This financing of the Civil War was upheld in a series of cases over the Legal Tender Act of 1862. Prior to Lincoln, it was these United States. Afterwards, it was the United States. Lincoln fought the Civil War and centralized authority in the Federal government to do it, freeing slaves and transforming America into one nation.
Libertarians claim that they dislike Lincoln because he centralized authority in the Federal government. Of course, there is a long reconstructed white supremacist strain that hates Lincoln because he was an explicitly anti-racist President, and they hate the centralized authority and financing power that freed the slaves and turned America increasingly into more racially equitable society. This strain can be exploited by the creditor class, who also disliked how slavery – which they saw as a property right rather than a labor and human rights issue – was destroyed by state power. History, of course, has a nasty way of mocking us about long-held fights we thought were over. The conflict between labor/human rights and property rights continues today. Or as Carl Fox said in the movie Wall Street, “The only difference between the Pyramids and the Empire State Building is the Egyptians didn’t allow unions.” Without even getting into globalization, prison labor legally makes body armor, as well as products for Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, and Microsoft. State centralized power can prioritize labor rights over property rights, and for this reason, creditors are wary of it.
On to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson signed the highly controversial Federal Reserve Act in 1913; originally, the Federal Reserve system was supposed to discount commercial and agricultural paper. Government bonds were not really considered part of the system’s mandate. But what happened the next year? Yes, World War I. And Wilson, who ran on the slogan “he kept us out of war” in 1916, started a long tradition of antiwar Democratic Presidents who took America to war (drawing the ire of, among others, Helen Keller, but garnering the support of union leader Sam Gompers who argued it was a “people’s war”). Wilson also implemented a wide variety of highly repressive authoritarian measures, including the Palmer Raids, the Espionage Act of 1917, and the use of modern PR techniques by government agencies. For good measure, Wilson was an unreconstructed white supremacist (even a bit out there for the time) and sent many antiwar opponents to jail. In the monetary arena, Wilson’s new Federal Reserve system began discounting government bonds. Like Lincoln, he had set up a tremendous war financing vehicle to centralize capital flows and therefore, political authority. In many ways, Wilson set up the rudiments of America’s police state, and did so arguably to help a transatlantic Anglo-American banking elite. Here, one can argue that libertarians are wary of centralized financing and political authority for liberal reasons – the ACLU was founded after the Palmer raids.
And finally, we come to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Fed is a bit more complex, because he did centralize monetary authority using wartime emergency powers, but he did so in peacetime. FDR abrogated gold clause contracts, seized the domestic supply of gold, and devalued the currency. He constrained banks with aggressive regulation and seizures of insolvent banks, saving depositors with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He also used the RFC to set up much of what we know today as the Federal government, including early versions of disaster relief, small business lending, massive bridge and railroad building, the FHA, Fannie Mae, and state and local aid. Eventually, the government used this mechanism to finance college and housing for veterans with the GI Bill. Since veterans were much of the population right after World War II, effectively this was the first ever near-national safety net. FDR also fused the liberal and union establishments with the corporate world, creating the hybrid “military-industrial” complex that is with us to this day (see Alan Brinkley’s “End of Reform” for a good treatment of this process).
Later, this New Deal financing apparatus was used to finance the munitions industry and America’s role in World War II. At one point, the RFC owned eight war material producing subsidiaries, including the synthetic rubber industry. Importantly, FDR had the Fed working for him. The Fed kept interest rates pegged at an interest rate set by Treasury, and used reserve requirements to manage inflation. This led to a dramatic drop in inequality, and unemployment sank to 1% during World War II. In 1951, the Fed, buttressed by what Tom Ferguson calls “conservative Keynesian” corporate leaders, broke free of this arrangement, under the Treasury-Fed Accord, leading to the postwar monetary order. That accord is where the vaunted “Federal Reserve Independence” came from.
Now, if you’re a libertarian, and you believe that centralized power is dangerous, then it’s obvious that state control over finance and mass mobilization of social resources for warfare or other ends are two sides of the same coin. If you fear social spending, you could also be persuaded to believe that any financing mechanism for mass social spending is problematic. Creditors might just dislike the possibility of any state power centers that could challenge their hegemony and privilege labor/human rights over their property rights, though they do support captive state systems they control. If you are a white supremacist, centralized power can easily be viewed as a threat to racial homogeny, since historically it has acted as such in the past. But if you are against war, or you believe that a centralized state is likely to act in an unjust or repressive manner (as it also has in the past), then war financing is a reasonable target.
Modern liberalism is a mixture of two elements. One is a support of Federal power – what came out of the late 1930s, World War II, and the civil rights era where a social safety net and warfare were financed by Wall Street, the Federal Reserve and the RFC, and human rights were enforced by a Federal government, unions, and a cadre of corporate, journalistic and technocratic experts (and cheap oil made the whole system run.) America mobilized militarily for national priorities, be they war-like or social in nature. And two, it originates from the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam era, with its distrust of centralized authority mobilizing national resources for what were perceived to be immoral priorities. When you throw in the recent financial crisis, the corruption of big finance, the increasing militarization of society, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse of the moral authority of the technocrats, you have a big problem. Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore, but it also has a profound challenge insofar as the rudiments of liberalism going back to the 1930s don’t work.
This is why Ron Paul can critique the Federal Reserve and American empire, and why liberals have essentially no answer to his ideas, arguing instead over Paul having character defects. Ron Paul’s stance should be seen as a challenge to better create a coherent structural critique of the American political order. It’s quite obvious that there isn’t one coming from the left, otherwise the figure challenging the war on drugs and American empire wouldn’t be in the Republican primary as the libertarian candidate. To get there, liberals must grapple with big finance and war, two topics that are difficult to handle in any but a glib manner that separates us from our actual traditional and problematic affinity for both. War financing has a specific tradition in American culture, but there is no guarantee war financing must continue the way it has. And there’s no reason to assume that centralized power will act in a more just manner these days, that we will see continuity with the historical experience of the New Deal and Civil Rights Era. The liberal alliance with the mechanics of mass mobilizing warfare, which should be pretty obvious when seen in this light, is deep-rooted.
What we’re seeing on the left is this conflict played out, whether it is big slow centralized unions supporting problematic policies, protest movements that cannot be institutionalized in any useful structure, or a completely hollow liberal intellectual apparatus arguing for increasing the power of corporations through the Federal government to enact their agenda. Now of course, Ron Paul pandered to racists, and there is no doubt that this is a legitimate political issue in the Presidential race. But the intellectual challenge that Ron Paul presents ultimately has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with contradictions within modern liberalism.
This post is reprinted from its original publication on Naked Capitalism.
PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) speaks during a Town Hall Meeting at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, December 29, 2011. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes