In a study that ranked the political leanings of all congressmen who served between 1937 and 2002, Professors Howard Rosenthal and Keith Poole listed what they believe to be the the 10 “most conservative.” While there are some lesser known and scandal-ridden elected representatives, Texas Congressman Ron Paul tops the list. His presence as the “most conservative” Congressman in a hundred years is not only a reminder of why he is the true practical and philosophical alternative to President Obama, but also what the definition of conservatism really is.
For at least the last 50 years, the American Right has featured multiple offshoots and beliefs but have basically been divided by a libertarian strain and a neoconservative strain. The Old Right — which was a loud, but lonely, voice against FDR’s welfare-warfare state — wanted to conserve the classical liberal tradition of Western civilization, while modern conservatism is characterized by a Buckley-ite acceptance of bureaucracy, an endorsement of military aggression overseas, and government enforcement of “traditional values.”
This is why a classical liberal like Congressman Frederick C. Smith (R - Ohio), who served in the first half of the 20th century, can be mentioned in the same breath as Virgil H. Goode, Jr. (R - Va.). While Smith preached non-intervention both at home and abroad (and was friendly with the great Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard), Goode favored using the government to “control immigration” by building a fence on the border and openly criticized Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison for taking his oath of office on a Koran rather than a Bible.
This decades-long split in the definition of conservatism is the reason the aforementioned congressmen - who likely would rarely vote with each other — are grouped together on the same list and why former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Ron Paul can both claim to be “conservatives.” Although the Romney-McCain-Bush “conservatism” has dominated the Right for some time, the resurgence in popularity of the Paul campaign is thankfully beginning to change this trend.
Paul is resurrecting a conservative tradition rooted fundamentally in the preservation of the pillars of the Western tradition: individual liberty, property rights, fiscal restraint, and a skepticism of centrally planned bureaucracies, whether they be welfare programs or foreign wars. It channels the writings of Edmund Burke — often recognized as the father of modern conservatism — when he argued that the essence of peace and order is the anarchic and spontaneous civil society and that state intervention can only disrupt and distort this harmony. While Romney, Republicans, and talk-radio conservatives use social issues and minor differences to divide others against “the Left,” Paul’s message puts liberty and the non-aggression principle as the basic starting point of civilization.
Although libertarians like myself have often bemoaned the domination of the American Right by neoconservatives, the issue really boils down to semantics. While Paul’s message echoes the conservative tradition that was discarded after WW2 and his fiscally conservative voting record earned him the badge of “most conservative Congressman,” Paul transcends both Left and Right by rejecting the cherry-picking habits of the Left and Right. Why do “conservatives” claim to support economic freedom while advocating government force to prevent personal freedom? And vice-versa for “liberals?”
This is why Paul is just as critical of President Obama’s economic policies as he is on his shredding of the Bill of Rights and military aggression overseas. Whether you call him “conservative” because of his economic views or “liberal” because of his defense of peace and civil liberties, the best thing about Paul’s message is the dismantling of these Left-Right walls that pit us against one another, allow a bipartisanship status quo to stay in power, and are the biggest barriers to the expansion of freedom and prosperity across America.