I have made a basic principle never to discuss politics with doctors or medicine with politicians. I have never had a discussion with an optometrist over a tax policy where they suggested it be replaced with whatever popular regressive idea is popular at the time. No family practitoner could control themselves before lashing out at the crooks in Washington and how Citizens United would solve our woes. This is why healthcare reform has so been difficult. It’s also why Dr. Ron Paul, obstetrician-gynecologist, has nearly driven me insane.
Ron Paul’s popularity might be completely unrelated to his childlike faith in the gold standard but is rather frustrating to anyone with a little history knowledge. How can a nation of debtors support a candidate who considers even the most marginal uptick inflation to be a crime against humanity? Didn’t the West and South spend most the late 19th Century to get just a bit of silver in the monetary system to inflate farm prices just a little? Where is William Jennings Bryan? Dead, you say? At a time like this!?!? In H.W. Brands fascinating book American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 there’s a clue why the gold standard narrative has caught on even if the logic behind it is contradictory to many voters interest.
Between the years 1894-1896, William Harvey’s Coin’s Financial School sold a million copies. The story is rather simple, a series of lectures by a man name Coin about the value of silver and bimetallism. Many critics try to outsmart the wily lad on both matters great and small but he can easily answer all their questions with his expertise. Now the popularity of such a work in a period leading up to Bryan’s great crusade is not surprising. The way, however, Harvey frames the argument as a bunch of robbers destroyed the well-established principle of silver money to help further the interest of London banks. The message of why bimetallism would help farmers goes not toward inflation but a very basic concept: this is how are ancestors did it. Coin extols how long silver was accepted currency in the past only for a bunch of crooks in Congress during 1870s took away our birthright. People who grew up in “the days of Washington and Jefferson and our revolutionary forefathers, who had a hatred of England and an intimate knowledge of her designs on this country” (Brands, 499) knew better than to trust a gold standard. Our founding fathers gave us silver money! How DARE a new generation of legislatures take it away from us! Economics is important but the value of tradition is more- like gold to silver.
This is not very far away about Ron Paul’s pitch that the gold standard was the accepted theory for 5,000 years and we should bow to their expertise. When Abraham Lincoln called himself a conservative, it’s not because he wasn’t trying to lead the country down a radical path (very slowly of course, Lincoln was a moderate on the slavery issue) but Americans prefer the idea that traditional values are the best and while trying something new, we’re trying something new in an old way. What works in the past will the future goes to the heart of our pattern recognition ability and we prefer old trustworthy medicine to any new stuff. So if you’re trying to anything progressive, you should probably throw the bedsheet of tradition and pretend it’s the ghost of the past trying to lead us into a happy future. Any call for the gold standard is not based in any economic or political logic but that the idea is very old and therefore trustworthy. The fact slavery and blood-letting are also ancient concepts does not seem to bother them. The Silverites hit on a popular narrative older than their cause to sell their policy, only to see it to live much longer than any of their ideas. And thus Ron Paul is using the same argument that people who would have hate his guts.