I saw a lot of Rand Paul on TV yesterday. And heard him on the radio. The newly-minted Republican candidate for Senator from Kentucky is facing national criticism because of his stance on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Rand Paul, I honestly believe, is not a racist. He just believes that government should not be involved in business. And he holds to that ideological stand scrupulously.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited government from discriminating on the basis of race — in schools and bus stations and government jobs. Paul has no problem with that. But the part he has a problem with is where the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires businesses not to discriminate either. While Paul thinks it is stupid and immoral for a business to discriminate, he doesn't think the government has a place in preventing them from doing so. Or, as Ezra Klein writes:
So I take Paul at his word that he's not a racist. What he is, however, is an ideological extremist. He is so categorically opposed to public regulation of private enterprise that he cannot even bring himself to say that the Woolworth lunch counter should've been desegregated. Instead, he falls back on the remedies of the market: "I wouldn't attend, wouldn't support, wouldn't go to," a private institution that discriminates, he told Rachel Maddow. But he would let them discriminate. And in the segregated South, that would've been a perfectly viable business model for many, many very important institutions.
This prompted Rachel Maddow to ask Rand Paul a very simple question on her broadcast last night if the lunch counters at Woolworth's should have been desegregated, "yes or no". Paul's answer was evasive (he knew it was a trap question), but his answer was essentially "no":
"Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion."
[The whole interview was fascinating. Clip below]
"Well, it was pretty practical to the people who had the life nearly beaten out of them trying to desegregate Walgreen's lunch counters despite these esoteric debates about what it means about ownership. This is not a hypothetical Dr. Paul."
Now, I stress again, Paul is not a racist in my view. But his government-get-your-hands-off-business logic certainly encourages racism, and no doubt his views attract racists to his camp.
But Paul's logic is not only offensive to racial minorities, it ought to be offensive to just about everybody. Just think of the laws that regulate business — disabilities laws which require ramps, child labor laws, etc. If Paul took his logic to its natural conclusion, we would be transported back to the turn of the century — the 18th century.
What is at odds here is the very notion of what government should be doing. Paul thinks it should get out of the way. That's a reasonable position. Businesses should be free to do what they want.
But within limits. One person's freedom ceases when it impinges on another's. And there are times — and the civil rights era certainly serves as a good example — where government needs to intercede to ensure equal rights for all. Government needs to be a force for good, where evil is pervasive. No, it can't eradicate evil from the hearts of man, but it certainly can make man behave properly. But this just highlights what a strange philosophy libertarianism is. While libertarians claim to be driven by a goal of maximizing freedom, what they mean by "freedom" is not what most people take that word to mean. To a libertarian, the only freedom that really matters is freedom from government intrusion. But often, meaningful freedom can only be created through government intervention.
Government regulates – and, of course, provides the necessary conditions for the existence of – private business in all kinds of ways. So when people have a particular concern about, say, the Civil Rights Act, as opposed to, say, parking requirements, it’s reasonable to wonder why.
Anyway, it's anybody's guess as to whether Paul's worldview will become a major force. in the meantime, I also suppose it's time to start asking Republican leaders across the country a straightforward question: "Your party's Senate candidate in Kentucky has a problem with the Civil Rights Act. Do you think he's right or wrong?"
UPDATE: Someone else asks the same question as me–
If we follow the logic he's already articulated, Paul must necessarily oppose the minimum wage, for example. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, in light of their burdens on private companies, would be equally problematic. Social Security must be out of the question. Child-labor laws would obviously be a problem, as would workplace safety regulations and OSHA.
We can even start exploring more details on discrimination. Paul talked about segregated lunch counters yesterday, but let's also explore employment discrimination. If a private company decided to fire a woman for getting pregnant, Rand Paul would necessarily conclude that it's not the government's business. If a private employer refused to hire Jewish applicants, that, under Paul's worldview, would be legally permissible, too.
Rand Paul will spend the next six months trying to defend his philosophical worldview. It should be interesting to watch.
MORE — Even Bruce Bartlett, very much the free marketer himself, gets it:
In 1883 the Supreme Court, then in its most libertarian phase, knocked down the 1875 [Civil Rights] act as well as many other Republican measures passed during Reconstruction designed to aid African Americans. The Court's philosophy in these cases led logically to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which essentially gave constitutional protection to legal segregation enforced by state and local governments throughout the U.S.
….The libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn't work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.
….Rand's position is that [the Civil Rights Act] was wrong in principle in 1964. There is no other way of interpreting this except as an endorsement of all the things the Civil Rights Act was designed to prohibit, as favoring the status quo throughout the South that would have led to a continuation of segregation and discrimination against African Americans at least for many more years. Undoubtedly, changing mores would have broken down some of this over time, but there is no reason to believe that it would have been quick or that vestiges wouldn't still remain today. Indeed, vestiges remain despite the Civil Rights Act.