On Rand Paul

What arguably got the most play on the Interwebs and Twittersphere (as well as main-stream cable news) at the end of the week last week were Rand Paul's comments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I guess that the over-arching theme in the story regarding Paul The Younger is "welcome to the big leagues". It seems to me that Paul is not a racist, or someone who (if given the opportunity) would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rather, he is a small-government conservative who truly believes that private businesses should be allowed to discriminate, if they so choose. His exact comments on the Rachel Maddow Show:
If you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says 'well no, we don't want to have guns in here' the bar says 'we don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.' Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?
I understand Paul's viewpoint here and, while I think that it is abhorrent, I don't think that he has reached that position from a racial viewpoint.

Let me explain.

Rand Paul (and many, many small 'L' libertarians like him) believe that the government should be as small as possible. Essentially, the job of the government should be to protect our nation -- and that's about it. Much of what the federal government does, by their rationale, could be/should be delegated to state and local governments. This would eliminate much of the bureaucracy of the federal government and lower citizen's federal taxes as the same time. Sounds great, right?

But, as Michael Steele so aptly put it, Paul is mixing philosophy with reality -- and I completely agree.

In theory, Paul's assertion makes sense. Doug Mataconis makes a strong argument on that point:
I believe, at least in the abstract, that people should be free to do business or not do business with whoever they want, for whatever reason they want.
But, racism and discrimination do not live in the abstract. They are very real. Rand Paul should have done a better job articulating this.

Think of it another way. Without government intervention, slavery might very well still exist and be in practice today. Okay, I would hope not, but the point is that it was the big, bad government that stepped in to end the morally reprehensible act that was the enslavement of an entire race of human beings (an act that was legalized by the very same governemnt). Julian Sanchez gets it:
Anyone who values freedom of association should also recognize the real tradeoff that antidiscrimination law involves. In a free society, Americans have long believed, even people with repulsive views have a right to express them, and to join with like-minded bigots in private clubs and informal gatherings. It is not crazy to imagine that in a more just world, an ideally just world, respect for that freedom would lead us to countenance—legally, if not personally—the few cranks who sought to congregate in their monochrome caf├ęs and diners.

Yet that's precisely why Paul's 1.0 argument breaks down on its own terms: at the scene of a four-century crime against humanity—the kidnap, torture, enslavement, and legal oppression of African-Americans—ideal theory fails. We libertarians, never burdened with an excess of governing power, have always had a utopian streak, a penchant for imagining what rich organic order would bubble up from the choices of free and equal citizens governed by a lean state enforcing a few simple rules. We tend to envision societies that, if not perfect, are at least consistently libertarian.

Unfortunately, history happened. Rules for utopia can deal with individual crimes—the mugger and the killer and the vandal—but they stumble in the face of societywide injustice. They tell us the state shouldn't sanction the brutal enslavement or humiliating legal subordination of a people; they have less to say about what to do once we have. They tell us to respect the sanctity of the property rights that would arise as free people tamed the wilderness in John Locke's state of nature. They have less to say about the sanctity of property built on generations of slave sweat and blood.

I'm not going to get into the moral ins-and-outs of the federal government as that is a discussion for a different day. I think that there can be a volley of arguments supporting the idea that the federal government should not regulate morality (i.e. gay marriage).

However, on the issue of discrimination I feel that the government is justified in mandating that employers, both public and private, do not discriminate with employees or customers. To put it yet another way, Brink Lindsey equates the whole mess to an episode of "Seinfeld":
Paul’s grievous error is to ignore the larger context in which individual private decisions to exclude blacks were made. In my view, at least, truly individual, idiosyncratic discrimination ought to be legally permitted; for example, the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld ought to be free to deny soup to anybody no matter how crazy his reasons (they didn’t ask nicely, they mispronounced the soup, etc.). But the exclusion of blacks from public accommodations wasn’t like that — not even close.
So, I would agree that a business-owner should be able to discriminate based on superficial factors like the Soup Nazi -- rudeness, ignorance, "no shirt-no shoes-no service" kinds of things. But, when discrimination begins to take place based on factors that a person is born with -- skin color, ability, nationality, heritage, sexuality -- it's just plain wrong.

No soup for you.

Full circle. Rand Paul does not strike me as someone who wants to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- far from it. But, he did a strong disservice to himself and much of the libertarian movement when he engaged in abstract political philosophy. When it comes to talking about race in politics, you have to keep it, well, real.

Cartoon: Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Photo: Joe Imel/Bowling Green Daily News/AP photo