Yesterday a scandal erupted over Rand Paul and some of his views on civil rights. In interviews with the Louisville Courier Journal, National Public Radio and the Rachel Maddow Show Paul expressed the belief that it is wrong for the government to enforce civil rights. He even expressed the idea that he would not have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which he then was forced to walk back).
What Paul appears to be saying is that even though racism is wrong, it’s a greater wrong to limit private business even if that business violates the rights of others. How is this libertarian? To me it’s arguing that the rights of private businesses trump the rights of individuals and that the state has no role in upholding the rights of individuals. Paul believes the free market will solve racism, despite the fact that it didn’t do anything about racism from Reconstruction until the Civil Rights Act.
A discussion started about Rand Paul’s remarks – is this racism? First, let’s hear from Matt Yglesias:
The point to make about Paul, however, is that what he suffers from here is an excess of honesty and ideological rigor not an unusual degree of racism. Basic free market principles really do lead one to the absurd conclusion that government regulation of private business is a greater evil than institutionalized segregation. That’s why Barry Goldwater, William F Buckley, the Young Americans for Freedom, and the other progenitors of the postwar conservative movement all opposed the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights movement. And, indeed, under the kind of hyper-restrictive construction of the constitution that today’s rightwingers use to say the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional, the Civil Rights Act would probably also be invalidated.
Last night on Rachel Maddow’s show Paul tried to walk the fine line between the inherently racist effect of libertarian policies and being a racist. And he didn’t do a very good job of it. (His father is a much, much smarter politician.) But part of his problem is that it’s very difficult to know if Paul is just a childishly naive Randian or if he actually has more racist motives, in the Bircher tradition. He protests a lot that he doesn’t. But it’s complicated by the history of his father, who most definitely has held some very noxious racist views…
There’s also the little problem of Rand Paul’s spokesman’s crude racism, which led to his resignation. Is Paul to be held liable for the words of others? No. But a pattern does start to emerge that raises the question as to whether Paul is just a starry-eyed libertopian who thinks that government is the only institution that oppresses and that racism will disappear naturally once people realize that bigotry interferes with profits — or if he’s a chip off the old block.
Not that it matters in practical terms. Obviously, libertarians in general are not necessarily racists. But their ideology inexorably leads to a society in which racism is normal and tolerated and where those who have the social power and economic clout are able to rig the game in their favor. You know — the America of 40 years ago before the Civil Rights Act. It’s not like we never gave Rand’s libertarianism a chance to work.
Conservative Bruce Bartlett, who worked in Bush I’s Treasury Department (and ironically, also for Rep. Ron Paul) agrees with digby. He thinks libertarianism has been tried and failed to stop racism.
As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation. Indeed, it got much worse, not just because it was enforced by law but because it was mandated by self-reinforcing societal pressure. Any store owner in the South who chose to serve blacks would certainly have lost far more business among whites than he gained. There is no reason to believe that this system wouldn’t have perpetuated itself absent outside pressure for change.
In short, 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.
Dave Weigel at the Washington Post agrees with Matt Yglesias that Rand Paul is a wide-eyed, naive utopian liberatarian:
So is Rand Paul a racist? No, and it’s irritating to watch his out-of-context quotes — this and a comment about how golf was no longer for elitists because Tiger Woods plays golf — splashed on the Web to make that point. Paul believes, as many conservatives believe, that the government should ban bias in all of its institutions but cannot intervene in the policies of private businesses. Those businesses, as Paul argues, take a risk by maintaining, in this example, racist policies. Patrons can decide whether or not to give them their money, or whether or not to make a fuss about their policies. That, not government regulation and intervention, is how bias should be eliminated in the private sector. And in this belief Paul is joined by some conservatives who resent that liberals seek government intervention for every unequal outcome.
Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon writes that libertarianism is just the intellectual justification for racism:
I’m sure Matt thinks he’s being pretty hard on Rand Paul by invoking the term “white supremacy” in his post, but he makes the same mistake that Dave Weigel does in rushing to reassure people that Rand Paul isn’t a racist so much as a hard core ideologue, and that surely his support of segregation is offered more in sorrow than in glee. This view ignores some pretty damning evidence about Paul’s history and associations, but it also ignores the fact that “principled” libertarians who woefully say that they unfortunately have to promote racist policies against their own moral compass will abandon that principled libertarianism when it breaks in favor of reproductive rights. “Principled” libertarianism only seems up to making those “hard” choices if oppressed people have to suffer the consequences.
But I’m bothered more by the way that some liberal pundits approach libertarian arguments as if we’re all in some debate club or in a court of law at worst, and this is a matter of everyone presenting arguments to be judged on their supposed rigor and the implications of which don’t fall on the person making the arguments. Conservatives particularly benefit from this mindset, which is why all of them come fully equipped with a willingness to scream “ad hominem” the second you suggest that making asshole arguments is evidence that the person making them is an asshole.
Paul isn’t arguing for a debate team or even in the court of law. He’s a politician who is seeking national office that would allow him to write and vote on legislature. The standards by which we evaluate his arguments must be very different indeed. That he supports racist policies is something that we the opposition should highlight without caveats about ideological rigor that is frankly lacking. Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s a principled man is counterproductive and missing the point. From the perspective of a voter, Paul’s associations with racists and the anti-social, racist results of arguments matter way more when assessing whether he’s a racist than his claims of ideological rigor. And we should address our arguments to that.
The crux of Marcotte’s argument is that Paul’s beliefs lead to racist outcomes and that’s the basis on which he should be judged. Her argument is that if your core belief leads to racists outcomes, it is in itself racist.
Charles Lane at the Washington Post demolishes Rand Paul’s argument. Private racism doesn’t exist without government support:
Let’s accept Paul’s assurances that his views on this matter are borne of libertarian doctrine and not actual racism. I believe him when he says he would never personally favor discrimination in any business that he operated or frequented. The problem remains: his argument makes no sense. There is no such thing as “private” discrimination with respect to a public accommodation. Like any other claimed property right, it could not exist without government support.
Suppose an African American customer sits down at a “whites only” restaurant and asks for dinner. The owner tells him to leave. The customer refuses and stays put. What are the owner’s options at that point? He can forcibly remove the customer himself, but, as Paul concedes, that could expose the restaurateur to criminal or civil liability. So he’ll have to call the cops. When they arrive, he’ll have to explain his whites-only policy and ask them to remove the unwanted black man because he’s violating it. But they can only do that on the basis of some law, presumably trespassing. In other words, the business owner’s discriminatory edict is meaningless unless some public authority enforces it.
This really matches with my understanding of one’s Constitutional rights. Your rights end where other’s rights begin. This means that you have the Constitutional right to be a racist. You can give speeches, put up billboards, write letters to the editor, etc., but you don’t have the right to force other people to be racist and you don’t have the right to be protected from other people’s reactions to your beliefs. As Lane explains, “whites only” businesses were enforced by the state and that made them the state’s policy. If the state has to choose between competing interests, I think they should come down on the side of upholding the values espoused in our Constitution. Denying African-Americans the right to peaceful assembly is wrong and the state has come down on the side of upholding that right, which is a good thing. Rights aren’t something that should be put to a vote, they are supposed to be something you have just because you exist.