HPRgument Blog | May 20, 2010 at 10:17 am

Rand Paul: Against the Civil Rights Act

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As I said yesterday, the Kentucky Senate race between Rand Paul and Jack Conway should be a real battle. Paul is probably not helping himself by insisting, as many libertarian ideologues but few Senate hopefuls do, that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was wrong to ban racial discrimination in private establishments like restaurants and movie theaters.

INTERVIEWER: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.

INTERVIEWER: But?

PAUL: You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

I’m glad Paul is honest, and I’m glad he’s more consistent in his libertarianism than most are. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that this is exactly why sensible people aren’t libertarians, and why most libertarians aren’t consistent. Libertarianism means, at bottom, doing whatever you want with what’s yours. If that means perpetuating a system of race-based subordination, that’s fine. After all, don’t tread on me! Or, if you like, freedom for me, but not for thee. This is the reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism, but Paul doesn’t find it absurd at all.

Opposing racial hierarchy because “it’s a bad business decision” is incredibly weak. He couldn’t even say it’s unjust, because for libertarians, the only real injustice is when government interferes with private property. It’s not that Paul weighs two injustices (government interference versus racial discrimination) against each other. It’s that he only sees one injustice.

So I don’t agree with the commenter over at the Washington Monthly blog who says “it’s pretty clear he’s not a racist.” What we can tell about Paul from these comments is that he’s definitely not a non-racist. A non-racist would not say “it’s a bad business decision.” A non-racist would not be against government interference with racial discrimination, but for government interference with a woman’s reproductive choices. If he were a truly consistent libertarian on all counts, then maybe I’d grant that he’s probably not a racist, just willfully blind and insensitive to racism.

But since he picks and chooses which libertarian positions to take, and since he picks the one that opposes the ban on racial discrimination, I’m going to say, yup, he’s probably a racist. I know people get incredibly sensitive about using the R-word, and I’ll probably catch hell for this. But if we can’t say it’s racist to oppose the de-institutionalization of racism, then we’re pretty much saying that you’re only racist if you wear a white hood.

Paul also gets the Civil Rights Act completely wrong, by the way. The ban on private discrimination was absolutely central to its achievement.

UPDATE:

I’ve been thinking all day about whether I really should have called Rand Paul’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act racist. Ezra Klein has a post that helps clarify my thoughts:

Can the federal government set the private sector’s minimum wage? Can it tell private businesses not to hire illegal immigrants? Can it tell oil companies what safety systems to build into an offshore drilling platform? Can it tell toy companies to test for lead? Can it tell liquor stores not to sell to minors? These are the sort of questions that Paul needs to be asked now, because the issue is not “area politician believes kooky but harmless thing.” It’s “area politician espouses extremist philosophy on issue he will be voting on constantly.”

The reason I am comfortable making an admittedly harsh judgment about Paul is that, unlike Mark Kleiman, I doubt he’s a “completely consistent libertarian.” I suspect, for instance, that he thinks the federal government’s age limit on alcohol purchases is perfectly fine. Very few people are so libertarian that they really can’t think of anything bad enough for the federal government to regulate. If I had reason to think that Rand Paul was one of these very few absolutely consistent libertarians, then I would say, yes, he’s just a libertarian, not a racist. (Notice that this position might actually be more crazy than the alternative.) But because Paul’s position is probably more like, alcohol bad enough to be regulated, but racial discrimination not bad enough, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder what kind of person thinks that racial discrimination isn’t all that bad. What kind of person thinks that way? Fill in the blank yourself.

It’s also worth remembering that his campaign spokesman resigned last year for having undeniably racist messages on his Myspace page. And that his dad has a pretty despicable history of bigotry and racial fear-mongering. Circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but come on, Ockham’s Razor, people.

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