Rand Paul and civil rights


One of the issues that ended my flirtation with libertarianism was civil rights.

The history of Jim Crow laws certainly worked to oppress African-American men and women in the South. But segregation was not simply a matter of law. It was also a matter of informal agreement among the white community in the South. No law was needed to keep a particular lunch counter segregated, other than the store’s policy. The general libertarian attitude that a business owner could keep people out of their business for any – or no – reason supported the system of segregation.

But of course, discrimination went further than that. Basic libertarian principles say that if I own a company, and I want to keep it lily-white and all-male, then I can. No blacks, no women, no Irish need apply. In the utopia that is libertarianism, the magic of the market will take care of any business that wants to discriminate. But in reality, where whites held more political and economic power, the truth was that businesses that discriminated were indeed “taken care of” by the continued investment and patronage of white racists.

And so the various civil rights acts had to happen, using the power of the state to undo the damage wrought by centuries of abuse. And although we are still far from being a truly egalitarian society, civil rights laws and government support of integration have ended the day when a man could be legally denied an equal shot because of the color of his skin, or a woman could be legally denied an equal shot because of her genitalia.1

It was an undeniable good. And it was something that would not have happened had the Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson administrations hewed to a libertarian philosophy. And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that while the philosophy of libertarianism had some important things to say about liberty, its real-world application was limited.

But some people never had this epiphany. Take Rand Paul, currently the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate out of Kentucky. Paul, as you may know, came out against the Americans for Disabilities Act the other day. And of course he did. Making accommodations for those who are in some way disabled costs money. Wheelchair ramps don’t make themselves. And so of course Paul thinks it’s okay to allow business to decide whether they want someone who’s blind to be able to navigate their store, or someone who can’t walk to enter their store.

But Paul is not just supporting business on the right to discriminate against the non-able bodied. He’s perfectly okay with making life hard for those who aren’t white – as long as it’s only business, not government, making the difficulties. Three times in an interview with NPR, Paul punted on the question of whether he’d support the Civil Rights Acts. But he was crystal clear in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Paul explained that he backed the portion of the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in public places and institutions, but that he thinks private businesses should be permitted to discriminate by race.

“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,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of teling private business owners….”

In short, if your state government wants to put in whites-only bathrooms, that should be against the law. But if, say, Kaiser Permanente wants to open a series of whites-only hospitals, that should be perfectly legal, at least in the mind of Paul.

Note that this is not a case of Rand Paul being particularly racist. It’s a case of him embracing, wholeheartedly, the idea at the core of libertarianism, that only government can restrict liberty. That only government can practice discrimination. That only government can be the problem.

But the brave men and women who staged sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters weren’t just doing so to end government-led discrimination. They were doing it to get the business owners to open up their lunch counters, as well. I’m grateful that we live in a country where their actions were not in vain, and where their cause was eventually, if grudgingly, supported by the very government that had spent centuries working against them.

Rand Paul is not. A majority of Kentucky Republicans, evidently, are not. In November, we’ll see if the residents of Kentucky are, or are not.

UPDATE: Oh, goody! Rachel Maddow owns Rand.

Toward the end, Paul complains that the whole argument over the Civil Rights Act is a “red herring.” But it isn’t. Paul’s worldview – the libertarian, anti-government worldview – is that government can never be the solution. That government action is – always – the problem. That the wisdom of the market cures all.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes business is the problem. Sometimes the people are the problem. Sometimes the government is the solution. Not always. But sometimes.

Someone who believes government can never be the solution is flatly wrong. And the Civil Rights Act – like Medicare, like Social Security – is proof of that. Rand Paul’s view of the Civil Rights Act, and his willful blindness to government’s role in righting a wrong that needed righting, is the very reason why he is unfit for office. It isn’t a red herring. It’s the whole enchilada.

1Unless, of course, she is transgender.