Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Ballad of Rand Paul

I've always been sympathetic to the libertarian movement. I consider myself a libertarian, but there are a handful of major issues in which I deviate from them, and a lot more that I differ in degree over. I would most likely be laughed out of any Libertarian Convention if they probed my stances on issues. Still, I consider myself to be too libertarian to be conservative, and too conservative to be libertarian. (I suspect that today's conservative movement will slide into libertarianism, so I may be eventually vindicated, but that will be another discussion for another day.)

That doesn't mean that I support the Libertarian Party candidates for election. Sure, I'd like to see a few elected, and I vote big-L Libertarian on occasion, but to be honest the Libertarian Party is looking more for drawing attention to unpopular issues for ideological and theoretical points instead of actually winning elections. The Libertarian Party has never quite grasped the concept that you don't win elections by fighting for, say, pornographer's rights, or flag-burning, no matter how just you think the cause is. My friend Mike calls libertarians "losertarians," and it's funny because it's true.

Rand Paul, it seems, may have finally caught on. But then, of course, I was quickly proven wrong.

Paul took his obvious libertarian leanings and worked through the Republican Party--which has, except for some anti-Patriot Act and Iraq noise in the middle of the last decade, always been closer to the Libertarians than the Democrats have--which was step 1 in actually winning an election, and most likely the only way libertarians will have influence in today's political process. Step 2, as noted above, is to emphasize those things that people actually want to hear and use it to propel you to office.

Paul, of course, is the son of Ron Paul, the libertarian former presidential candidate. While Ron Paul was hardly one to keep his mouth shut, he at least had that politician's sense to pick and choose what his key issues were. Aside from abolishing the Federal Reserve (and his subsequent love of gold) and some quiet academic deviations, his positions weren't anything that were out of the mainstream, though they may have not fit in with the GOP label he was running on. And Rand Paul seemed to be following this formula; during the primary race, he kept speaking to those issues that were near and dear to Kentucky voters, such as taxes and health care.

How on earth he managed to get roped into talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 I don't know.

The specific part of the CRA that Paul objects to is allowing private business to serve who they wish--even if that means discriminating on the basis of race. It is, in its heart, a property rights issue--if the government can tell you how you use your property, you don't really own it. (He's also singled out the Americans with Disabilities Act as well, stating that the costs of implementation far outweigh the civil benefits. I'm not sure how I stand on this, though to be fair since pretty much all of the costs have been implemented, there is no real political benefit for opposing it. Aside from ideological purity, there is no reason for Paul to discuss it. And since vocalizing this ideological purity is what causes libertarians from getting elected, this is a no-win situation for him.)

There is a free-market rationalization for Paul's position. A person who refuses to hire a minority, or refuses to serve a minority, is costing themselves money. If you deny a better-skilled black man so that you can hire a white, you're paying a premium for your racism. A competitor who will gladly hire the skills of anyone regardless of color will eventually win in the marketplace. Likewise, every dollar you refuse to accept from someone is a dollar going to your competition, and eventually you'll find yourself out of business. For free marketeers, the slow, gradual, but eventual demise of a racist from the marketplace is worth keeping to secure the economic freedom of property rights. Of course, this doesn't have to be limited to race; an owner denying service to, say, Catholics, or Scientologists, or health care supporters would be placed in the same situation, regardless of the law.

This is also the heart of a politician's worst nightmare, one that most politicians are more than willing to punt to the courts. Here you have a classic free speech vs. civil rights debate, a debate no politician really wants to get dragged into. No one outside of the ACLU really wants to defend flag-burners, and yet our constitution protects them. Likewise, no one wants to defend racism, but our constitution protects the rights of people who hold abhorrent beliefs. At first blush, most people would like to make racism a crime, but that can quickly lead to a clunky form of thought control that a vast majority of individuals would be quite uncomfortable with--a reason hate crimes haven't really got much traction.


Of course, my issue specifically with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that...well, had I been a politician at the time, I probably would have voted for it. The total institutional racism that existed in the South far outweighed the normal free market solutions. If anything, it has the opposing effect; instead of losing money, a racist would make money. The historical racism that was specifically supported in the statutes made it quite difficult to crack, and at some point the government basically had to break the lock of racism. And since the South had resisted even piecemeal changes to racial legislation, there was no reason to not go for an entire overhaul of federal oversight. I'm not sure if the CRA was the most elegant solution, and I'm not so sure the subsequent rulings that have grown out of that legislation have been positive, but it's legislation that was necessary. I would have preferred a more direct state's rights solution, specifically singling out the former Confederacy (or at least those resisting reform), since what works in Birmingham may not work in Boston. And I'm not so sure I would have made that section of the bill as strong, since it does violate my views on property rights.

Still, it's quite odd that Rand Paul would even bring this up. Rather than some inquisitive muckraker trying to trap Paul into an uncomfortable position, he voluntarily raised the point when talking about the Fair Housing Act back in 2002. (To be fair, many portions of the Fair Housing Act--including the one Paul opposed--contributed mightily to our current housing and financial crisis. Paul was right, even if that uncovered some uncomfortable positions.) Whether Paul can talk himself out of this one remains to be seen--Kentucky is quite red and he may be able to make it after all.

The Pledge
The Republicans don't need more candidates that can easily be painted as racist reactionaries. Standing up for your beliefs and keeping your mouth shut are not mutually exclusive.

That said, Rand Paul isn't necessarily wrong. There are better solutions that protect property rights and civil rights, but no one wants to touch them because they are messy and leads quickly to demagoguery. Such is the burden of direct democracy.

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