Friday, May 21, 2010

What to say about Rand Paul?

Rand Paul's self-administered wounds over his answers to questions about whether he would support the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reveal the problems that doctrinaire libertarians face. They oppose government action and don't seem willing to recognize that there are actually necessary and good things that government has done. The easy and correct answer to these questions was "Of course," but Paul's ideology made this a much more complicated issue than it needed to be.

Bruce Bartlett has the best analysis of where Paul was wrong in his understanding of the entire history of civil rights in this country. A laissez faire approach to guaranteeing civil rights to African Americans had failed for a century after the Civil War. There was a brief window of opportunity during Reconstruction to enshrine those rights, but that failed as Reconstruction ended and the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which the 1964 law mirrored.
the Civil Rights Act of 1964 essentially replicated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was enacted by a Republican Congress over strenuous Democratic opposition. However, in 1883 the Supreme Court, then it its most libertarian phase, knocked down the 1875 act as well as many other Republican measures passed during Reconstruction designed to aid African Americans. The Court's philosophy in these cases led logically to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which essentially gave constitutional protection to legal segregation enforced by state and local governments throughout the U.S.

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.

Sadly, it took the Supreme Court more than 50 years after Plessy before it began to undo its mistake in Brown. This led to repeated efforts by the Eisenhower administration to enact civil rights legislation, which was opposed and gutted by Senate Democrats led by Lyndon Johnson. But by 1964, it was clear to Johnson that the tide had turned. The federal courts were moving to dismantle segregation to the extent they could, and the 1963 March on Washington, the murder and beating of civil rights demonstrators in the South and growing awareness of such atrocities changed the political climate and made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible--despite the filibuster against it by Senator Robert C. Byrd, who still serves in the Senate today.
So for Rand Paul to try to weave some sort of choice between a strong government and civil rights is futile and betrays a basic misunderstanding of American history.
If Rand Paul were saying that he agrees with the Goldwater-Rehnquist-Bork view that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional and that the Supreme Court was wrong to subsequently find it constitutional, that would be an eccentric but defensible position. If he were saying that the Civil Rights Act were no longer necessary because of the great strides we have made as a country in eradicating racism, that would also be defensible. But Rand's position is that it was wrong in principle in 1964. There is no other way of interpreting this except as an endorsement of all the things the Civil Rights Act was designed to prohibit, as favoring the status quo throughout the South that would have led to a continuation of segregation and discrimination against African Americans at least for many more years. Undoubtedly, changing mores would have broken down some of this over time, but there is no reason to believe that it would have been quick or that vestiges wouldn't still remain today. Indeed, vestiges remain despite the Civil Rights Act.

I don't believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians. They believe that freedom consists of one thing and one thing only--freedom from governmental constraint. Therefore, it is illogical to them that any increase in government power could ever expand freedom. Yet it is clear that African Americans were far from free in 1964 and that the Civil Rights Act greatly expanded their freedom while diminishing that of racists. To defend the rights of racists to discriminate is reprehensible and especially so when it is done by a major party nominee for the U.S. Senate. I believe that Rand should admit that he was wrong as quickly as possible.
I do believe that NPR and Rachel Maddow gleefully set Paul up for this entire controversy. Why weren't they demanding answers to these sorts of questions before the primary? They were happy for him to win and now want to wound him for the general election. Unfortunately for Paul, his own doctrinaire libertarianism led him into his convoluted and confused explanations of his beliefs. Perhaps he can thread the needle of explaining his position while upholding support for anti-segregation laws.

Opponents will try to link Paul's positions to the tea party movement as a whole. But there is a big difference between opposing massive government spending of money we do not have and opposing anti-segregation laws. Paul was right in saying that this is not an issue today. No one is talking about repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it is legitimate to explore the boundaries of the man's philosophy of government. If he hasn't thought before about such questions, he better start now.