Friday, May 21, 2010

Le Affaire Rand Paul

We libertarians don't have much of a voice in national politics, so it was refreshing to see Rand Paul win the Kentucky Republican primary (and, in a right-leaning state in what's shaping up to be a Republican year, almost assuredly a position in the Senate). I'm not under any illusions that a new libertarian golden age is on the horizon, but to at least have someone with a high-profile position from which to explain libertarian principles and advance libertarian arguments is a step forward for the movement.

As happy a development as that was, the reaction to Paul's now-infamous exchange with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC has been equally depressing. Paul's attempt to explain his philosophical and constitutional objections to the heavy-handed exercise of government power in legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was quickly spun into unqualified opposition to the law itself, which was then in turn spun into opposition to the goals of the law. Liberals have been tripping over themselves to declare Paul at worst a closet racist nutjob, and at best a hopelessly naive ideologue who doesn't grasp the "adult" truth that free market principles don't work in the real world. The White House has piled on with a self-serving statement that Paul's critique of government interference in individual rights "has no place" in today's political dialogue. Paul has begun to dig himself out of the whole with a clarifying statement, and I don't think this kerfluffle will hurt him in November, but the fact that the primary response from the left has consisted primarily of name-calling, a furious onslaught against libertarian strawmen, or both, does not speak well to the state of political discourse in the country right now.

While I see where he's coming from, I disagree with Paul that market forces and the choices of free citizens would have quickly dispensed with the Jim Crow regime, without the need for Federal intervention. Racism in that era, in that region, was simply too virulent and socially entrenched for a simple change in the laws outlawing de jure discrimination against blacks to have made much of a difference. As in my opinion any intellectually honest person should be, I'm willing to concede the point that in some instances my preferred political philosophy may not have the right answer. But it's at least an argument worth having, and Paul should not be laughed out of the room for making his side of it. His contention that citizens freely choosing not to patronize openly racist establishments would have brought about change in the social norms might not be correct in this instance, but one cannot on those grounds dismiss his entire philosophy as naive or unrealistic any more than one can dismiss liberalism because some liberals don't understand that government services aren't free. Nor can one dismiss the indisputable point he makes that, as noble as its goals were, the Civil Rights Act did involve a real intrusion on the rights of free assembly and private property on the part of the government. When we weigh our response to the pressing issues of today - terrorism, the drug war, immigration, health care, and all the rest - the impact that government policy has on individual rights ought to be a major consideration in the debate. Conservative and progressive ideology both have a tendency to trample on these rights in different ways in pursuit of their respective visions of an ideal society, and as the driving forces behind the two major political parties in our country, they are in a position to do so. The libertarian impulse is a necessary philosophical check on the excesses of both.

Though the test case in question is flawed, Paul makes a reasonable argument that society can deem the behavior of certain individuals highly objectionable without thinking that it is therefore prima facie legitimate to forcefully alter it by government fiat, and the related and important point that more government may not always be the best solution when there is a social problem. That he is the victim of (excuse the expression) a virtual lynch mob for doing so doesn't say much for the discernment or intellectual capability of his critics.

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