Ever since his interview with Rachel Maddow, Rand Paul’s comments about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have been the centerpiece of an unfortunately predictable one-sided conversation that the media appears to be having with itself about how thoroughly racist Paul’s comments are. Even more unfortunate (though just as predictable) has been the media’s effort to discredit the tea party as racist by emphasizing that Rand Paul is, in some sense, their champion from Kentucky. Whatever the merits of his position, the entire episode has left us with two important points which even conservative commentators have been tending to ignore. The first is that nobody who understands Libertarianism will be able to find a racist motive in what Rand Paul said. The second is that what Rand Paul said had nothing to do with the Tea Party.
Even if nothing else comes of his comments, what Paul has given us is an interesting starting point for a serious discussion about what it means to be a Libertarian. To begin with, Libertarianism as a political concept is one that we know from Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign is a philosophy which Liberals can’t stand, and Conservatives tend to have difficulty swallowing. In a nutshell, Libertarians believe that the government should do no more than it absolutely must. In support of their philosophy, Libertarians tend to be skeptical of any government institution, even those with long and highly praised histories. Libertarians also tend to be a bit irreverent when it comes to government institutions. The skepticism certainly grates on the Left, and the irreverence tends to make the Right nervous.
Both traits, however, were certainly on display during the interview with Rachel Maddow. In this case, the institution is the Civil Rights Act itself — in particular, the bits that make private sector discrimination illegal. Even the most simple-minded understanding of the interview reveals that Paul has absolutely no love of discrimination in any form. I find it inconceivable that he would allow discrimination to go on in any business that he owned, and I think it would be interesting to ask if he would frequent businesses which he knew to have discriminatory practices. Yet, in his skepticism he clearly sees something improper about outlawing private sector discrimination, and in his irreverence he’s actually willing to say so.
However understandable his statement may be within the realm of Libertarian thought, what has been clear for a very long time is the fact that Libertarian thought does not dominate Conservatism, even the “radical” sort expressed by the Tea Parties. Indeed, from what I’ve observed, the Tea Parties have been willing to mostly gloss over the deep divide between Republicanism1 and Libertarianism by uniting on the common ground issue of fiscal responsibility in government. Whether willful or not, the Tea Parties have done an excellent job of staying away from social issues and focusing intensely on the government’s role in the economy. Were the Tea Parties a social-issues movement rather than an economic-issues movement, I doubt Rand Paul would have enjoyed much success.
In sum, most of the mainstream commentary about the Maddow interview has gotten the core issue predictably wrong. However, I hope that Conservatives, at least, will look past the immediate spin from the mainstream commentators and use Rand Paul’s comments to think a bit more deeply about the role of government in society. After all, we will only be able to put off for so long the evil day on which the Republican/Libertarian divide comes to a head. The Civil Rights Act provides an outstanding starting point for having an adult conversation about the duties and obligations of our government.
- For lack of a better term. Think about the kinds of things Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, and other prominent Conservative commentators might say to get a feel for what I mean. [↩]