Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rand Paul's Latest Flap

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, had the questionable taste to name his son "Rand" (seriously, if your name is "Rand Paul" you're going to have a rough time in the playgrounds growing up. Mostly because your name sounds like it's backwards. Just ask my friend Smith Mike.). Rand is a doctor, like his father, and is also apparently a true blue libertarian, now the Republican nominee for the Senate from Kentucky (the land of bourbon, horse racing, and delicious fried chicken). He's also currently under the microscope for making controversial comments about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

First, let's get this out of the way--if you're stuck arguing about a law that has been enacted over 45 years ago and has been pretty much accepted in this country, you're already in a losing game. Why not start arguing about whether FDR had the authority when he went to war against Japan? This is the province of academics, not politicians.

Second, I understand where Paul's argument is coming from. I don't think the man is actually a racist. In the strict libertarian point of view, government should not be telling businesses who they should be associating with--they can't require a restaurant to serve people of any race any more than they can require you to racially integrate your next dinner party. It's equated with free speech rights--you can find someone's speech abhorrent while still defending their right to that speech. Paul is saying that racial discrimination by a private individual or business may be wrong, but it is their right to do so. The solution, he argues, is to let the free market decide, since racially discriminating businesses would lose the customers they are discriminating against (as well as customers who don't want to support a racist business) to businesses that have no such racist policy. This would make discriminating businesses either change their tune, fail, or remain irrelevent.

While the libertarian argument works in theory, it doesn't adequately address the problem that was actually faced in the time leading up to the passage of the Act--what to do if all the businesses in a geographic area had racist policies? Particularly if there was not adequate capital available for competing businesses that would not have such policies? Imagine a black family trying to take a cross country trip, and all the highway motels wouldn't serve blacks. Particularly if this discourages blacks from taking such trips, it is unrealistic to expect that someone will open up a motel that would serve them in order to benefit from such a small number of customers. The changing of racial attitudes may not be something feasible to wait for. Often, the market will simply not correct this problem on its own.

Granted, there were constitutional concerns about the CRA when it was debated--and again, I don't believe that all opponents of the bill were closet racists, though of course many were--as it gave Congress a great expansion of power and I would have preferred this power be granted properly under a Constitutional amendment--but I can understand that this was a necessary law to protect the rights of racial minorities that don't have the economic power or sheer numbers to affect the free markets. What Rand Paul needs to address--as any libertarian theorist must--is where the free markets fall short.


  1. Where he falls short is believing that the government should be involved in anything. That is called anarchy, not being a libertarian, which would be more aligned with classical liberalism. The idea behind these philosophies are that government is there to protect individual rights. Meaning a corporation (or person) cannot harm you or the environment around you, which is why we have laws.

  2. DF--I'm not sure he's advocated getting rid of all government entirely, just a much-scaled down form of government. The problem is that it ignores or willingly accepts certain injustices or shortfalls in the system which could only be corrected by government interference. His argument that he would never frequent a segregated lunch counter doesn't address what should be done if that isn't enough. It leaves blacks (in that case) as virtually second class citizens, at least until attitudes change among enough of a majority to fix that.

    Libertarians must acknowledge where their philosophy will fall short.