When Rand Paul, son of the libertarian congressman from Texas Ron Paul, won the Republican Party nomination for senator from Kentucky this week, he crowed that his victory was "a message from the Tea Party." I think he was right, but not in the way he meant.
Since he was thrust into the national spotlight Tuesday, Paul has been plagued by comments he has made about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Because Paul has stated that he has problems with parts of the act, much of the debate this week has been over whether or not he is a racist, or anti-civil rights. This strikes me as fruitless. Paul has said he is not a racist and that he abhors segregation. Unless and until evidence to the contrary emerges, I think one must take Paul at his word.
What he has undeniably proven this week, however, is that he is narrow ideologue who has a tenuous grasp of history and reality. And that matters.
Paul's recent troubles began last month when the Louisville Courier-Journal asked him if he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. Rather than a simple "yes," Paul explained his support for the anti-discrimination provisions of the bill insofar as they applied to public institutions like schools. The editors, hearing the qualification in his tone, asked "But?" Paul laughed and said, "You had to ask me the 'but'!" He went on to explain: "I don't like the idea of telling private businesses owners--I abhor racism, I think it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But at the same time I do believe in private ownership."
The clear implication of that statement, though Paul did not actually say the words, is that he does not believe government should have the power to tell businesses that they cannot discriminate.
Last Wednesday, in a Rachel Maddow interview that is well worth viewing in its entirety, Maddow repeatedly pressed Paul to answer that question directly, and he repeatedly refused to do so. Every time Maddow attempted to get a clear answer, Paul changed the subject. He said he was not "in favor of any discrimination." But that was not the question. The real question is this: does he believe businesses have the right to discriminate because their property rights trump a customer's right to be served without discriminatory bias based on race?
This Paul refused to answer. Much of the discussion of Paul this week has presented him as getting in trouble for speaking his mind, and to some extent that is true. But watching the Maddow interview, it is clear that while he did speak his mind initially to the Courier-Journal, now he is both reluctant to retract his earlier statement and determined not to restate it plainly and clearly because it will hurt him politically to do so. It is sad watching Paul's contortions as he tries both to remain true to his beliefs and not doom his candidacy at the same time. It is hard to tell if he is disingenuous or just incoherent.
For example, when pushed by Maddow, Paul tried to muddy the waters by making it a matter of free speech: "Do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well?" But speech is in no way abridged by the Civil Rights Act. A business owner could still legally say racist things. He just could not bar people from the business based on their race. The issue is not speech, but discriminatory behavior. Pressed again, Paul claimed that the same idea could restrict a restaurant owner from prohibiting guns in his restaurant. Paul seemed quite pleased with himself here, clearly thinking he had won the argument, because no liberal would want that. But he fails to see that once again, he is missing the point. No matter how much a person might like to carry a gun, it is not an indelible part of one's identity. A gun owner can leave a gun at home; carrying a gun is a behavior. A black person cannot leave black skin at home. The Civil Rights Act does not say a business owner cannot bar people based on behavior. That simple point is either beyond Paul's grasp, or he deliberately ignored it to try hide the real implications of his point of view.
Paul does not seem to really have the courage of his convictions. When pressed by Maddow on a specific part of our history, the sit-in movement that began when four black college students insisted on being served at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, Paul evaded. If he does not believe that government can tell a business owner not to discriminate, then he clearly believes that those sit-in protesters were wrong. But he won't say that. Now, I can sympathize with Paul's dilemma. I'm close to a free speech absolutist. I would hate to be on TV and have an interviewer quote all kinds of hateful speech and ask me to defend the right to say those hateful things. But that's what you must be willing to do if you believe in a principle.
Paul clearly believes that a property owner's rights trump an individual's right to be treated with basic human dignity in a business. He is entitled to that view. But it is a view that is, in my opinion, abhorrent. And since he knows that many voters will find it so, he tries to hide it. Instead he accused Maddow of "bring[ing] up something that is really not an issue." But he couldn't be more wrong.
At root, Paul objects to the regulation of private property for the public good, and no issue could be more relevant to government today. The question, he said, is this: "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant or does the government own his restaurant?" This simplistic, either/or view explains a lot. In Paul's ideology, the moment government tells a business "you must" or "you shall not," the business ceases to be the owner's property. This is absurd on the face of it. Such an absolutist view of property rights is indicative of the libertarian fantasy that we can live in an 18th century style philosophical state of nature.
It is also the id of the Tea Party movement. It is the same silly assumption that lies behind the charge that the recent health care act is a "government takeover" of health care, and the latest lunacy, the claim that the financial reform bill passed this week in the Senate is a "government takeover" of the banking industry. Paul's beliefs represent the sincere expression of the irresponsible rhetoric Republican leaders have been indulging in for the last year and a half. The difference is Paul really believes it.
Rand Paul is truly a radical. While he has now stated that he would not support repeal of the Civil Rights Act (as if that were ever going to happen), it is clear that he would not only roll back the Great Society if he could, he would do the same to the New Deal and even the Progressive era when it comes to property rights. He is an ideologue who places theory above real world consequences. He seems to believe, the evidence of our actual history notwithstanding, that the problems of discrimination could have been solved by market forces because "it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant." He believes that government regulation is an unjustifiable restriction of property rights. Also this week, he called the Obama administration's criticism of BP over the disastrous oil spill in the gulf "un-American." Paul's comments on BP come from the same place as his reservations about the Civil Rights Act. And that's why his view of that 46 year-old piece of legislation is a real and relevant issue today.