Kentucky Republican Rand Paul is taking a lot of heat for his belief that by ending segregation and requiring private businesses to open their doors to customers and employees of all races, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 overstepped constitutional limits on federal power.
First things first: Inevitably, Paul’s argument resurrects a lot of bad memories, including Lester Maddox running black customers out of his Atlanta restaurant with an ax handle in his hand. Paul, however, says flat out that his position has nothing to do with racism, which he condemns. There is no reason to believe that he is anything but sincere in that statement. So let’s set the volatile charge of racism aside and move onto the principle of the thing, which is where Paul makes his stand.
Recognizing, if belatedly, the political danger of the issue, Paul has also made it clear that he has no intention of trying to revisit the Civil Rights Act. “Even though this matter was settled when I was 2, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he said in a statement today. Again, I think there’s every reason to believe Paul is sincere in that statement.
All that said, however, the debate does offer an opportunity to explore the basis of Paul’s thinking and of the importance that he and others place on economic liberty and small government.
In effect, Paul proposes that it is an unconstitutional infringement on a business owner’s freedom to tell him who he must serve and who he must hire. In his mind, that is not a legitimate use of government authority and is not among the powers enumerated in the Constitution. Using that same analysis, Paul also argues that government should not require businesses to make themselves accessible to the disabled, as it does through the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Again, he’s not acting out of bias against the disabled in making that argument; he is merely applying his principles to the problem at hand.)
In other words, it’s about freedom, pure and simple. “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?” he asked in an interview Wednesday night on MSNBC.
However, something important happens as the debate about freedom moves from the theoretical to the practical. All of sudden, freedom pure and simple becomes a little more complicated. Your freedom to use your property anyway you wish can infringe on your neighbor’s freedom to do the same. The freedom to swing your fist ends at the other guy’s nose, as the saying goes.
In this particular case, a black person’s freedom to enter the restaurant or business of his choosing conflicts with the business owner’s supposed right to keep him out, and the question becomes how to resolve that conflict.
Judging from libertarian thought and Paul’s own comments to date, he resolves that conflict by two means:
First, he gives the economic freedom of the business owner priority over other forms of freedom, such as the freedom of racial minorities to participate fully in society. And on those grounds, he leaves himself open to justified criticism. The appeal of libertarian thought for many lies in its clarity, in the purely logical application of simple principles even in complex cases, and let the chips fall where they may. That is also its crippling weakness. If preserving economic freedom means that racial minorities are denied the right to eat in restaurants or hold well-paying jobs, Rand is willing to live with that consequence rather than compromise his principles. Most Americans would disagree, and would distrust leaders whose allegiance to ideology blinds them to the injustice it creates.
Second, Paul sees government solely as a threat to freedom, in this case the freedom of the business owner. He is blind to the fact that government can be — at times must be — a guarantor of freedom and an arbiter of competing freedom interests. Again, libertarian thought — gleaming and pristine in the eyes of its adherents — simply doesn’t account for the messy complexities of real life. It survives as a hothouse orchid of political thought, pretty to look at but utterly incapable of survival in the real world.