Thursday, May 20, 2010

Focus on what they do -- and their priorities

Paul Rand is a Libertarian/Republican candidate for a seat in the United States Senate. Having won his local primary election, he has been making statements about policy and political philosophy as fast as he can. In one such statement he went back as far as 1964 and said that he always opposed any kind of discrimination, but his belief in the limits of government power meant he could not support the ban on discrimination by private businesses contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This led people to wonder whether he was a racist. He is, after all, running for the Senate in a state where Jim Crow legislation existed back in 1964. One of the people who commented on Paul's statement was Josh Marshall, founder and editor of, a progressive Democratic news and commentary site. What he said and his reply to the criticisms of some of his readers are well worth looking at. You will seldom get this kind of instruction at a university.

First post:

TPM Reader SW wrote in this morning cautioning that we make clear that opposing all civil rights legislation on libertarian grounds doesn't mean you don't support civil rights. I think this is far from an uncontested claim. ...

First here's SW's email.

You write that Rand Paul is "...against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and supporting abolishing the Department of Education..."

It's worth noting that Libertarians are against the Civil Rights Act, but not against civil rights. Indeed you'll find no stronger defender of civil rights of any type than libertarians. For us its a matter of approach. ...

He's not against civil rights, people with disabilities, or against educating today's youth.

Let's start the conversation by agreeing that as a technical matter, this is true. Libertarianism is a political philosophy rooted in a belief in radical limitations on state power. And I'm inclined to follow my friend Mike Lind's argument that unlike a lot of mishmash conservative claptrap libertarianism is a political philosophy I can disagree with but still recognize as internally consistent and rooted in important principles. As Mike wrote once, I simply think its assumptions and understanding of human nature are off. But this is hardly the end of the story.

Political philosophy can never be free of history. And there is no denying that similar states rights or libertarian arguments have been the arguments of choice for those who want to defend racial discrimination since avowed defenses of racial prejudice and subordination became publicly unacceptable outside some parts of the South in the early second half of the last century. That's simply a fact. In principle, it doesn't delegitimize libertarian political philosophy. But we don't live in classrooms or treatises. We live in an actual world where history and experience can't be separated from philosophy.

When he ran for President in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran on opposition to federal Civil Rights legislation on what he claimed were states rights grounds. And there's some reason to believe that for him that really was what it was about. But it is entirely clear that his political punch came from supporters in the South who wanted to keep Jim Crow in effect. Again, that's just a fact.

So that's the history.

Then there is the simple matter of priorities. To a degree the argument Paul is making is something like saying that I don't like rape or murder, I just don't believe in a police force to prevent it or a judiciary to punish the offenders. The reason we, albeit imperfectly, have equality before the law and in the society at large (in terms of public accommodations and so forth) on racial grounds in the whole of the United States is because of federal legislation that forced that to be the case. The reason we don't have white and colored drinking fountains or pools for whites only, etc. You can say you think all those things are awful and you may be telling the truth. But what are you going to do about it? The variant of libertarianism which Paul espouses, while internally consistent in theory and separate from race, has you saying, I wouldn't do anything about it -- though I'd decry it as an individual.

Folks who espouse this kind of philosophy deserve to be held to account for that fact, whatever their inner beliefs about race and equality may be.

His follow-up post:

In response to my previous post on this topic, a number of you have written in to ask whether I'm not offering a rationalization of what are simply egregious views. I'm not. I would hope that that is clear.

What I'm arguing is something different: It's very hard to know what's in people's hearts, especially if they're making no clear efforts to make it clear. And in any case it can be a fruitless endeavor in the realm of public debate. It's also true that there are libertarians who believe in radical limitations on state power for reasons that have nothing to do with any personal animus on race issues, even if those beliefs dictate policies that would be disastrous for civil rights.

These I think are the bounds of the relevant conversation. And within them, the important point -- the one I was trying to make -- is that we shouldn't get distracted by what people feel in their hearts and focus on what their preferred policies would actually do and what that says about their priorities.

Thank you, Josh.


  1. I started reading TPM back before it was a commercial concern, and it's this type of clearly expressed opinion that kept me reading.

    It seems to me that too many of the principles of Libertarianism are based on wishful thinking; how people ought to behave instead of how they actually behave. If people always treated each other fairly, of course we wouldn't need laws to prevent mistreatment.

    If Mr. Rand is telling the truth, he has no business in politics.

  2. Anonymous8:44 pm

    "It seems to me that too many of the principles of Libertarianism are based on wishful thinking". Just exactly, what are those principles of Libertarianism? LIbertarianism does not proscribe how people should think, it argues that state power is the root of corruption and war etc. and thus less government the better.
    Apparently we cannot trust the 'people' to behave 'properly' and yet we have the delusion that the 'people' who make up the government cannot behave improperly. That is truly wishful thinking!

    "If Mr. Rand is telling the truth he has no business in politics."A bizarre comment. Why would there be any doubt that Mr. Rand is telling the truth. Indeed what advantage would there be for Mr. Rand to be lying about this issue. Apparently he does have business being in politics because won the primary election not because of his absurdly alleged 'racist' views but because he stands for less government which he believes is necessary in order to save the U.S. from inevitable bankruptcy or hyperinflation because of unsustainable, collectivist, ponzi schemes (medicaid, medicare, social security).