Well, that was fast. No sooner do Kentucky Republicans nominate Rand Paul for the US Senate than a brand-new firestorm erupts over whether or not Republicans support desegregation, thanks to Paul’s partial (and quickly-abandoned) criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Surveying conservative reaction to the controversy, the Daily Beast’s Benjamin Sarlin finds that “The Right Tolerates Rand Paul’s Civil Rights Flap”:
“In general, we don’t like the federal government regulating businesses and private property,” Benedict said.
Robin Stublen, a Tea Party activist in Florida, told The Daily Beast that Paul and his father’s position “doesn’t make them racist,” and that he shared their views.
“Whether a sign is on a door or placed in a window doesn’t change the heart of the man who owns the restaurant,” Stublen said when asked about the CRA. “And first it’s one thing, but now the government is telling me how much salt I should eat or whether I can have soda—why don’t they just come in and burp me after dinner?”
Others, such as RedState blogger Erick Erickson, have been quick to defend Paul on the basis that he was misinterpreted, rather than that he was correct. “He was very clear on his support for the Civil Rights Act,” Mark Skoda, founder of the Memphis Tea Party, said. “There is no tolerance for any racism at all in the movement.”
Among elected officials, however, Paul’s comments have drawn few—if any—defenders. Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who endorsed Paul, did not respond to an email question regarding whether Paul’s comments were a source of concern for the senator. He did, however, reaffirm DeMint’s support for the CRA: “Of course he supports it,” Denton wrote in an email.
Sarlin’s report is pretty even-handed in that it doesn’t identify sympathy toward Paul’s position as racist, though it’s worth noting that not all of the Right is so sympathetic (see Charles Krauthammer, Allahpundit, Dan Riehl, Lisa Graas, Rich Lowry, James Taranto, & FrumForum). And for the record, Paul’s comments don’t make him a racist (though given the Paul family’s history of exploiting prejudice, wondering otherwise isn’t necessarily an irrational or demagogic reaction in this case – and most seem to agree that Paul shot himself by not predicting the fallout from his remarks).
More importantly, the affair crystallizes a key difference between conservatism and libertarianism. Both ostensibly stem from the same presuppositions—individuals have certain inalienable rights and government must be strictly limited so it’s power and scope extend no further than protecting those rights. But if modern libertarianism’s most high-profile representatives are any indication, their ideology’s purity comes at the expense of another value the Founding Fathers deemed essential to good government: prudence.
For the sake of argument, let’s momentarily concede that Paul was right the first time about the CRA constituting government overreach. Even if it is wrong to legally force racists to serve minorities, the consequence is…racists have to serve minorities. Given that the defense’s position on free association holds that the free market can largely resolve the matter without government (discriminating against potential customers is a poor business strategy, blacks wouldn’t want to patronize bigoted establishments, etc.), and considering that the “victims” are, well, racists, the “harm” done by the CRA affects a decidedly narrow segment of the population, and the constraint placed on businesses is relatively modest.
In other words, not all inconsistencies between theory and practice are created equal. Yes, we should strive to put concern for liberty and reverence for the Constitution at the heart of every political decision we make, but if we recognize, as the Founders did, that human nature is imperfect, then it follows that even the best-conceived of human governments are going to be imperfect, as well. Things are going to slip through the cracks, and not every perceived blemish is going to be either reversible, or worth the effort to reverse. Case in point: Thomas Jefferson recognized that, in making the Louisiana Purchase, he had committed “an act beyond the Constitution.” But I don’t hear any calls to rectify things by expelling the middle of the country from the Union.
Whenever I hear libertarians griping about marijuana, gambling, or prostitution laws, I have much the same reaction: so what? Even if you’re right that individuals should be totally free to pursue these things (which I don’t concede, by the way), are these really America’s most pressing concerns? Do any of them come even close to, say, eminent domain abuse, the monstrous national debt, pro-jihad sentiment on college campuses, legally compelling American citizens to buy health insurance, or scores of other ways the Left screws up public policy and endangers liberty?
No, they don’t. David Duke’s inability to dine in complete racial comfort wherever he goes is the least of America’s worries (indeed, calling it a “worry” should be enough to demonstrate the absurdity of the discussion we’re having). Don’t get me wrong—I respect and sympathize with libertarians’ frustration with the Beltway and their efforts to reassert constitutional principles, and I agree that most of the GOP’s woes stem from a lack of principle.
But at some point, common sense has to kick in, and people need to recognize the difference between doing the right thing and counterproductively obsessing over minutiae. If it takes an imploding political rookie to drive that point home, so be it.