Wednesday, May 26, 2010

high school glory days, self-ownership, and ends-justify-the-means righteousness

Republican bloggers and pundits have been split on the Rand Paul civil rights "furor".

In today's in-box from, there was a spate of essays, three of which were provocative, largely supportive of Paul, and wrestle with some of the important questions that Paul raised. (The piece that opposed Paul was from Michael Medved, an incoherent critic of Libertarians.)

The title of this post comes from my favorite phrase in these three essays.

Here's Jonah Goldberg:

It has already become a cliche on the right to tut-tut at U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul's "rookie" mistake of trying to conduct a "libertarian seminar" during the campaign.

I'm not so sure. For starters, if you're not invested in Paul's political career, why not seize this rare opportunity for one of those eternally sought but never achieved "national conversations" on race?

Besides, Paul's not going to lose because of his reservations about some aspects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He's from Kentucky, a very red state. And contrary to what you might suspect from reading the national media, not only has he not made repealing the law the centerpiece of his campaign, he has no desire to do so if elected.

Indeed, it's worth noting that the only people who are really jazzed to reopen the argument about the Civil Rights Act are liberals.

And they have good reason: They won that argument, politically and morally. This is a fact liberals never stop reminding us, and themselves, about. Like a paunchy middle-aged man who scored the winning touchdown in the high school championship, nostalgic liberals don't need an excuse to bring up their glory days (which were not the Democratic Party's glory days, by the way).

...when a very clearly nonracist libertarian politician merely raises the possibility -- with admirable honesty and sincerity -- that Goldwater might have been a teensy-weensy bit right to vote against the 1964 bill (Goldwater had voted consistently for civil rights laws before then), it's an outrage....

Here's Jacob Sullum:

Last week, James Clyburn, a former civil rights activist who is now a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, warned that if Rand Paul is elected to represent Kentucky in the Senate, "it will be the first step ... to turning back the gains that we started making way back in the 1860s."

The comment, provoked by the Republican candidate's criticism of the federal ban on racial discrimination in places of "public accommodation," was not just hyperbolic but radically misguided, because Paul's position is based on the same principle that led to the abolition of slavery and the long struggle for equality that followed it: the principle of self-ownership.

If we own ourselves, it follows that no one else can own us -- the most obvious way in which slavery violates human rights. It also follows that we own our labor, which means we decide who benefits from it and under what terms, and the fruits of our labor, which means we control access to our property....

Paul's more sophisticated critics argued not that he was racist but that he was unrealistic....But before concluding that new infringements on liberty were necessary to remove the stain left by past infringements, consider some unforeseen consequences of the federal ban on private discrimination. The precedent has encouraged an assault on freedom of association, as illustrated by demands that private organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Christian student groups and online dating services adopt gay-friendly policies.

The blurring of the distinction between public and private property has invited a wide array of meddlesome regulations, ranging from bans on smoking in bars and restaurants to unfunded mandates requiring expensive renovations to accommodate customers in wheelchairs. As Paul noted, the "public accommodation" rationale even has been cited as a pretext for forcing business owners to allow guns on their property....

A broad license to interfere with property rights and freedom of contract inevitably deprives people of choices they value. Rand Paul deserves credit for pointing out that we cannot abridge the freedom of those we despise without endangering our own freedom.

And here's Bill Murchison:

The question Rand Paul forces us to look squarely in the face is a sensitive one: when, in human affairs, does pragmatism trump principle? Fairly often, is the answer...

On the technical question that Rachel Maddow put to Kentucky's Republican nominee for Senate -- was the government right to desegregate lunch counters? -- Paul made a plausible reply; to wit, he abhorred not only racism but the notion of telling private property owners what they may do with their property.

Paul was hardly the first American to make the point. In 1964, Barry Goldwater -- virtuous constitutionalist and strong civil rights supporter -- voted against the civil rights bill on grounds akin to those that Paul invoked...

Where does this leave Rand Paul? On the right side of the Law but the wrong side of History? Perhaps. Wearisome all the same is the modern habit of beating up on parties who don't get with the Moral Program fast enough and enthusiastically enough, due to one honest scruple or another...

The worst feature of arguments over the use of government power to enforce particular moral outcomes is the tendency of the winners to sweep away all objections by means of their claim to righteousness. Thus with some of Paul's critics: Don't give us that stuff about what the Constitution allows or what the prescribed powers of government should be! Give us the results that Humanity demands!

A kind of ends-justifies-the-means framework encases this grand assumption. If we're right, we're right, and that's all anybody needs to know. Paul proves himself less the politician -- quick to duck complexity -- than the amateur who just says what he thinks; a dangerous habit that, in an anti-establishment year, could boost his standing materially, to the dismay of the moral police.

We'll see. Meantime, inadvertently, the Libertarian Republican from Kentucky reminds us why the power of government remains a less certain instrument for effectuating moral change than does a general change in moral opinion....


At May 26, 2010 at 9:32 PM , Blogger John said...

I listen to Medved quite a bit and I do get upset about his view on Libertarians. He always says you waste a vote because your could have put a Republican in power...That attitude has created a 14 trillion dollar deficit. Medhead sucks!


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