Rand Paul’s Dilemma: Theory Vs. Practice

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UPDATE: Thursday on the Laura Ingram show, Rand Paul responded to last night’s Rachel Maddow interview.

The libertarian approach, which heavily favors private rights over government rights, has always produced some interesting conversations. Most libertarians, for instance, don’t own a bong or watch extremely violent pornography, but Republican doctors like Ron Paul will defend your right to grow and smoke marijuana and avoid obscenity prosecutions for producing the most vile consensual smut. They see it as an issue of personal rights. Government should stay out of your lungs, they argue, stay out of your bedrooms, and stay out of your businesses.

Rand Paul, a child of the libertarian movement, is now following this line of thinking into a political buzzsaw. He argues that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 erred by forcing private businesses to desegregate lunch counters. He condemns racism, and says he supports most of the Act, which dealt with ending discrimination in government institutions, but holds firm on a theoretical point: Government should not tell private businesses how to behave. The most important piece of video today in the political world comes from Rachel Maddow’s show last night, in which Paul explains his view in some detail.

Vodpod videos no longer available.Obviously, this is not a mainstream view, even among conservatives or within the Republican Party, and however true it is to Paul’s governing philosophy, it is going to cost him. Indeed, in conversation with Maddow, Paul bemoans the coming soundbites that will no doubt misrepresent his views. As Ben Smith tweets, “Very, very easy to see the Bork-style ‘Rand Paul’s America’ ad, w/ sepia-toned ‘No Blacks, No Irish’ signs.” These attacks will paint Paul as a supporter of segregation and racism, even though no evidence has been presented suggesting that he is motivated by anything other than a libertarian governing philosophy, which is no more a racist philosophy than it is a pro-pot or pro-pornography philosophy.

It must also be said, however, that in practice, the libertarian approach is never absolute. Libertarians, for instance, generally defend pedophilia laws, for instance, and the existence of a military to defend against foreign threats. I am sure there are many self-described libertarians who would differ with Rand Paul on the lunch counter issue. They would interpret the experience of being denied food service at a lunch counter less as a free speech issue for the business, and more as an assault on the customer. Even strict libertarians will argue that government has a policing role to punish citizens when they attack each other.

One other thing to note. It is unfair, as a rule, to judge a son by the sins of his father, but it is worth noting here, given Rand Paul’s political and personal affinity with his dad, that Ron Paul has often stumbled in the past over issues of race. Back in 2007, I wrote a mostly favorable piece about the senior Paul for Salon, which noted the following:

In the Speaker’s Lobby, Paul describes the federal airline security system as an extra-constitutional affront to civil liberties, and thinks security should be handled by the private sector. Then he takes a rather un-presidential jab at the appearance of many TSA screeners, a workforce heavily populated by minorities and immigrants. “We quadrupled the TSA, you know, and hired more people who look more suspicious to me than most Americans who are getting checked,” he says. “Most of them are, well, you know, they just don’t look very American to me. If I’d have been looking, they look suspicious … I mean, a lot of them can’t even speak English, hardly. Not that I’m accusing them of anything, but it’s sort of ironic.”

This is not the first time Paul has veered into potentially insensitive territory. In 1992, a copy of his newsletter, the Ron Paul Survival Report, criticized the judicial system in Washington, D.C., before adding, “I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” Under a section headlined “Terrorist Update,” the following sentence ran, “If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be.”

These quotations became an issue during Paul’s 1996 campaign for Congress. During the campaign, he declined to distance himself from the statements. But in a 2001 interview with Texas Monthly, he said he had never written or approved those words for his own newsletter. He said he failed to disavow the words during the campaign on the advice of his political advisors. “They just weren’t my words,” he tells me. “They got in because I wasn’t always there. I didn’t have total control. And I would be on vacations and things got in there that shouldn’t have been.”