Rand Paul, the recently chosen Republican nominee for the U. S. Senate seat open in Kentucky, faces some interesting days ahead. He already is the center of profound attention on the national scene. He should not be surprised since he is the son of libertarian congressman Ron Paul (TX-R), who ran for president in 2008. Paul won a recent primary in Kentucky by such a large margin that even the pundits were surprised. Republicans have been scurrying about to try and manage the situation. Most are endorsing Paul rather than fight a battle over the nominations process and reject him. He was not the party favorite, that is for sure.
The big story out of this race was Paul’s one sentence summary, given in an interview with liberal commentator Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC. Paul said, “When you blur the distinction between public and private, there are problems. When you blur the distinction between public and private ownership, there really is a problem.” Paul is right actually. We do need to ask such tough questions whenever we see government entering into the private sector or placing restrictions on private conduct and private businesses. What is interesting is that Paul can find advocates for this kind of question on the left and the right. The left wants, for example, to guarantee free speech just as much as the right and thus will generally agree on quite a bit in the end. But if you defend free speech then the terrible Baptist minister from Kansas can go around proclaiming all day long that “God hates fags!” And if you oppose the death penalty you also have to defend the right to allow John Wayne Gacy to live out the remainder of his life without the death penalty. (He is already dead, of course, so this is simply a point for illustration.) In other words, this liberty cuts both ways. Rigorous debates about these issues is part and parcel of what makes America what it is. It is, I think, a great part of what makes us great.
But Rachel Maddow asked Rand Paul “Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don’t serve black people?” Paul said “Yes.” But then he must have realized the mess he had stepped into and began to immediately back pedal, which he has been doing ever since. He said, after his clear “Yes” response: “I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I don’t want to be associated with (racists), but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that’s one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn’t mean we approve of it.”
But Mr. Paul surely knows that this is not the point. I do not want to be associated with flag-burners or members of the KKK. I want no association with the Rev. Fred Phelps either. But I support their right to free speech. The question is this: Does Rand Paul support the right of private businesses to discriminate?
If you know the Civil Rights era, and I lived through it, then you know this is a fair question. Barry Goldwater proudly voted against civil rights legislation for just this reason, as did more than a few others in the Senate. To make the argument that civil rights laws, however well meaning they were in the context, extended the reach of the government too far is actually a brave stance. What Rand Paul did not do is stand bravely and defend the position that he seems (quite logically) to hold. Why? I do not know since I cannot read his mind but I can guess. He wants to be elected. For this reason alone I have less respect for him as a candidate now that he has backed away from his own libertarian principles.
I am not a libertarian. In fact, all the tea parties aside, I think most Americans are not libertarians either. I value the good that civil rights laws have accomplished for the whole of our society enough to believe that discrimination in public places exceeds the cost of removing certain personal rights of owners. People can be bigoted if they so choose but allowing it to become protected by law was decided in the 1960s. I believe this is an instance where government acted correctly in taking away the certain rights of a few who wanted to retain institutional racism. We cannot change the heart, as I heard often from conservatives in the 1960s, but we can make it less and less possible for people to establish blatant racism in a way that is actually protected by law.
This then is Rand Paul’s huge problem. He is a libertarian but he doesn’t want to tell us just what this philosophy really means for governance. If he does he will lose. My respect for him (all disagreements aside) went out the window the day after he was nominated. I could never vote for such a political hypocrite. Is he a racist? Probably not. But he is an ideologue who wants to disown his ideology for the sake of his election just as much as a person does on the far left who is a radical of a different sort and wants to hide it from the public.