There’s been quite a firestorm over freshly-minted Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul’s comments about the Civil Rights Act. Fresh from his victory in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, Paul said he supported most of the CRA but would have opposed the provisions prohibiting discrimination by private businesses.
On the merits of the issue, I agree with Julian: there’s an intellectually defensible and non-racist argument against non-discrimination rules. However, I think that argument is persuasive only if considered in a cultural and historical vacuum. In the world as it actually existed in the 1960s, centuries of state-sponsored discrimination had created a system of institutionalized racism that could have lingered for decades even after the formal legal rules requiring segregation had been abolished. The Civil Rights Act’s non-discrimination provisions were a modest effort to make restitution
Of course, the contemporary debate isn’t really about the Civil Rights Act, which is in no danger of being repealed. The debate is about the character of Paul and the Tea Party movement that thrust him into national prominence. Critics point to Paul’s comments as evidence that he’s a racist—or at least that he’s pandering to the prejudices of bigots within his party. Paul insists that his comments are a matter of principle—that he’s simply an uncompromising defender of individual liberty and private property rights.
The problem with this is that Paul is far from uncompromising. For example, on his immigration page he stakes out the standard Lou Dobbs position: more money for enforcement, no “amnesty” for immigrants who are already here without government permission. On his national defense page, he proposes a moratorium on issuing visas to residents of “rogue nations” and defends holding suspects indefinitely without trial at GITMO.
It’s also telling which issues aren’t mentioned on his website. There’s no mention of equality for gays and lesbians on his websites and he’s reportedly opposed to gay marriage, which is probably the great civil rights issue of our time. There’s no mention of reforming our nation’s draconian drug laws, which disproportionately harm African Americans. There’s no mention of restoring free trade and freedom of travel to Cuba, a cause his father has championed. There’s no statement opposing torture.
In short, Paul’s defense of libertarian principle is curiously one-sided. Paul is an uncompromising defender of the rights of business owners to decide who will sit at their lunch counters. But Paul apparently sees no problem with deploying the power of the state to stop private business owners from hiring undocumented workers. Nor does he seem to care very much about business owners’ freedom to do business with the millions of non-terrorists who live in “rogue nations.” Or, for that matter, the freedom of a gay business owner to marry the person he loves. There’s a principle at work here, all right, but I don’t think it has very much to do with limited government.