Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Adventures of Rand Paul

What are we to make of Rand Paul’s expressing principled reservations about the public accommodation provisions of the Civil Rights Act? According to Mark McKinnon, that shows that he’s a political neophyte making “rookie mistakes.” Well maybe. McKinnon knows a lot more about electoral politics than I do, so I’ll defer to him on the question of whether it’s tactically wise for Paul to display his libertarianism this openly before Kentucky voters.

I’m more interested in McKinnon’s suggestion that Paul was being not only politically imprudent but civically boorish. A lot of people across the political spectrum seem to think that that pointing out the real tension between the federal regulation of private conduct to achieve a non-commercial public objective and traditional principles of American federalism amounts to a breach of public etiquette. Here’s McKinnon voicing that idea (my emphasis):

“Like many with Libertarian roots, he views his perch like an academic. He wants to teach, preach and proselytize. Paul thinks most of us are just ill-informed about the evils of government. If he can monopolize a microphone, he'll indoctrinate us. . . . [T]he son is like the father. I've spent a good deal of time around Ron Paul during Republican presidential debates. Ron Paul is smart, professorial and quirky. But we never really worried about him being a serious threat. He lives in an intellectual orbit of theory that generally just doesn't have much application in real-world politics. . . . Rand Paul comes off like an academic stiff who wants to give us a lecture on American civics.”
I’m not very sympathetic to most of Paul’s libertarianism, especially the notion that requiring business owners to serve African-Americans assaulted their property rights. But why call him an “academic stiff”? I don’t remember people saying anything like that about Daniel Moynihan when he used to ruminate about sociological issues from his perch in the Senate, or faulting Barack Obama for “indoctrinate[ing] us” when he seized on his troubles with Reverend Wright as a “teaching moment” and "lectured" us about race during the last presidential campaign. We usually think it’s part of a politician's job to appeal not only to our interests, but to our ideals, and that means interpreting what they are. Why is it politically incorrect to do that with respect to the Civil Rights Act?

One answer is that the stigma attached to questioning the Civil Rights Act is just an expression of political power. On this view, liberal elites control our public discourse about racial issues by using charges of racism as an instrument of political intimidation. The problem with that answer is that it doesn’t explain why a lot of steadfast conservatives and libertarians who make a living standing up to liberals have their own reservations about Paul's words (see, e.g., this post by Jennifer Rubin and this particularly good post by Julian Sanchez). The stigma attached to expressing reservations about the Civil Rights Act transcends ideological divisions.

That suggests a different answer: In our political culture, being part of the modern social contract between the races, the Civil Rights Act has attained a quasi-constitutional status. It’s permissible to interpret it in a non-standard way, but not to question its authority. That makes it appropriate to wonder where Rand Paul's coming from.

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