Friday, May 21, 2010

Maybe there's a reason why they can't get elected past city council

Rand Paul isn't having a very good week. First it was the icky footage of him accepting the nomination from his private country club party room. Then it was the alleged snub of the concession call from his Republican opponent. Now, this is all over the place:

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I'm all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the "but." I don't like the idea of telling private business owners -- I abhor racism. I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant -- but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that's most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

It's interesting to watch the media freaking out about Rand Paul's various statements about the Civil Rights Act. It's like they've never actually encountered a Libertarian before. Their property rights fetish, which they see as trumping most other rights (like those trivial civil rights), is a pretty basic staple of their movement. A more cynical take on it would be that that is the whole point - As Amanda Marcotte points out, it's a pretty strong coincidence that the Libertarian movement picked up steam in America right around the same time that the Civil Rights Act passed congress. It is, by far, the most unattractive thing about them. No matter how much they wrap their arguments in the doe-eyed innocent rhetoric that freedom is hard and if we truly want it we will have to deal with undesirable side effects, you can never really shake the reality that the ones asking us to take a hit in the name of liberty(!) are usually the same ones that will be under no pressure to take those hits themselves. And you start to feel kind of icky about the whole thing.

Not to say that this argument is born out of racism for everyone that identifies as Libertarian. It's not, it's consistent with their small-government ideals. I don't it's my place to judge Paul's motivations as racist (or at the very least, I don't think we can point to this particular argument as proof of him being one). I actually respect the guy in a way for not backing down from his viewpoint (there are few things that I hate more then half-assed libertarians that won't come out and actually say what they mean, and instead dance around it in order to appeal to "moderates").

But I would rather this debate be focused more on what he's actually saying instead of just running around all pissed off and screaming about bigotry. That response is lazy and just allows Paul to whine about how he's being smeared by the left, which benefits him in the sense that we are now talking about Rand Paul the man, and not Rand Paul's policies. And we need to start examining the policies. The public's knowledge of Libertarians is pretty small, for the most part, they are the guys that want you to have drugs and guns, and hey, we like drugs and guns! Their more extreme viewpoint, such as shrinking government down to an entity only responsible for tort law, law enforcement and military and instead using the marketplace to regulate all other policy doesn't receive as much airtime or discussion in mainstream circles.

The State vs the Business owner isn't an uncommon discussion, ask a bar owner about smoking bans sometime or an upscale restaurateur about their policy regarding children. I do tend to side with the business owner most of the time, even when I'd rather not. But I think where I differ when it comes to legal discrimination is that someone like Rand Paul sees property rights as trumping civil rights, or to put it a different way, I think they see property rights as a form of civil rights, where I don't necessarily see them as the same thing. If we can't argue that say, you can invite someone into your liquor store and then shoot them legally because your rights now trump their rights, I don't really see where we get off in saying "Oh, unless it's a race thing, then property rights are the most important ever!" Obviously we do draw the line somewhere.

And realistically? Like most things libertarian, while the argument itself can be quite pretty (liberty!) and consistent on paper, it would be an absolute disaster in application, because we are talking about the same crowd that believes the free market will regulate bad behavior on it's own and no government intervention is necessary. I understand the argument; ideally, businesses with bigoted policies are shooting themselves in the foot by refusing customers and alienating others. Eventually, that business model will fail, and those businesses with less alienating practices will succeed. No government intervention is necessary, because the free market always wins! And I'm not going to lie - It's a tempting gamble. Open up a "whites-only" deli in Atlanta and see where that gets you, I dare you. And I would love to see the look on your face when all your local daycare centers in Texas decide they can't look after little Bobby anymore because he doesn't qualify as Latino.

And to be fair, we have seen self-regulation work in practice. During the great "It's not fair that I have to dispense birth control to whores" debate of 2006, a few folks got it in their head to open up "christian" based pharmacies - pharmacies that prided themselves on the refusal to distribute "controversial" items like birth control or pornography. Sadly for the moral authoritarian crowd, one of these pharmacies got bitch-slapped by the free market just last month, because (surprise!) the customers, either through the need for those naughty, immoral items or just disgust at that particular business model, decided to take their business to the nearby Kmart pharmacy instead.

So yes, when given a choice, it would seem people would reject business practices they find troubling. And perhaps we can argue that this is a desirable model for the market, because not only have we rendered government as unnecessary in this area (which is a good thing, few will argue that government should step in when it is not needed as it just leads to waste), but we also have more control over the policies that we support via our dollar. As it stands now, I can't really be sure that I'm not handing over my money to a company that promotes bigotry on the sly. If you hang a bit old "I hate you" sign on your door, I'll know not to shop there.

But the flip side of that coin is that you need the choice to be available. Because (using the example above) although Christian pharmacies can't directly compete with similar businesses in Chantilly, in those areas where the christian pharmacy is the only pharmacy in town? Well, those pharmacies are doing just fine. Some will make the argument that your should just move. But I think that's a hell of a burden to throw on people.

So to argue for the right for businesses to discriminate, while keeping in mind that this argument is made within the same political philosophy argues for a complete lack of oversight and regulation of all businesses, doesn't sit right with me. I feel that idealizing capitalists is just as naive as idealizing government. Even if we could go back and eliminate those who have gamed the system to their own advantage and in return, own large shares of the market, mere assurances that greed won't be a problem and in turn lead to corporate oligarchies, eventually leading to less true competition, are not enough to hand over social safety nets. It's not that I disagree with the ideal, it's just that I feel the ideal cannot possibly exist in regards to how our society is currently structured. When you are using ownership to determine power in a society, particularly a society where ownership is imbalanced largely due to racist or sexist policies in the past (and actually still is, see the drug war, denial of reproductive services, etc), you will only end up consolidating even more power into the hands of those that are privileged enough to already have it.

And that's what I'd like to see the discussion revolve around - people need to look beyond the pretty words (liberty!) and start looking on forward to the application of these small-government issues, and the largely negative effect that they would have. Rand Paul's "mistake" in regards to discussing property rights taking precedence over civil rights wasn't that it's a racist notion, or based only in bigoted reasoning; it's that he managed to pick a topic that clearly illustrates the disconnect between the ideal of small government and the reality of it's application in regular life. Republicans have been good at staving off this discussion, as they can complicate the issue by declaring social warfare to distract the public. Libertarians, by their own political philosophy, cannot do the same and still have their arguments come off as credible.

So rock on with your Libertarian self, Rand Paul. Keep shocking the hell out of the media. The more we start whittling away at the reality behind small government ideals, the better the case against that ideal becomes.

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