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Defending Rand Paul, Part II

A number of liberal writers have included or featured me in essays about the Rand Paul flap.

First, Adele Stan:

Rand Paul’s biggest mistake, Weigel asserts, is that he told the truth about what he believes. ... I do not, I admit, know whether or not Rand Paul is a racist, or simply misguidedly naive. But I do know that this conservative, libertarian idea — that private ownership trumps civil rights — is nothing more than bigotry dressed up in the garb of “principle.”

Then, Gabriel Winant:

Various figures who stand a few notches in toward the mainstream from Paul have made arguments similar to Weigel's. It was a mere theoretical fancy, they say, nothing should be made of it. A staffer for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., calls the whole thing "a non-issue." Thanks, white people, for clearing up that whole civil rights thing for everybody else. Not important!

This is complicated stuff, but the Pauls are used to it. I first grappled with it in a 2008 story about racist passages in Ron Paul's newsletters, written between his departure from Congress and his 1996 return to it -- a story Joe Conason kindly links to in order to make a point about the Paul family's embrace of Pat Buchanan-style populism. (A number of people whine whenever I mention this story, and they should probably grow up already.)

But there's no comparison between the 2008 newsletter story and this story. That was about explicitly racist populism. This is about the libertarian dream of a colorblind society, faithful to the Constitution, with as little regulation of business as possible. I'm sticking up for Rand Paul here for a couple of reasons.

-- He believes this because he despises racism and believes almost all Americans agree with him.

-- This debate is more interesting and honest than the usual slippery debate we have about race, law, and regulation.

How does Paul's opposition to racism explain his position here? He's a property-rights absolutist, and he believes property rights, and the choices of consumers, are the only constitutional remedy to discrimination against race, against disability, against anything else. I think Julian Sanchez puts it best:

Strong property rights have often been the friend of unpopular minorities: Jim Crow laws were imposed precisely because racists feared the South's rigid caste system would collapse if business owners were free to integrate, as historian Charles Wynes noted in his 1961 study Race Relations in Virginia. After that long apartheid imposed on consumer preferences, it might have been too sanguine to hope market forces alone would have ushered in desegregation as rapidly as the Civil Rights Act did. But history is littered with tribal boundaries shattered by commerce, and formal law yielded no instant solution either.

That is the north star for Paul. He does not believe that the Constitution allows the government to force businesses, landlords, etc. to change how they do business and who they do business with. And he fears that doing so in the name of positive social change puts us on a slippery slope to extra-Constitutional measures in the service of negative social change -- taking away guns, putting people in camps. You can disagree, but that's where he's coming from.

Now, if you disagree, can you prove him wrong? I think you can. As Errol Louis pointed out yesterday during our appearance on "Hardball," while many libertarians believe that America is more or less colorblind, around 500 discrimination cases are filed each week.

Paul's answer to this would be similar to his explanation of why it would have been better for the U.S. economy to have completely crashed than for taxpayers and the Federal Reserve to have temporarily bailed out banks. We should have endured the crash, stuck by our principles and rebuilt. If a man in a wheelchair can't get into a restaurant, he can raise a fuss, his neighbors can join him, and the restaurant can build a ramp in order to get more business.

It's essential to put Paul's belief in the context of 2010 instead of the context of 1964. He sees less of a need now for the government to intervene against discrimination in private business because there is less discrimination now. And go and try to prove him wrong on that.

But understanding Paul's view gets at the second reason I am fine with defending him -- it is better that we have an honest discussion about the strict constructionist view on discrimination (and, as the campaign goes on, on manifold other issues) than the hidebound, trite and dishonest conversation we have now. And it really is conservatives who are responsible for most of the dishonesty.

Take, for example, this deeply stupid post from Michelle Malkin in response to Attorney General Eric Holder's comment that America has been a "nation of cowards" in grappling with race.

Funny. When I think of racial cowards, I think of Barack Obama at Jeremiah Wright’s church, sitting there week after week, year after year, saying nothing about the separatist demagoguery echoing from the pulpit to the pews.
When I think of racial cowards, I think of all the navel-gazers who fret about poisonous racial dialogue, but say nothing about “My President Is Black” bigotry. ...
Holder doesn’t want an honest dialogue about race. In the Age of Obama, “talking enough with each other about race” means the rest of us shutting up while being subjected to lectures about our insensitivity and insufficient integration on the weekends.

Malkin's piece is rooted in a belief, common among conservatives, that some switch was flipped in 1964 and 1965, when laws were passed prohibiting discrimination in most settings, and that from then on any attempt to address racial imbalance is the real racism. White people have to watch what they say about race, while black people don't -- what could be more offensive? Obviously, being denied access to a business or a job because of your race is more offensive. And that's still a problem. The argument is over how we deal with it.

Rand Paul is more sophisticated about this than many, many people who fill the airwaves to talk about it. And that's why I defend him -- even though, given his decision today about skipping "Meet the Press," he no longer wants to talk about this specific issue. On other issues, Paul is going to cut through the cant and slogans and challenge the premises of laws. It will be fair to challenge him on whether he fully understands the way things would work if those laws were eliminated -- if his libertarian theories match up with reality. When we do so, we're going to get a lot more understanding about our laws than we did before Paul won his nomination.

That said, Paul would do better to find issues where he can speak positively about liberty. I'd point him toward the work of Radley Balko, a brilliant journalist who spends his time exposing the ways that the state takes away rights and limits justice, and not looking for cute end-runs around civil rights laws.

By David Weigel  |  May 21, 2010; 6:07 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Election , Libertarians  
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