Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just Libertarianism?

from Talking Points Memo

TPM Reader SW wrote in this morning cautioning that we make clear that opposing all civil rights legislation on libertarian grounds doesn't mean you don't support civil rights. I think this is far from an uncontested claim. And since the Rand Paul situation is going to be raising it to such high salience I wanted to share SW's email with you and give you my thoughts on the underlying question.

First here's SW's email.

You write that Rand Paul is "...against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and supporting abolishing the Department of Education..."
It's worth noting that Libertarians are against the Civil Rights Act, but not against civil rights. Indeed you'll find no stronger defender of civil rights of any type than libertarians. For us its a matter of approach. A different means to the same end. But the means does matter both in principal and practice. I think you understand this, but the way you characterize Paul's policy positions gave me pause.

He's not against civil rights, people with disabilities, or against educating today's youth.

Let's start the conversation by agreeing that as a technical matter, this is true. Libertarianism is a political philosophy rooted in a belief in radical limitations on state power. And I'm inclined to follow my friend Mike Lind's argument that unlike a lot of mishmash conservative claptrap libertarianism is a political philosophy I can disagree with but still recognize as internally consistent and rooted in important principles. As Mike wrote once, I simply think its assumptions and understanding of human nature are off. But this is hardly the end of the story.

Political philosophy can never be free of history. And there is no denying that similar states rights or libertarian arguments have been the arguments of choice for those who want to defend racial discrimination since avowed defenses of racial prejudice and subordination became publicly unacceptable outside some parts of the South in the early second half of the last century. That's simply a fact. In principle, it doesn't delegitimize libertarian political philosophy. But we don't live in classrooms or treatises. We live in an actual world where history and experience can't be separated from philosophy.

When he ran for President in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran on opposition to federal Civil Rights legislation on what he claimed were states rights grounds. And there's some reason to believe that for him that really was what it was about. But it is entirely clear that his political punch came from supporters in the South who wanted to keep Jim Crow in effect. Again, that's just a fact.

So that's the history.

Then there is the simple matter of priorities. To a degree the argument Paul is making is something like saying that I don't like rape or murder, I just don't believe in a police force to prevent it or a judiciary to punish the offenders. The reason we, albeit imperfectly, have equality before the law and in the society at large (in terms of public accommodations and so forth) on racial grounds in the whole of the United States is because of federal legislation that forced that to be the case. The reason we don't have white and colored drinking fountains or pools for whites only, etc. You can say you think all those things are awful and you may be telling the truth. But what are you going to do about it? The variant of libertarianism which Paul espouses, while internally consistent in theory and separate from race, has you saying, I wouldn't do anything about it -- though I'd decry it as an individual.

Folks who espouse this kind of philosophy deserve to be held to account for that fact, whatever their inner beliefs about race and equality may be.

And having said all this, I'd be remiss not to say that an awful lot of folks in the South seem to have these views and theories of the constitution that are completely divorced from history that end up bringing them to these conclusions. As one observer said in a totally different context about the Nation of Islam, they may not be looking for trouble, but they sure do seem to find it.