In listening to the fallout over Rand Paul’s comments about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a few things stand out for me:
Am I the only one who thinks it’s crazy that a person can advocate mass murder, and pre-emptive war and can still be a part of civilized discourse, but use the “N” word, and they’re ruined? The charge of “racism” has become the lowest kind of smear one can make against one’s opponents, and if substantiated, can end a career. Meanwhile, the cheerleaders for the wars, and the war crimes, continue to be welcome in polite society. Am I the ONLY one who thinks there is something wrong with that? That we as a culture seem to have elevated name calling to a higher offense than advocating murder and wars of aggression?
Two: The Rand Paul Kerfuffle is not about race. It is about property rights.
Some commentators have claimed that Rand Paul is “putting property rights above human rights.” But what does that even mean? The conflict is NOT between “property” rights and “human” rights, but between the rights of one person or group of people, and those of another*. In this case, we are talking about the right of a business owner to control who comes on to his or her property vs. the right of a customer to enter onto another person’s property and do business with him or her. Unless someone can explain to me how a person can have a “human right” to do business with someone else against their will, what we’re really talking about are both property rights and the right of free association.
Proponents of the Civil Rights Act do seem to recognize these rights in some settings. I don’t think any of those who are piling on Rand Paul would argue that the government should “step in” and require that people not discriminate on the basis of race when choosing their friends or their mates, for instance. Apparently, the government’s right to intervene magically appears once economic transactions are involved. Why is this? Well, according to Jacob Hornberger:
I suspect that the answer lies in the long-time, deep antipathy that liberals have to the free market — to free enterprise — to capitalism — to profit.
I don’t think he is far off. And it’s not just the fact that money changes hands that justifies government intervention. As David Kramer notes:
A racist White store owner cannot legally prevent a Black customer from trading with him. Yet, a racist White customer can legally prevent a Black store owner from trading with him by just not walking into his store. So what’s the difference? In both cases, one of the two parties (i.e., the Black person) in the trade is being economically “hurt” by the other party (i.e., the racist White person).
The difference, of course, is in the minds of those who buy into the fallacy that economic transactions are by their very nature lopsided; that the business owner always has more power than the customer. Of course real life experience gives the lie to this belief (particularly the real life experience of anyone who has seen their business go under), yet it remains pervasive. The belief seems to go something like this: That by virtue of going into business, business owners now somehow control all of the resources that others require in order to survive, and therefore have an obligation to provide those resources to everyone. But if we accept this logic (and the weird premise it is based on), then we have to accept that business owners are also obligated to provide food, shelter, clothing, etc. to whomever needs it. They cease to be property owners and become nothing more than servants of some mixed-economy welfare state.
And this, I think, gets more to the heart of why most people really don’t get what Rand Paul was saying about the Civil Rights Act: Most Americans really don’t take any kind of principled position on private property rights or indeed on the use of force. The prevailing ethic -- if one can call it that -- seems to be: If people are not behaving the way I think they should be, then force is justified to get them to do so. If a problem -- any problem -- is identified, force is not only justified, but is usually the first solution most Americans will embrace.
Three: One thing advocates of civil rights legislation tend to gloss over is that racial segregation was itself largely the result of government legislation (they were called Jim Crow LAWS for a reason). Libertarians have pointed this out, as well as the fact that private businesses were already starting to desegregate in ways that they could before the Civil Rights Act was enacted. This is all wonderful, but for me it really misses the point, which is that:
IN A FREE SOCIETY, PEOPLE HAVE A RIGHT TO BE ASSHOLES!!!
I don’t know how else to say this. You do not have a right to have everyone like you. You do not get to demand that people associate with you if they don’t want to. And, in a free society, you do not get to tell other people what they can and cannot do with their property as long as they are not doing anything that infringes upon anyone else’s rights. This is what living in a free society -- and indeed what true tolerance -- entails: Putting up with behavior from other people that you may find personally abhorrent, but that does not violate anyone else’s rights. To try to prohibit “offensive” behavior creates a world crawling with petty little dictators where nobody is really free.
For the record: I do not condone racist behavior. I (along with most Americans, I’m sure) would not do business with an establishment that refused to serve people of a particular race, ethnic group, etc. I also do not think that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 heralded the beginning of the end of freedom in America (that happened much earlier) or even comes close to being one of the worst pieces of legislation from a pro-liberty point of view.
What I do think is that the animated discussion in the wake of Rand Paul’s comments on the issue provides a great illustration of how Americans think -- and how they don’t. The fact that his comments generated as much noise as they did is testimony to how unfamiliar Americans are with questioning government force on principle. This question -- the question of when force is justified and when it is not -- is central to building and sustaining a free society. If this discussion is any indication, most Americans are ill-equipped to respond to this question, and are not terribly interested in asking it. That fact alone should be far more disturbing to anyone who cares about liberty than anything Rand Paul has to say about Civil Rights legislation.
* And does anyone -- other than this guy -- seriously believe that when libertarians argue for property rights, they are arguing that pieces of property HAVE rights?