Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Rand Paul illustrates why Libertarians can’t govern

Rand Paul ended his political career yesterday. Pwned by Rachel Maddow in less than 24 hours.

Paul had been on Maddow’s show before, treated with the amiable contempt that leftists reserve for right-wing types who criticize Republicans and have no real chance of getting elected. But the instant this libertarian clown became a credible candidate, Rachel took the gloves off.

The video is excruciating to watch, as Rand dodges the question over and over again. He’s articulating the standard libertarian position on such things, opposing institutionalized racism like the Jim Crow laws, insisting that the government treat everyone as equal under the law while leaving private businesses free to discriminate.

Maddow knows exactly where the weak point is and she has him dead to rights. But he won’t admit it.

And this is precisely why libertarians (under any label) will never be a credible force in American politics. Libertarianism is a collection of political principles, principles that carry the force of religious commandments in the hearts of the faithful.

But modern politics leaves no room for principle. Modern politics is a game of artifice, strategy, and power. You stick your finger in the air and say what it takes to get elected. Once you’re in office, you carefully ride the line between constituents and campaign donors and hope you survive long enough to champion something you actually believe in.

There is no room for sentiment in this process. Principled convictions are weak spots to be exploited by the opposition. Any firmly stated principle is going to alienate 43% of the country, so the most successful politicians in modern history have believed in nothing at all.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may hold authentic leftist convictions in their hearts. Their staffers certainly do. But their first priority is to keep power. And they never take their eyes off that ball.

They say whatever it takes to get elected and they avoid arbitrary statements of principle, knowing that any absolute declaration can be used against them in a campaign.

Libertarians don’t think like this. They’ve been out of power so long, they don’t know how to think like politicians. The idea of compromising principles to gain power is repulsive to them.

“And that,” says Karl Rove Yoda, “is why you fail.”

This is not an Internet forum thread. This is not a dorm room bull session. This is not an afternoon debate at The Federalist Society. This is American political theater. It’s a dirty, despicable game that plays to the worst instincts of the electorate, and Rachel Maddow is on the front line.

There is no room for nuance, hypothetical situations, or historical fantasy here. This is war. A brutal war for the soul of the country, with a trillion-dollar prize at the end. Pandering to the electorate is the only way to win.

I understand the philosophical foundation of Rand’s position and I know what he was trying to say. He believes discrimination is morally wrong. Believes it more deeply than your average Southern Democrat. But he’s morally opposed to the use of force. He understands the overwhelming power of government and thinks it should only be used when it is absolutely necessary.

He knows that every use of government power comes with a laundry list of unintended consequences, and that many of those consequences will hurt the people he’s trying to help.

He is horrified by the idea of government-sanctioned discrimination and would fight like hell to make sure everyone was treated fairly under the law.

But fundamentally, libertarians think people have the right to be stupid. You have the right to destroy your life with drugs. You have the right to smoke until your lungs fall out. You have the right to allow smoking or ban it in your place of business. And you have the right to decide who you sell your goods and services to, as long as you don’t threaten people with violence or try to impose your views on the business next door.

I expect Rand believes, like I do, that a country that allowed businesses to discriminate would end up looking a lot like our world today. Business owners would learn that discrimination is bad for business. Open-minded people would boycott racist business owners and shame them into opening their doors.

And when that society had driven out all but the most backwards and intransigent holdouts, it would be healthier and more benevolent towards minorities, precisely because that change was voluntary.

Can I prove this? Not really. There are so many variables here I’d have to invent a time machine to test it properly. I was going to try and use discrimination against the Irish as an example of prejudice that had been overcome naturally, but it’s not a perfect fit.

Like most libertarians, I base my position on some fundamental observations of human nature. When people are forced to do the right thing by government, they resent it, and the pressure builds. But when they are shamed into doing the right thing by their friends, their neighbors, and the general climate of their culture, it feels natural and it tends to stick.

There is less resentment, and ultimately less violence when people have the freedom to be stupid and the choice to be virtuous.

A complicated, nuanced position with tremendous room for disagreement and debate. I’m disgusted by the idea of discrimination and would certainly be tempted to use government power as a shortcut, but I think it would be better for society as a whole, and better for the people we’re trying to protect, if we let people grow into the idea.

You think I could fit that statement into a sound bite on Maddow? You think it would convince Democrats in her audience? You think it would garner support from Republicans who are fighting tooth and nail against the agenda of our first black president? You think the mass of Tea Party people, who are already assumed to be racist until proven innocent would rally behind me for saying it?

Hell no.

The narrative on Civil Rights is firmly established in the popular imagination. Discrimination was evil and the power of the federal government stopped it. The end.

There is no room for nuance in this opinion. The overwhelming majority of Americans are happy with the results of this legislation and the few that aren’t think it didn’t go far enough.

Rand Paul has thrown his career away in support of a position that absolutely does not matter. This battle is over and the government side has already won. It’s never going to come up in the Senate. He’s never going to vote on it. It would cost him nothing to lie about this issue and keep his mouth shut. But he’s a libertarian, and libertarians stick to their principles, no matter what it costs. (Or at least until their campaign managers sit them down with a pair of dolls and a stack of poll numbers and explain the Facts of Life.)

If Rand had misrepresented his opinion and expressed enthusiastic support for the Civil Rights Act, what would have happened? Eighty libertarians on a mailing list would call him a hypocrite, and then it would be over.

He could have ridden the Tea Party momentum into office and opposed government spending for the next 20 years. He could have advocated free market solutions to health care and pension problems at a crucial moment in American history. He could have voted against corporate welfare and taken a stand against government bailouts at a time when greed and cronyism are tearing this country apart.

But now he’ll be forgotten until he comes back to endorse his own son in 2054.

We’d like to believe in a world where voters reward consistency and admire people who stick up for what they believe in, but that only works in the movies. In the real world, you have to measure what the majority believes and position yourself precisely between left and right.

Modern politics is a street fight. These guys are walking around with pistols and switchblades, sneaking around in the dark and performing rhetorical drive-bys.

Rand Paul showed up in full SCA gear and started swatting people with a cardboard tube. Nice tabard, Rand, but you’re in the real world now.

You can try to backpedal, but once you let the racist cat out of the rhetorical bag, it’s over.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 21, 2010 at 09:00

Posted in Politics

5 Responses

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  1. I’d say Paul proved some of this wrong in that he beat an establishment candidate, backed by other establishment candidate. America has a short attention span, but notices momentum. A little more, and libertarian candidates may be the ones setting the trends for a while… until the next distraction of the public.


    May 21, 2010 at 09:07

  2. Andrew Sullivan does the heavy lifting for me on this one


    Mainly this part:

    “As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation. Indeed, it got much worse, not just because it was enforced by law but because it was mandated by self-reinforcing societal pressure. Any store owner in the South who chose to serve blacks would certainly have lost far more business among whites than he gained. There is no reason to believe that this system wouldn’t have perpetuated itself absent outside pressure for change.

    In short, the libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn’t work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.”

    I have seen libertarianism exposed twice recently as a philosophy that is unfit for the real world. You say principled, I say uncompromising: not a virtue, but a vice.

    your liberal buddy
    – Ian


    May 21, 2010 at 10:00

  3. And this is why you can’t cherry-pick principles from history while ignoring the context.

    I’m not sure it’s fair to compare 1864 with 1964, but how do you reach back in time and untangle the government-sanctioned and state-sponsored racism from the private kind? I would have to postulate a society that did not exist, that COULD NOT exist, because the political will to outlaw discrimination went hand in hand with the cultural disdain for it.

    I like to think the cultural changes that were happening in the ’60s would have persuaded people to do the right thing on their own, that mass communication technology and the force of popular culture would have liberalized attitudes on their own.

    But I can’t know. I don’t have a strong enough feel for the context of 1964 America to know if I’m being ridiculous or naive.

    But that’s what so frustrating about engaging these hypotheticals. Part of what drove me away from Libertarian debate is that it’s nothing BUT hypotheticals. Piles of hypotheticals, parsed, regurgitated and thrown around forever, with no anchor tying them back to the real world.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think about 1964. 1964 is over. The decisions have been made, the laws have been passed and the overwhelming majority has spoken.

    This is a useless distraction from things that really matter, and distraction has become an end in itself.

    Will your parents have Medicare in 5 years? How much will a loaf of bread cost? How much will a gallon of gas cost? Will my generation be able to collect Social Security? Will the unemployment rate hit 15%? What happens when foreign countries can’t trust our debt anymore? What happens when we can’t trust theirs?

    These are the issues that matter here and now. These are the issues that Rand Paul ran on. Our economic house is on fire and we’re debating 1964.

    Michael Duff

    May 21, 2010 at 10:40

  4. “1964 is over”

    I probably can’t convince you the exact opposite is true, but I believe it.

    To a large extent, I feel a lot of the domestic policy arguments we have boil down to issues of prejudice and race. I don’t think all, or even most Republicans are racists, but I do believe they are exploiting the racist beliefs of a not insignificant section of Americans to get elected. Republicans have won over the once (and now again) solid south by saying nothing more than “The Democrats are taking YOUR money and giving it to THOSE people.” For many of these post 1964 Republicans, the issue is not economic, but cultural. I don’t think Regan was himself racist, but he definitely appealed to racism to win nomination and election. I watched Republicans do this in my home state of California as I came of age, and I suffered for it.

    It was a defining time for me, and a probable cause of my current liberal beliefs. More recently, they’ve taken to bashing the gays, but it still plays on that same fear of the other. To some extent, the recent AZ immigration law probably falls under this category. The fact that it is an open question whether illegal immigrants are on the whole bad or good for the Arizona economy is immaterial to the need to make this cultural hill the one to die on for supporters of the law.

    Going back to what you were saying about libertarianism and hypotheticals, it was mainly that reason I feel that the philosophy is unsuited for governance. The second it jumps off paper into the real world, it runs into some very serious roadblocks. Even given the difficulty, as you say, of untangling, as you say, “the government-sanctioned and state-sponsored racism from the private kind” Rand Paul still seemed ready to say that passing the CRA in 1964 was something he would not have supported.

    Paul is probably still the favorite, and whether he intended it or not, the optics of this issue may actually help him more than hurt him with the dog whistle politics of race in a state like Kentucky. That said, I don’t think it is a problem for this to be a defining issue of the campaign, because it neatly shows the priorities of his philosophy: personal freedom always, always, trumps society.

    And this may be a bit of elitism, but I think voters should get to decide how to vote based on whatever criteria is important to them, not matter how stupid it is or they are.
    – Ian


    May 21, 2010 at 13:24

  5. I’m pretty much stuck being a hypocrite, no matter which side of this I take, because I believe gay marriage should be legalized and enforced by law.

    If we lived in a perfect libertarian utopia, where marriage was strictly a private matter, with no legal requirements or tax breaks connected to it, it wouldn’t matter. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a real world where marriage is a political issue and the concept of marriage is defined by the state.

    With those preconditions in place, the morality of treating people fairly trumps my distaste for regulation and I end up supporting a law.

    And yes, 1964 may be over, but racism is alive and well. We probably disagree about the magnitude of it. I see a country that is deeply ashamed of its past, a country that is desperate to prove that it’s NOT racist anymore.

    That was a big part of Obama’s appeal, not just to hardcore Democrats, but to a broad majority of Americans.

    During the campaign I was picking out examples of “Rednecks for Obama” — white Southern voters posing with Obama/Biden posters because they wanted to fix the economy, support the middle class and end these ridiculous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Are Republicans using racism as a political weapon? Is the Tea Party appealing to “stealth racists” who are outraged by Obama?

    Of course it’s happening, but to what degree? Sometimes it feels like America is hosting a quiet, cold war — a collection of overlapping tribes, paying lip service to the idea of equality but secretly reveling in the idea of Us vs. Them.

    I also know a lot of Texans with accents, guns and pickup trucks who would have been proud to vote for Alan Keyes or Colin Powell. There’s a black Republican president in our future, with Hispanic, Indian, and female candidates lined up right behind him.

    These candidates won’t “solve anything” any more than Obama did, but Republicans are tired of wearing this label. They might nominate a minority candidate just to change the subject.

    Michael Duff

    May 21, 2010 at 14:51

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