Posted by: N.S. Palmer | May 20, 2010

Rand Paul, Rachel Maddow, and Civil Rights

By N.S. Palmer

Rachel Maddow interviews Rand Paul

Rachel Maddow interviews U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul. Source: The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow last night interviewed Dr. Rand Paul, the recently-anointed Republican candidate for U.S. Senator from Kentucky. Like his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Rand Paul is both a medical doctor and a libertarian.

Ms. Maddow was shocked, shocked (!) to learn that Rand Paul does not support the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That tells us a couple of things.

First, it tells us that Ms. Maddow was faking her astonishment about Dr. Paul’s viewpoint. As a former Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in government from Oxford University, Ms. Maddow — make that “Dr. Maddow” — must know that opposition to civil-rights law is a standard libertarian position. Whether that position is right or wrong is not, for the moment, at issue. What is relevant is that almost all libertarians believe in it. She must have known that fact before she interviewed Dr. Paul.

Her little deception really doesn’t bother me. Dr. Maddow is a delightful, intelligent, and informed commentator. She’s also in the infotainment business, so a bit of play-acting and feigned surprise are entirely within her job description.

Second, it tells us that like most libertarians, Dr. Paul suffers from what my old teacher Paul Kurtz used to call “principle-itis.” Dr. Paul is so enamoured of abstract principles that he will follow them to the bitter end, even if it hurts people and causes injustice. He doesn’t think that he’s doing wrong: he’s just taking an ethical stand and sticking to it no matter what.

On libertarian grounds, the Civil Rights Act is indeed objectionable. Because it outlaws racial discrimination in public places, it limits how owners of private businesses can run their firms.

To most libertarians, private property rights are sacred. If a restaurant owner doesn’t want to serve black people, or a factory owner doesn’t want to hire them, then libertarians believe that the owners’ property rights trump everything else. Libertarians might disapprove of racial discrimination, as I’m sure that Dr. Paul does, but they think that people should be free to discriminate with their own property.

Where Dr. Paul goes wrong is that he elevates doctrinal purity above the welfare of actual people and above the moral quality of society. The right to control the use of one’s property is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important. It’s also important to ensure, as much as is practical, that all members of society are treated fairly and decently.

It’s true that forcing racist business owners to serve or hire black people causes them some unhappiness. But compare “some unhappiness” of racist business owners with the pervasive unhappiness of other people who have no wealth, no dignity, and no fair treatment. The moral situation is clear.

Property rights are important but not absolute. It’s not abstract principles that are most important in society, but the welfare and happiness of actual, living people. And the welfare of actual, living people is what justifies occasionally setting aside libertarian ideological purity to achieve a more just and compassionate society. That’s what Dr. Paul and other libertarians have yet to learn.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Great point. One I’ve learned on a personal level over the past 5 years or so.

    • Thanks, Jim!

      It’s the kind of thing one can’t learn out of a book, but only by living life and paying attention.

  2. I think I agree with you more than with the regular “Libertarian” standpoint (probably because I stand more with the “Constitutionalists” than anybody…not the party though, but anyway). The Constitution was supposed to keep everybody’s rights safe, not just some people’s. The government was intended to serve all people, not just white land-owning males. It’s a fine line to walk- where do we draw the line between private property being sacrosanct and government getting too involved- but I do think that the Civil Rights act established a good rule for that time.

    Of course, now is an entirely different matter. I think the Civil Rights Act could quite safely be repealed- along with “affirmative action” legislation. ^.^

    • Hi, Liberty —

      Thanks. Part of the problem is that “affirmative action” directly contradicts the intent of the Civil Rights Act, which was to forbid discrimination on racial grounds.

      Affirmative action (now renamed “diversity”) mandates discrimination against people who are not black, female, or members of other official-victim groups. As a result, there is a lot of confusion and disagreement about its relationship to the Civil Rights Act.

      Affirmative-action or diversity discrimination treats “non-diverse” people unjustly but can sometimes help correct a greater injustice. See my blog article “Tales from Trucksylvania.

  3. As a libertarian, I am less concerned about the violation of property rights (which, yes, I do support on principle) than the inculcation of the idea that people owe every bit of their freedom and equality to federal legislation. Maddow said in the interview (and unfortunately, Paul agreed) that without the act “nothing” could be done about discrimination. Oh really? Doesn’t this invalidate nearly all civil rights activism before the bill passed?

    • You make an excellent point. Law helps to shape society and people’s attitudes, but it’s not the only thing that does so. The reason that civil rights legislation was accepted by most people is that decades of activism had changed people’s attitudes somewhat. Radio shows and movies, for example, made a point of showing black Americans simply as Americans, not as an alien or inferior group. That was a positive thing. Today, of course, popular entertainment presents images of animalistic behavior and thuggery, thereby lowering people’s standards for their own behavior in ways that law cannot remedy.

      Maddow is smart, but she’s an advocate and she has a viewpoint. As a result, she sometimes over-simplifies issues and engages in emotional attacks.

  4. And here is an excellent response addressing how libertarians would deal with discrimination without government.

    • You recommended a good article by Sheldon Richman, who I know, in The Freeman, for which I’ve written. I no longer agree with that viewpoint, but I understand it and I know good people who believe in it.

      Fundamental moral and political intuitions are very difficult to debate. Given a shared set of premises, one may easily argue about whether or not the law should allow business owners to discriminate on racial grounds. But if premises themselves are at issue (e.g., which is more important: following abstract principles or maximizing human happiness?), the debate is elusive because the issues are so fundamental. At a certain level, you make an existential choice to go either this way or that, and there’s not much more to be said about it.

      • “Fundamental moral and political intuitions are very difficult to debate.” Yes, this is a problem, especially in America where we seem to be allergic to radicalism of any kind. We come to certain agreements about the basic framework upon which the status quo will be erected, then the debate can take place between the acceptable right and the acceptable left. Anything which questions the framework is, a priori, beyond the pale.

        If I did share the premise that the state was legitimate, I would be on the left side of the debate.

        But I have a basic problem with the supposed trade-off between principles and consequences. Without being able to defend it at the moment, I believe correct principles yield positive consequences.

      • You’re quite right about Americans’ allergy to radicalism, but the difficulty of debating fundamental premises is more, well, fundamental.

        When we argue in support of an idea, we typically adduce other principles or facts to support it. But when an idea is fundamental, that means it doesn’t depend (at least not directly) on other principles or facts. You either see it or you don’t. For example, if I asked you to prove that A=A, what could you say? Not much. It’s a fundamental idea, and if someone doesn’t see it, your options are limited. You can present examples. You can try to show that the person implicitly accepts the principle in some of his other beliefs. You can show that rejecting the principle leads to conclusions that the other person doesn’t accept. But at the end of the day, it comes down to intuition: Does the person see it, or not?

        That’s why moral and political arguments use logic, but at their root, they are primarily persuasive: “I like this vision of human conduct and human society. Here are some reasons why you should like it, too.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: