By N.S. Palmer
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 (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.