If we use “gaffe” in its proper, Kinsleyan form, that’s what U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul issued to NPR yesterday, and that’s what he defended on Rachel Maddow’s show last night. He told the truth about his stance on the Civil Rights Act. I’ve posted the video and transcript below the fold, because I find it fascinating to watch Paul stand by his philosophical and legal stance and refuse to dissemble in a way that would, you know, get people to stop accusing him of some archaic form of racism. It reminds me of the way his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), stuck by his belief that the Civil War didn’t need to be fought even when he appeared on “Meet the Press.” The stakes were lower for Ron Paul, though — he stood no chance of winning the GOP’s presidential nomination, while Rand Paul stands a good chance of being elected to Senate.
So is Rand Paul a racist? No, and it’s irritating to watch his out-of-context quotes — this and a comment about how golf was no longer for elitists because Tiger Woods plays golf — splashed on the Web to make that point. Paul believes, as many conservatives believe, that the government should ban bias in all of its institutions but cannot intervene in the policies of private businesses. Those businesses, as Paul argues, take a risk by maintaining, in this example, racist policies. Patrons can decide whether or not to give them their money, or whether or not to make a fuss about their policies. That, not government regulation and intervention, is how bias should be eliminated in the private sector. And in this belief Paul is joined by some conservatives who resent that liberals seek government intervention for every unequal outcome.
Damon Root at Reason:
Of course, Paul was pretty clear that he supports the federal desegregation of public schools and the federal enforcement of voting rights, as well as most of the other provisions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so it’s unlikely we’ll see any wholesale re-segregating if his “world view” ever reaches the commanding heights. Maddow can rest easy.
But this controversy does raise the very important topic of the government’s central role in American racism. First and foremost, Jim Crow was a legal regime, one that relied on state and local laws to restrict the political, social, and economic liberty of African Americans. Those laws interfered with the right to vote, to acquire property, to contract, to travel, to associate, to marry, and to keep and bear arms. Under the 14th Amendment, state and local governments are forbidden from violating such rights. Yet as we all know, the courts only selectively enforced the 14th Amendment during the Jim Crow era. Indeed, the Supreme Court has yet to enforce the 14th Amendment when it comes to gun rights. But none of that changes the fact that we’re talking primarily about state action, not about some failure of the free market.
It’s also important to acknowledge that economic rights are not in some inherent conflict with civil rights. In fact, we have significant historical evidence showing that legally enforced property rights (and other forms of economic liberty) actually undermined the Jim Crow regime. Most famously, the NAACP won its first Supreme Court victory in 1917 by arguing that a residential segregation law was a racist interference with property rights under the 14th Amendment.
Finally, keep in mind that Plessy v. Ferguson, the notorious 1896 Supreme Court decision that enshrined “separate but equal” into law and become a symbol of the Jim Crow era, dealt with a Louisiana law that forbid railroad companies from selling first-class tickets to blacks. That’s not a market failure, it’s a racist government assault on economic liberty.
A few years ago, I was at a conference with libertarians, and I was confronted with exactly this point of view. I expressed my concern that they were putting an extreme and abstract idea above things that really matter in the world. I challenged them — in what I thought was a friendly conversation — to explain to me how I could know that their commitment to the extreme abstraction did not, in fact, have an origin in racism. Which came first, the proud defense of private property or the shameful prejudices that polite people don’t admit to anymore?
For raising the subject, I was loudly denounced, both at the dinner table table, and on the Reason Magazine website. As I said at the time:
I am struck — you may think it is absurd for me to be suddenly struck by this — but I am struck by how deeply and seriously libertarians and conservatives believe in their ideas. I’m used to the way lefties and liberals take themselves seriously and how deeply they believe. Me, I find true believers strange and — if they have power — frightening.I appreciate libertarians up to a point, but the extreme ones are missing something that is needed if you are to be trusted with power. I’m glad Rand Paul is on the scene, but I’m going to hold him to his own statements, and it is plain to me that Allahpundit has misunderstood or misrepresented what he said. I’m certainly not saying he’s a racist, but he seems to support a legal position that would place racist private businesses beyond the power of anti-discrimination statutes.
Daniel Foster at The Corner:
There is something unusual happening in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse as I write. In response to Rand Paul’s problematic take on federal authority and racial segregation, self-avowed libertarians like Washington Post’s Dave Weigel and The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle are falling all over themselves to say things like “for the record, I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act.”
Well, of course you would have. De jure racism is an evil. I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act too. And while we’re at it I would have never signed off on the Corrupt Bargain that ended Reconstruction by installing Rutherford B. Hayes in the Presidency. Better yet, I would have killed John Wilkes Booth during one of his early performances of Richard III or vacated the appointment of Roger B. Taney to the Supreme Court.
But at the end of the day, isn’t this counterfactual game sort of pointless? There is certainly a “correct” answer to all these historical questions — side with the angels on every significant civil rights debate since the founding — but that’s not the same as the thoughtful answer.
See, as far as I’m concerned, the whole point of asking historical counterfactuals is that our distance from the events gives us an opportunity to test our principles against the data in a context that isn’t clouded by the preoccupations of our own time and place. I think that’s what Rand Paul was trying to do when he talked about the Civil Rights era and the reach of the government — though he bungled the job to be sure. But liberals and progressives like Matt Yglesias, who think that Paul is at best stupid and at worst evil for using the abstractions of libertarian theory to justify the great historical crime of segregation are missing the point that the whole exercise is an abstraction, and one that doesn’t map neatly to current policy debates. In other words, my opinion that the Three-Fifths Compromise and the 1808 stuff in the Constitution were probably justified, because forging a union was worth a temporary compromise on slavery, does not mean that I’d rather there have been slavery. Just as my belief that the conspirators in the Roman Senate were wrong to assassinate Caesar doesn’t mean that I support dictatorship.
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.
Sadly, it took the Supreme Court more than 50 years after Plessy before it began to undo its mistake in Brown. This led to repeated efforts by the Eisenhower administration to enact civil rights legislation, which was opposed and gutted by Senate Democrats led by Lyndon Johnson. But by 1964, it was clear to Johnson that the tide had turned. The federal courts were moving to dismantle segregation to the extent they could, and the 1963 March on Washington, the murder and beating of civil rights demonstrators in the South and growing awareness of such atrocities changed the political climate and made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible–despite the filibuster against it by Senator Robert C. Byrd, who still serves in the Senate today.
If Rand Paul were saying that he agrees with the Goldwater-Rehnquist-Bork view that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional and that the Supreme Court was wrong to subsequently find it constitutional, that would be an eccentric but defensible position. If he were saying that the Civil Rights Act were no longer necessary because of the great strides we have made as a country in eradicating racism, that would also be defensible. But Rand’s position is that it was wrong in principle in 1964. There is no other way of interpreting this except as an endorsement of all the things the Civil Rights Act was designed to prohibit, as favoring the status quo throughout the South that would have led to a continuation of segregation and discrimination against African Americans at least for many more years. Undoubtedly, changing mores would have broken down some of this over time, but there is no reason to believe that it would have been quick or that vestiges wouldn’t still remain today. Indeed, vestiges remain despite the Civil Rights Act.
I don’t believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians. They believe that freedom consists of one thing and one thing only–freedom from governmental constraint. Therefore, it is illogical to them that any increase in government power could ever expand freedom. Yet it is clear that African Americans were far from free in 1964 and that the Civil Rights Act greatly expanded their freedom while diminishing that of racists. To defend the rights of racists to discriminate is reprehensible and especially so when it is done by a major party nominee for the U.S. Senate. I believe that Rand should admit that he was wrong as quickly as possible.
What’s most troubling about this interview is not that Paul opposes a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s that it’s clear Paul hasn’t thought much about his position. Lacking a rigorous intellectual framework for his opposition, Paul is wobbly on defense. So what you see, in the main, is Paul trying to change the subject–at one point, I think he actually asks (rhetorically), “Am I a bad person?”
But Paul never settles down and to make the argument. Rachel Maddow repeatedly raises lunch counters, and it would have really pleased me if Paul had just made the case for private sector discrimination. Frankly, I can see the outlines of the argument and am not totally unsympathetic to it. Indeed, I think there’s a beautiful justice that’s visited upon the random politician who, to this very day, is routinely exposed as belonging to a white country club. There’s a kind of social sanction in that embarrassment that I don’t think the law can bring. (That said, I trust the people who were actually there more than my own abstract theorizing.)
But what about red-lining? Does Paul know anything about blockbusting? Does he think banks should be able to have a policy of not lending to black businesses? Does he think real-estate agents should be able to discriminate? Does he think private homeowner groups should be able to band together and keep out blacks? Jews? Gays? Latinos?
I think there’s this sense that it’s OK to be ignorant about the Civil Rights Act because it’s a “black issue.” I’m not a lawyer, but my sense is that for a senator to be ignorant of the Civil Rights Act, is not simply to be ignorant of a “black issue,” but to be ignorant of one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed. This isn’t like not knowing the days of Kwanzaa, this is like not knowing what caused the Civil War. It’s just embarrassing–except Paul is too ignorant to be embarrassed.
Paul’s defense of himself is that his take on the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with race and so he is not a racist. But by the same token, the fact that Paul’s view on the Civil Rights Act is so dominated by his libertarian ideology that he cannot even admit race and segregation into the calculus is exactly why this is relevant to Paul’s candidacy, why it’s an issue and why it’s among the best evidence we have in understanding how he’ll vote on legislation that comes before him. If this isn’t about race, then it is about all questions relating to federal regulation of private enterprise. As a senator, Paul will be faced with that question frequently. And his views on it are clearly very, very far from the mainstream.
Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs:
On the Laura Ingraham show this morning, Rand Paul decided to announce: “Yes, I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act.” (You have to wonder why he couldn’t answer “yes” last night when Rachel Maddow repeatedly asked this very question.)
“These are settled issues in the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “I have no intention of bringing up anything related to the Civil Rights Act… I think [segregation] is sort of a stain and blight on our history — so, no, I have never really favored any change in the Civil Rights Act or any of that. But they have seemed to unleash the loony left on me.”
“Sort of a stain?” Is there some question about this?
Paul also says his appearance on the Maddow show was a “mistake,” which is indisputably true, and says he does not favor repealing theCivil Rights Act, which no one accused him of.
Notice, however, that even when he’s trying to walk back his disastrous statements, he still slips in those little weasel phrases that make the far right’s hearts rejoice.
Second, the Paul campaign issued a statement shortly before noon stating the following:
“Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.”
“As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years.”
“My opponent’s statement on MSNBC Wednesday that I favor repeal of the Civil Rights Act was irresponsible and knowingly false. I hope he will correct the record and retract his claims.”
That, quite honestly, should be the end of this entire episode. Opponents will continue to bring the matter up, of course, but the only responsible answer should be to refer them back to these statements and say that the the campaign considers the matters closed.
Welcome to the world of big time politics, Dr. Paul.
David Frum at FrumForum:
The Democrats and President Obama faced a huge negative in this election cycle: the failure of their economic policy to deliver positive results to date for young people and minorities, who so enthusiastically voted for them in 2008. Unemployment translates into voter demoralization and demobilization. Many have suspected that the Obama administration has raised the immigration issue now – not with a view actually to enacting a measure – but in hopes of entrapping Republicans into saying something that might rev Latino anger. I participated recently in a political panel at which a Democratic strategist said, “We don’t have a hero on the ballot this year. So let’s give our people a villain instead.”
Thus far, Democratic efforts to create a vote-enhancing villain had failed. Now Rand Paul has contrived to volunteer himself. It’s as if his mission had been to walk across an empty room without tripping. Instead, he stepped out of the room, rummaged through a hall closet, found a vacuum cleaner, plugged it in, extended the wire, took a dozen steps backward, and then raced forward to catch his ankle, plunge face forward and break his nose. As unforced errors go, this may be one of the most impressively self-destroying in recent U.S. electoral history.
As a libertarian, Rand is likely in favor of the right of suicide. But thanks to him, the damage will now be felt by others too, who will now be called upon to explain where they stand on every fruitbat idea ever aired in back issues of the Ron Paul newsletter.
UPDATE: Julian Sanchez at Newsweek
Byron Tau at AOL
Joshua Green at The Atlantic
UPDATE #2: Ross Douthat
Peter Wehner at Commentary
UPDATE #3: Douthat responds to Larison
Larison responds to Douthat
Joan Walsh and Dave Weigel at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #4: Douthat responds to Larison
Weigel on Friedersdorf
UPDATE #5: Jacob Sullum at Reason
More Julian Sanchez
UPDATE #6: Joshua Cohen and Brink Lindsey at Bloggingheads