Thursday, May 20, 2010

 

An A-Pauling View on Civil Rights

Memo to Republicans:  Stop rehashing "civil" matters.  


How wonderfully ironic that two of the freshest new faces on the GOP scene both managed to trip themselves on age-old "civil" issues. Last month, new Virginia Gov. Bob MacDonnell made an unforced error by issuing a proclamation to recognize April as Confederate History Month -- that didn't mention slavery.  


Now, Rand Paul, fresh from a great primary victory in Kentucky decides to double-down on previously-written opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He explored his views on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Sorry, but it was appalling (and no, my conservative friends, this could hardly be called a "gotcha" interview). 


If GOP candidates from southern and "border" states (how weird it is to use that phrase in 2010 not in the context of Mexico and immigration) really want to present themselves as ready to lead this country in the 21st century, re-arguing and re-litigating 50- and 150-year-old American history isn't really the best way to go.  Especially when it touches on the nation's awkward attempts to expiate its original sin.   


I have a great deal of respect for the Senate nominee's father, Ron Paul.  His views on economics (which some might call "obscure") are actually insightful and gaining traction.  He also has an important perspective to be heard in foreign affairs.  But it is the height of stupidity to decry the "private property" implications of the Civil Rights Act (as he did on Meet The Press three years ago), when a major goal of the legislation was to overturn state laws that overwhelmingly restrained the economic advancement of a group of people who were once classified as private property.  


Republicans -- whether one calls oneself conservative, libertarian, free-market -- shouldn't have philosophical opposition to the basic goals of the Civil Rights Act (hell, the bill passed because of Republican votes!)  It's perfectly fine for contemporary fans of Barry Goldwater to say that the man was wrong to oppose the CRA -- whether on philosophical or political ("hunting where the ducks are") grounds.  It's fine to say that the Civil Rights Act has been too broadly interpreted in the decades since.  But, the 1964 Act and the Voting Rights Act which followed in 1965 were designed to overturn geographic apartheid in parts of this country.  


The Pauls seem to concede to the validity of the Act's overturning of discrimination in public settings, such as transportation.  But why aren't they -- as libertarians -- outraged that Jim Crow laws themselves infringed on private property and free exchange of goods?  Jim Crow said whites and blacks couldn't eat together or live in the same hotels. If you were a white restaurant owner and wanted to serve blacks, you could be shut down. Once again, Jim Crow prevented whites and blacks from engaging in a basic economic relationship. That is the power of the state at its worst. And Rand Paul calls such a reality "obscure"? 
This, by the way, speaks to something that an  astute and philosophically honest libertarian, David Boaz, has noted:  There never was a golden age of lost liberty in the United States: 

The Cato Institute's boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, "Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded." Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn't seem quite that way to black people.
And he was right. American public policy has changed in many ways since the American Revolution, sometimes in a libertarian direction, sometimes not.
It's one thing for conservatives to regularly force a reconsideration of major economic issues.  It's legitimate to wonder if every part of the New Deal -- or Great Society -- should stay in place.  But dismissing the Civil Rights Act -- without at least recognizing that the pre-Act status quo ante was an obscene era for freedom in the United States that required some sort of federal action -- is intellectually immoral and politically stupid.   


UPDATE: Rand Paul stated today that the Civil Rights Act is "settled" law and "unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Well, that's a relief.  However, Paul still avoids the major problem.  He says, "I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere."   However, as said above, Jim Crow also prevented private property owners from engaging in economic activity between the races.  It's not just a "public sphere." That a libertarian would stumble over something as basic as this is problematic, to say the least. 

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