Rand Paul’s position on the Civil Rights Act has raised questions of racism. Such questions are understandable considering the racist writings of his father, Ron Paul, and the connections by both of them to racist elements of the right wing. Rand’s position actually says far more about the fallacious thinking of many libertarians as opposed to saying anything conclusive about his racial beliefs.
Libertarians and true small government conservatives could oppose the Civil Rights Act without being at all racist due their general opposition to government action. This is the major problem with libertarianism–confusing opposition to government with liberty in all situations and denying that at times government action can be beneficial.
If we were dealing with isolated business establishments refusing to do business with African Americans then I would agree there would be no need for government action, and would hope that market forces would punish those who restricted their potential customers. The reality is that market forces did not work here, as Bruce Bartlett explained:
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.
James Joyner is another who has found justification for the Civil Rights Act, while maintaining understandable concern about further expansion of government involvement in what should be private business decisions:
There’s no question in my mind that private individuals have a right to freely associate, that telling owners of private businesses whom they must serve amounts to an unconstitutional taking, and that it’s none of the Federal government’s business, anyway. Further, in the context of 2010 America, I absolutely think that business owners ought to be able to serve whomever they damned well please — whether it’s a bar owner wishing to cater to smokers, a racist wanting to exclude blacks, or a member of a subculture wishing to carve out a place for members of said subculture to freely associate with only their kind out of purely benign purposes.
The problem, circa 1964, was that there really was not right to freely associate in this manner in much of the country. Even once state-mandated segregation was ended, the community put enormous pressure on business owners to maintain the policy. That meant that, say, a hotel owner who wished to rent rooms without regard to color really weren’t free to do so. More importantly, it meant that, say, a black traveling salesman couldn’t easily conduct his business without an in-depth knowledge of which hotels, restaurants, and other establishments catered to blacks. Otherwise, his life would be inordinately frustrating and, quite possibly, dangerous.
In such an environment, the discrimination is institutionalized and directly affecting interstate commerce. It was therefore not unreasonable for the Federal government to step in using their broad powers under the 14th Amendment. I’m still not sure parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (especially the issue in question here) or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (especially treating individual states differently from others) are strictly Constitutional. But they were necessary and proper in the context of the times.
The Civil Rights Act was a situation in which government action led to increased freedom, contrary to libertarian beliefs. A strict libertarian would be expected to oppose the Civil Rights Act out of consistency in opposing any government action. However, in the real world a very large percentage of libertarians do not strictly adhere to libertarian views in all cases. While there are some anarcho-capitalists who share the beliefs of libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, many libertarians do find exceptions where they do support government action.
Rand Paul’s position here very well could be a consequence of mindless consistency in following libertarian dogma but there are reasons he cannot easily escape being tainted with racism here unless he makes a meaningful effort to dispel this. One problem Rand Paul has is that he has already made so many compromises with libertarianism, from supporting restrictions on civil liberties to supporting using government to interfere with a woman’s right to chose to have an abortion. I would understand if a pure libertarian cold not support government intervention to stop the type of infringements on liberty which were present prior to the Civil Rights Act. It is harder to understand why Rand Paul could not make another exception when he has already compromised libertarian principles to such a great extent.
The other questions surrounding Rand Paul might be matters of guilt by association, but they do create an even greater need now for Paul to distance himself from the racist elements of the far right which he associates with. It is understandable that he would not want to disassociate himself from his father but speaking at a rally of the racist and theocratic Constitution Party in 2009 is a different matter. Regardless of whether Rand Paul has any racist feelings, there is little doubt that his public statements on the Civil Rights Act are going to lead to some expressions of support from racist groups. It will be interesting to see if Rand Paul does the right thing and refuses to associate with them and refuses their contributions. His father failed this test, losing the support of many libertarians, in contrast to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr who did have the integrity to repudiate their support.