Rand Paul managed to raise quite a ruckus by honestly stating his views in response to a loaded (and irrelevant) question. In the process, the left and those who pose an intellectual moderates have seized the opportunity to tee off on libertarianism and the Tea Party movement. Dale capably dismantled one such effort by the New York Times editorial board. Today, a more subtle, concern-trollish effort graces the NYT in a piece from Sam Tanenhaus:
On the surface Mr. Paul’s contradictory statements [i.e. that he dislikes the federal government intrusion into private business affairs, abhors racism, and would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act — ed. – which aren’t necessarily contradictory] might seem another instance of the trouble candidates get into when ideological consistency meets the demands of practical politics. This was the point Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, made when he said, in mild rebuke of Mr. Paul, “I hope he can separate the theoretical and the interesting and the hypothetical questions that college students debate until 2 a.m. from the actual votes we have to cast based on real legislation here.”
But Mr. Paul’s position is complicated. He has emerged as the politician most closely identified with the Tea Party movement. Its adherents are drawn to him because he has come forward as a kind of libertarian originalist, unbending in his anti-government stance. The farther he retreats from ideological purity, the more he resembles other, less attractive politicians.
In this sense, Mr. Paul’s quandary reflects the position of the Tea Partiers, whose antipathy to government, rooted in populist impatience with the major parties, implies a repudiation of politics and its capacity to effect meaningful change.
Although Tanenhaus provides a fairly non-judgmental opinion here, he is also quite clearly trying to imply a racist undertone to the Tea Party movement. At best, he is suggesting that Rand, and thus Tea Partiers, are smugly indifferent to the vagaries of racial prejudice, and all too ready to sacrifice the well-being of those who suffer most from such discrimination on the altar of libertarian purism. While it’s true that libertarians can be just as prone to fits of utopianism as any good Marxist, Tanenhaus’ conjecture relies on at least two fundamental misunderstandings: (1) that adherence to principles of liberty can only be maintained from a standpoint of ideological purity; and (2) that distrust of government intrusion equals “anti-government.”
Taking the second point first, there has been a concerted effort by the left to portray libertarians in general, and Tea Partiers specifically, as some sort of “anti-government” force. Tanenhaus attempts to support this myopic view by equating Rand’s skepticism regarding certain portions of the ’64 Act with an unbending aversion to government in toto. In turn, all those in favor of limited government, and especially those opposed to the unnecessary and unwanted expansion of federal powers witnessed in the past couple of years, are labeled as anti-government ideologues, who mistake the theoretical for the practical. Yet, in truth, the views of libertarians and the Tea Party crowd are not terribly different from those of this nation’s founders in that regard. Distrust of government, after all, was what led to the formation of a constitution that limited its powers and explicitly placed the source of all such power in the hands of the people. That is not an anti-government stance, but a pro-limited-government and pro-liberty view. Tanenhaus’ misapprehension of that fact leads to a portrayal of Rand et al. as some sort of anarchist radicals bent on destroying government. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Turning to Rand’s comments on the ’64 Act, we should all have a problem with government intrusion into our private affairs. A good argument can be made that without such intrusion the invidious racist practices targeted by the ’64 Act would have continued for quite a while, but that is simply an end-justifies-the-means argument that misses the most important reason to be skeptical of such intrusions: once government has such power it rarely, if ever, gives it up, but instead extends its reach into other areas as well. Yes, that is a “slippery slope” argument, but one that in this case is well founded in fact. Indeed, the ’64 Act itself, based on Congress’ Commerce Clause powers, serves as the perfect illustration of why the slippery slope should be minded. Since the end of the Lochner era, and the concurrent expansion of Commerce Clause power, the federal government has arrogated to itself the ability to control almost every level of your business and personal activity, right down to what you may or may not ingest, and how you can can receive health care when you get sick. Again, whether some of these results are “good” is beside the point that the means of obtaining them requires a suppression of liberty and an expansion of centralize government power. For that reason, and that reason alone, Rand is right to question the necessity of certain provisions of the ’64 Act, even if eventually he would have voted in favor of it (and leaving aside the cogent, and certainly correct, arguments that federal government had the requisite power to enact those provisions through the 13th Amendment). And, again, none of that stance make he or anyone who supports him some sort of “anti-government” radical.
In the same way, questioning invasive government powers in defense of liberty does not make one an impractical ideologue. For starters, freedom isn’t just an idea or some sort of construct; government is. Like pure oxygen, it’s rare to find in the natural order of things, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In contrast, government had to be invented from the ideas of man. Accordingly, it is not ideological to take the view that, as Justice Scalia once noted, individual liberty is the default position and government control over it must be constitutionally and specifically justified, not the other way around. Our very country was founded on this basic principle. Yet, the critics of Rand Paul, libertarians and Tea Partiers get this exactly backwards.
Moreover, just because something is practical, doesn’t warrant an eradication of individual liberty. Perhaps it is true that de facto Jim Crow would have lingered in the absence of those ’64 Act provisions preventing private discrimination. If so, then the practical application of those laws would seem to trump the individual liberty of the racists who tried to perpetuate that era. Yet, can it truly be said that the ’64 Act was responsible for bringing an end to discrimination, or since we know it still exists, its retardation? Isn’t there a much better argument to be made that Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and all those civil rights activists of the 50’s and 60’s who lent their blood, sweat and tears — and sometimes their very lives — to the cause had a much greater impact than the 88th Congress? In this sense, while the ’64 Act may have been practical in regards to expediency, was it really necessary especially in consideration of the cost to personal freedom? Even if the answer to that last question is a fully justified “Yes” (and maybe it is), raising it does not make one an ideologue impervious to the realities of life. It simply makes one a principled defender of liberty, which one can be without being a mindless utopian.
Looking at this whole issue from a broader perspective, the real problem here is a basic misunderstanding of freedom. One can love liberty and still support government. From a libertarian point of view, government is simply an ordered, less brutal means of securing to ourselves the ability to pursue freedom by donating limited powers to the governing organization. Instead of defending all property with the barrel of a gun, we look to the judicial system. Rather than depend on the will and wherewithal of individuals to defend our society from its enemies, we support a national defense. As opposed to having each and every transaction among people be subject to individual contract, we recognize the ability of legislatures to set certain standards for the conduct of society. We may disagree as to where the limits should be set on each of these governmental powers, but libertarians are fully cognizant of the fact that having some sort of governmental structure is more desirable than having none. And yet, we also unapologetically and jealously guard our freedom, ever mindful that liberty lost is rarely regained without serious strife and deadly consequences.
In short, although we may question authority, we do not seek to abolish it. While we may defend the liberty of even the most odious of individuals, that does not mean we support their anti-social behaviors. Libertarians, and all lovers of freedom, have firm, historical reasons for challenging intrusions into their lives. We do not need to be ideologues to do so, and the practical effects of that suspicion of power has led directly to the greatest expansion of wealth and prosperity for the largest number of people in history. Freedom, at times, may be ugly up close, but it is still the most beautiful thing that has ever existed, bar none. Defense thereof requires an adherence to reality, not flights of fancy.