Posted by Rojas @ 6:25 pm on May 26th 2010

Rand Paul and the road to Galt’s Gulch

In all the weirdness surrounding Rand Paul’s statements on Title II of The 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of the weirdest aspects of all has gone largely undiscussed.

We watched a major party candidate for a US Senate seat completely reverse his position on an issue within a period of 48 hours.

I suppose that Rand Paul’s office would deny it, if asked; they would claim that Rachel Maddow’s questions were worded confusingly or some such thing. But in point of fact, Paul reversed himself 180 degrees on the question of whether it was legitimate for the federal government to mandate public accommodations of African-Americans in 1964. At the time Maddow interviewed him, he was pretty clearly against it. Two days later, his press releases made clear that he was for it. A cynical analysis would suggest that Paul was reversing his public stance for the voters’ consumption, but this seems unlikely given that Paul continues to proudly uphold any number of other positions that the voters of Kentucky will likely find equally offensive. No, it seems more likely that Paul reviewed the historical evidence and his own ideology and, with a fresh assessment of the facts, flat-out decided he had been wrong.

Of course, no politician could possibly get away with saying such a thing in this day and age—he’d be called a “flip-flopper” and his constituency would have to confront the possibility that he might reverse himself on other issues near and dear to their own hearts. Nonetheless: Rand Paul’s experience as by far the most libertarian politician to have a real shot at the Senate in the modern area bears lessons for other libertarians as well. If Rand Paul can re-examine the application of his own libertarian ideology in the face of historical reality, then so can we. And so must we.

I have been very proud of the libertarian blogosphere’s debates on this question over the last week or so—whatever else may be said of us, nobody can ever claim we’re afraid to confront the uglier realities of our own ideology. That is not to say that everyone has come down on the same side of the issue after the re-examination. A good summary of some of the libertarian arguments in favor of Title II of The 1964 Civil Rights Act can be found here. I myself am more or less persuaded by Doug Mataconis’s case that the real libertarian error lay not in the 1964 Civil Rights Act but in the appalling reasoning of the Supreme Court in the Slaughterhouse Cases and the Civil Rights Cases to elevate states’ rights above the application of the Priviliges and Immunities Clause; hence, in a libertarian society, the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act would have been in force almost a century earlier and Jim Crow would have been strangled in its crib.

I am not aware of any libertarian within the community who is calling the scholars re-examining this issue from a libertarian perspective “traitors to the movement” or some such thing. Rather, there seems to be an emerging and unspoken consensus that things are changing for libertarians. With Rand Paul, we are for the first time looking at the prospect of wielding real power over real people—our discussions are no longer the stuff of college dorm rooms, but of the actual application or non-application of force to actual human beings. And if this prospect does not terrify us, it damned well should…indeed, if it did not, we would be unworthy to wield any such power.

It is with this reality in mind that Julian Sanchez assesses the Rand Paul lesson, and appeals for a pragmatic application of libertarian principles:

We libertarians, never burdened with an excess of governing power, have always had a utopian streak, a penchant for imagining what rich organic order would bubble up from the choices of free and equal citizens governed by a lean state enforcing a few simple rules. We tend to envision societies that, if not perfect, are at least consistently libertarian.

Unfortunately, history happened. Rules for utopia can deal with individual crimes—the mugger and the killer and the vandal—but they stumble in the face of societywide injustice. They tell us the state shouldn’t sanction the brutal enslavement or humiliating legal subordination of a people; they have less to say about what to do once we have. They tell us to respect the sanctity of the property rights that would arise as free people tamed the wilderness in John Locke’s state of nature. They have less to say about the sanctity of property built on generations of slave sweat and blood.

Libertarians need to think harder about how our principles should degrade elegantly, how they can guide us through a fallen world where the live political options seldom afford a full escape from injustice. Rand Paul’s 2.0 view (which came out during his interview with Ingraham) suggests a shift toward just this sort of approach.

The lesson which Sanchez applies to civil rights decisions is one which I would apply to applications of libertarian philosophy more generally. Paul’s initial failure here wasn’t a failure of libertarian orthodoxy; it was a failure to think reality through as completely as he should have, and to apply the principles of negative liberty accordingly.

As libertarians grow more powerful within the American political dialogue, it will become incumbent on us to apply more rigor, not less, to the application of our philosophy to real-world problems. We need thought, not dogma; the other parties already have the market on dogma cornered, anyway. We need to be particularly rigorous in thinking about the less popular applications of our ideology (legalization of synthetic drugs and other addictive substances; blackmail; elimination of the Department of Education and large sections of public education generally), because not only WILL we be questioned about these things, we SHOULD be. And if we find that the generally accepted application of our principles to these issues is not fully sound, we need to re-examine them in order to create an application that is fully congruent with liberty as human beings experience it in the real world.

And at times, this will mean doing what Rand Paul did: reversing previously publicly held positions. That kind of honesty is, or ought to be, the price of power.

Rorschach demanded that “even in the face of Armageddon” we should “never compromise”. But only a fool would mistake a rigorous analysis of the application of one’s own principles for a “compromise.” Instead, it is merely a recognition of the rule that any individual must confront at the entrance to Galt’s Gulch: “Nobody gets in here by faking reality in any way whatsoever.”

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