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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In defense of Rand Paul

Republican U.S. Senate candidate
Rand Paul. (c) AP.
How we treat those of a different ethnicity from ourselves is an important ethical (and thus spiritual and philosophic) matter. This is true whether we are talking about how we act as individuals or how we act as a society. It is also important how we treat others with whom we disagree. Therefore, I view the following as relevant to this column, even though it touches on politics...

As many know by now, Rand Paul (current candidate for U.S. Senator for Kentucky and son of famous Libertarian Congressman Ron Paul) has been under fire recently for his comments about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, both in an NPR interview and again on MSNBC, which also brought up his position on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The reaction has even recently lead the Kentucky legislature to pass a resolution declaring discrimination to be inconsistent with American values.

The general impression is that he doesn't believe there should be laws against discrimination. That's the 8-word summary that has bubbled to the top in the boggled stew of media reports and public understanding. That simple summary sounds pretty bad, and leaves one wondering about Paul's racial beliefs.

Before I make my clarifications and points in his defense, let me identify myself for those who might be new readers. I am about the last person on the planet you might expect to defend Rand Paul, Libertarians, or Republican candidates. While I am socially liberal, I am not an economic socialist by any means. I generally fall very much central on the capitalist/socialist spectrum. That means I believe in free markets, but also believe in some healthy but minimal degree of regulation. As such, I not only view socialism as dysfunctional and unethical, but I also view the kind of complete laissez-faire capitalism espoused by Libertarianism as unrealistic, logically misguided, and morally deficient as well.

As for Republicans, I share some of their economic policies, and have voted for moderate Republicans in the past, but now I generally consider the party harmful for the country overall, and would have a very difficult time voting for one. Meanwhile I find the Tea Party movement to be quite uninformed politically and economically - and while populated by many good and well meaning people, to unfortunately be unduly influenced by racially motivated and conspiracy theory motivated fringe elements.

I am also a Humanist (a Humanist minister actually), which means that I consider all of humanity one family, and equal in dignity, worth, and fellowship - regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religious belief, etc. I would say that principle is central to who I am as a person. And, yes, it includes all those brothers and sisters mentioned above, with which I disagree.

However, above all of that I am firstly concerned with truth and its offspring: honesty, fairness, and accuracy.

Is it possible that Rand Paul is a racist? Sure it is. We don't know his mind. But the fact is we don't really have evidence of such a thing. In fact, when you look more closely at what he's said, there isn't even good reason to suspect it as a likelihood greater than any other randomly selected person. Racism is a powerful charge to throw around and no thoughtful and moral person should do so lightly.

Paraphrasing from NPR transcripts, what Rand Paul actually said in substance, was:

1) I abhor racism.

2) It's also a bad business decision to ever exclude anyone from your business.

3) I would never go to a business that discriminates.

4) I'm for anything that ends public institutional racism (meaning it should be illegal for the government to discriminate).

5) I believe in local solutions to rights issues when it comes to private businesses (he used the example of letting a 2-story business give a disabled person an office on the first floor rather than requiring them to buy an excessively expensive special elevator).

6) I'm therefore for most of the Civil Rights Act (9 out of 10 parts) but against the one which tells private business owners who they must serve. A free society has an obligation to tolerate some boorish and uncivilized behaviors when it comes to private property. If we do not tolerate this, it may establish a precedent whereby the federal government imposes itself into our private property matters far more than it should. In that regard, the issue is similar to free speech and its requirement that we tolerate speech with which we do not agree.

Paul's position here is consistent within his overall philosophy. He is opposed to limiting individual freedoms, even if that means people will sometimes be bad to one another. From other things he and Libertarians have said, it would be safe to say that he would believe in government intervention when it comes to active harm being done by a business, such as theft, assault, forced labor, and so on.

It's clear that Paul is thinking of a private business like a home. A person owns a building and whether they live in it or decide to sell bread out of it, it's their property - and an individual should have the right to say who comes onto their property or who they do business with for any reason. If they are jerks, so the argument goes, then people will not do business with them and they'll go out of business. But in any case, whether they do or not, the freedom to make those choices is worth some people making bad ones.

A good way to get inside Paul's head here is to think about something we all consider bad, but which is currently not illegal. Take lying for example. Lying can sometimes veer into defamation, fraud, etc - but let's just stick with plain lying, such as when a person tells another person they're great at bowling so they'll let them come to the team's amateur bowling nights - or, perhaps when a person lies to make themselves seem more impressive to a member of the opposite sex. These and many other forms of lying are certainly not illegal, but they are something most would understand to be rude, immoral, and when done habitually, sociopathic behavior. A person who regularly lies can be shunned by others, but the police aren't likely to show up at their door and they're not likely to face legal troubles unless they do it during a business or contractual matter.

Should lying be illegal? Given that enforcement would require a huge bureaucracy and expense, and that it would create a veritable police state given the amount of oversight and intrusion necessary to police it, most people would agree it should not be illegal. But does that mean those people are liars or that they condone lying? Certainly not. Many of them are honest people who abhor deceptive behavior, and yet they believe these things are better handled through social pressures and the like, rather than through law enforcement.

Likewise, Rand Paul's stated position is similar regarding private citizens excluding various people from their business property. That doesn't mean he's a racist, or that he even condones racism. It just means he believes it should be dealt with in other ways than through federal law.

Assaults from liberals and political opponents

Those who are distorting his words, or framing his position to sound as though he is a racist or in favor of racism are acting immorally. Either they are reacting out of a well justified but misplaced anger regarding racism, or they are cunningly using the event for political gain. In some cases, there were simply mistyped transcripts, but on closer inspection the actual meaning of his position was not altered, such as when MSNBC recently inserted a 'yes' into one of his answers (which did accurately reflect his position although he didn't say that word at that spot). Pouncing on words and blowing them out of proportion was done, and is done often by Republicans against Democrats too, and it happens everywhere in the political landscape. Having said that, Paul's position can be squarely condemned for what it actually is, without the need to distort it or cast him as a racist.

Why Rand Paul's position is wrong

I believe I've fairly summarized Paul's position on this matter above. Perhaps too well, as many readers may be thinking it makes a lot of sense. I hope they keep reading, because it doesn't. Paul's position seems to make sense at a glance, but it is ultimately dangerous, logically unsound, and unethical; well-meaning though he may be.

The fact is, we are not stuck with merely two options: extreme unregulated capitalism or pure socialism. It may be fine to describe these philosophies in a textbook for the sake of having a mental model, but in reality neither function very well to give us a livable and tolerable world. We must balance the two in a sensible manner, and that kind of balance requires that we balance different principles against one another, based on the relative value we place on them. Libertarians imagine such mingling to create philosophically inconsistent models, but this is only so because of where they place ultimate value, and to what purpose they imagine cooperative activity to have.

Enforcing non-discrimination in places of business does not, in fact, require the same level of intrusiveness and bureaucracy as would laws against everyday lying. Furthermore, the relative harm of each is disproportionate, making our tolerance for the cost of each different. And that's a big part of the fundamental problem with Libertarianism - it's lack of proportionality, gradation, and subtlety when dealing with the relative value and weighing of principles, which leads to the extremity and lunacy of many of its conclusions. It speaks emphatically of the right to property - a good principle, but not the only principle nor a principle unmatched by any other.

In his interview on MSNBC, he continually refuses to answer the question directly, "Should a business be allowed to put up a sign saying 'no blacks' and not serve black people?" Rather, he instead returns to his statement that he does not condone or believe in discriminating. But even assuming he is honest here, his personal opinion on the matter is not enough. This is a man who is running for an office responsible for creating laws. We need to know whether he believes there should be a law, not whether he personally agrees with any particular behavior. It is simply an insufficient answer that he does not agree with racism personally.

He does frequently refer to being for laws barring "institutional racism", and by that he means where public facilities and policies are concerned. But that position underscores and important defect in his worldview. By implication, he thus does not view corporations or businesses as 'institutions'. Businesses are institutions, and when they practice racism, that too is institutional racism. This is an important point because private businesses make up our landscape whenever we venture forth from our homes and residential neighborhoods. That is the crucial difference between a private business and a private home that Rand does not appreciate, and why looking at the two as synonymous creates problems. Since the government only interfaces with us occasionally, and since we don't often go out into the wilderness unless camping, and since our homes are sheltered away from the world - that leaves businesses; whether we are frequenting them as customers or working for them. What businesses do is perhaps the most central issue effecting what kind of world we build.

Yes, businesses are privately owned. But the difference from a home is that you have decided to provide a service to the public. A privately-owned, but publicly-serving institution has been created. As such, you are choosing to become a part of the social landscape, and what you do as a business owner contributes to the world in which most of us spend most of our lives. Thus Paul has failed to appreciate the immense impact of business behavior on our world.

Paul also neglects to appreciate the real threat of such business behaviors, both in terms of its likelihood of happening, and its impact on those effected. In both the NPR interview and the MSNBC interview, he refers to the issue of business discrimination as an "obscure" or "abstract" issue from the past. It is neither. It is a real possibility, and probability in many areas of the country. The potential of businesses to dominate a landscape and informally conspire together to do things they shouldn't happens in other matters, and is another commonly under-appreciated phenomena by the Libertarians. It is quite probable, dare I say inevitable, that many places dominated by one group (race, religion, orientation, or even political party, etc) could and would decide to serve only their kind. This is not mere "free speech" but instead restricts what another person can do, where they can go, where they can work, and even with whom they can practically associate. Unlike restricting strangers from your home, these restrictions apply to a space that has been designed to otherwise serve the public.

One also gets the impression that in Paul's mind, were this to happen it would merely be a case of the would-be customer thinking, "Boy, those guys are jerks" and having to go somewhere else. While the analogy of lying was mine, Paul uses the analogy of businesses being able to tell those carrying guns they may not enter with them. He is trying to make the point that if we consider businesses private, then both conclusions will follow, that we cannot stop the owner from deciding who or what comes on his property. On the other hand, if we treat them as public in one case, we must in all. Yet, these folks can leave behind their guns for a brief period when on another's property. One cannot so easily leave behind their race, religion, orientation, or disability. For this reason, there is a higher social cost of treating them as private in one case than another, and a corresponding justification for treating them differently.

Paul's example suggests how lightly he takes the prospect of a business practicing discrimination. But the psychological and social impact of such business practices are substantial. They help to make a whole people into second-class citizens, which effects the way they are seen by the rest of society, and effects the way they see themselves. It is a degrading and brutal assault on the dignity of a human being, and thereby on all human beings. Such behavior also helps to stoke cross-group unfamiliarity, suspicion, animosity, hatred, and ultimately violence.

So, if a business were to deny service to a person because of their ethnicity or any other such group, it would be far worse than merely a "bad business decision" as Paul puts it. It is so offensive to the most fundamental of human social values that it deserves to be criminalized. It deserves criminalization so much that it exceeds the value of the principle of sovereignty over private property.

It's about asking ourselves, "In what kind of world do we want to live?" No, we don't want to live in a world where lying is enforced by law because of what that would mean. No, we don't want to live in a world where business owners can't tell patrons to leave their weapons outside. Yes, we do want to live in a world where discrimination by businesses is illegal. This is because the principle of not living in a segregated world is more important to us than the principle of preventing any and all forms of lying. The principle of not living in a segregated world is more important to us than the principle of being able to carry your gun into any and all businesses. Lastly, the principle of not living in a segregated world is more important to us than the principle that private business owners should be able to have any and all freedom to do whatever they like when conducting business with the public.

The relative costs to our society of allowing these various things are also vastly different. If Paul is guilty of anything it is of being out of touch, for his key error (outside of Libertarianism) is in his vast and naive underestimate of both the likelihood of businesses discriminating, and the cost to our society of allowing them to.

When businesses do something, that is very much a part of 'society', and as such the people have a right to collectively decide the limits of that behavior. Laws do more than restrict behavior and levy punishments; they help to set the tone in a society. We are under no imaginary requirement that says there must be one simple philosophic rule (such as an unquestioning allegiance to the absolute sovereignty of all private property) governing all restriction on business and that it must be applied with robotic consistency to all issues. We can be inconsistent and that's ok if it creates the kind of society in which we wish to live. It's more important to be happy and decent, than to apply all philosophic precepts with blind consistency.

We are, however, tasked to do what it takes to create the best world possible for ourselves, even if that means applying rules in different manners depending on the circumstance. We the people are allowed to pick and choose what legal restrictions are worth the costs to us as a society and which are not worth the cost to our freedom. Since 'the people' are also owners of private property themselves, we hope we will be restrained and balanced in establishing those limits. But arguments that any limits to private business beyond direct violence or theft are somehow out of bounds, or that such limits lead to the evils of socialism, fall flat. What's worse, Paul's position makes possible a great number of opposite evils.

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