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Will Rand Paul's Libertarian Views Win in Kentucky (or anywhere else)?
Rochester, NY  (May 22, 2010) -- The libertarian world view is a bit like a sunny day in Rochester: at times, in those perfect moments, there is nothing better. But just as Rochester gets its share of snow, gray skies and the occasional ice storm, reality also must intrude on libertarianism.

The Lure of Libertarianism
For those unfamiliar with libertarianism, it is a simple and elegant view of politics. Essentially, it takes a simultaneously dim and optimistic view of human nature. On the dim side, libertarians believe that government power brings out the worst in people -- it beings out the inner Nazi and the inner Nanny -- causing people to use the force of law to shape people into clones with no autonomy. On the bright side, libertarians see untapped potential in the human spirit, particularly when that spirit is allowed to pursue its self-interest. Leave people alone, let them sink or swim, and those who should swim will, those who begin to sink will have no choice but to grow stronger and learn to swim.

This simple prescription wipes away the need for a great deal of government intervention. With government out of the social service business, churches and philanthropic individuals will step forward to ensure that the vulnerable are protected -- and they will do it with greater humanity and effectiveness than government. With government out of the economy (except in the role of enforcing contracts), markets will function effectively -- removing dangerous products from the market and keeping prices low through competition. To the libertarian, there is no problem that government cannot help solve by first getting out of the way.

Theoretically, the libertarian view is intoxicating in its simplicity, well grounded in philosophy and -- perhaps best of all -- tight with respect to its internal logic. One can say this about libertarians: they are the least ambivalent, least contradictory people when it comes to political thinking and policy positions.

It is perhaps for these reasons that libertarians differ from the general population by being more educated, younger, whiter and more often, male. An interesting profile, indeed -- precisely the group that would have the least need for government protection or support, having the benefit of being the current "top of the heap" in America's social system (quit whining white males, we still rule the roost).

The Bluegrass Candidate: Dr. Rand Paul
Unfortunately for voters, libertarians seldom have the opportunity to present their views to a mass audience. Virtually no Democrats would subscribe to the libertarian philosophy and only a handful of Republicans are willing to adopt those views publicly. Why? Because there is a perception among skilled pols that libertarianism just does not command enough votes to win. Libertarians alienate liberals by staunchly defending the business world and property owners against virtually any form of regulation: if you can buy it or sell it, do so, without hindrance. Conservatives often bristle at some libertarian candidates because their anti-government consistency applies to social issues as well. For social conservatives, the libertarian commandment to keep government out of the bedroom and out of people's private lives clashes directly with other "commandments" they believe should guide American society through government action.

This has been an unfortunate circumstance, because American politics has clearly reached an ideological stalemate. Liberals are not now and will not in the forseeable future, command a majority across the country. Likewise, conservatives -- despite their delusions -- are not and have never been the dominant ideological force they believe themselves to be.

One would think the nation would be ripe for a new take on issues. Enter Dr. Rand Paul, son of former Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul. The younger Paul, in his first run for office, has scrambled the political gameboard somewhat: he garnered the support of the "Tea Party movement" (whatever the hell that is) and defeated the establishment Republican candidate for Senate, Trey Grayson. 

But no sooner had Paul declared victory than he began to get himself into trouble. Appearing on the Rachel Maddow Show, Paul struggled with Maddow's questioning about the Civil rights Act of 1964. In this sense, Paul fell into the trap that most libertarians fall into: he tried to remain true to his philosophy, knowing that, in its pure form, it requires positions that are extremely unpopular.

For example, Paul claimed to support the application of the Civil Rights Act to government. he stated very clearly that government should not discriminate in any way. But asked about the Act's application to private organizations -- specifically businesses serving the public -- Paul struggled. He condemned discrimination in any form, by any person or business. He said he would not do business with anyone who would discriminate. He said it is foolish for a business to discriminate: why exclude 30% of the US population from your pool of potential employees or customers? But does he think a business should be allowed to discriminate if it chooses to do so (foolish and reprehensible as that may be)? Paul refused to provide a direct answer.

More recently, Paul criticized President Obama for making the apparently outrageous claim that BP should pay for the costs of the Gulf oil spill. Note that Obama is not calling for punitive action or prosecution -- simply stating that BP should be held accountable for whatever costs it has incurred. This is actually entirely consistent with libertarian thought, it fits the business model that says people and organizations should exchange goods and services in a market where supply and demand meet: the market has determined the value of clean water and the cost to maintain it, BP will pay that price and then continue with its business.

But Paul was outraged that Obama even made this reasonable demand of BP. He claimed it sounded like an attack because, according to Paul, it implied that BP had no intention of paying. In other words, Paul believes not only that business should be left to act without restraint, but that it should also be given wide berth to make amends for its failings -- it is almost blasphemous to criticize anyone engaged in private enterprise (whether they deserve it or not).

With respect to the Massey coal mine accident, he claims not to be an expert, but says, basically, coal mining is dangerous and, well, shit happens. Perhaps no one is at fault. Perhaps -- but why is it that he feels the need to defend Massey when it has already surfaced that the coal mining company was cited for numerous safety violations?

Paul, like most libertarians, feels so compelled to preserve his ideological purity that he is willing to dismiss minor realities in the world to preserve his immaculate world view.

Why libertarianism will remain a minority view
Though Paul might very well win his seat in Kentucky (never underestimate the foolishness of angry voters), he does not represent a trend in American politics. Libertarianism suffers from a fatal flaw: it assumes the world follows transparent, rational systems. Paul's civil rights views seem to make sense, in theory. Why would any sane business owner discriminate? And yet, some did (and many still do in subtle and not so subtle ways -- watch how a white young person and an African American young person are treated differently in some retail stores).

The hero of libertarian adherents is Ayn Rand (note: contrary to what one might assume, Rand Paul is not named after Rand -- his given name is Randal). In her book, Atlas Shrugged, Rand tries to demonstrate that government and its acolytes are morally feeble, intellectually stagnant and predatory in their desire to stifle individual initiative. Businesspeople are their opposite: strong, vibrant -- not morally infallible, but accountable to one another through trade, and therefore at least pragmatic in their failings. The Rand world is one in which their is little nuance, complexity or contradiction: people are pure types.

But this is not the world in which most of us live. We respect business innovators and those who build their lives from nothing. But we are equally familiar with the types who did not pull themselves up by their bootstraps -- the folks who started off in a prosperous home, with a good education and a strong social network. When those types succeed, we expect nothing else, given their fortuitous start.

What Rand Paul and Ayn Rand (and others) refuse to acknowledge is that in the great race of life, people do not compete on level ground, nor do they start from the same starting line. Paul and Rand feel that to accept such a view is a recipe for disaster, because it means forcing everyone to be the same -- pulling back the people who happened to get a head start in life and pushing forward the ones who were lefty behind by a biased society. Their fears, while founded, need not cause one to deny this reality, however.

The American people have actually shown remarkable capacity to come to grips with the realities of an unfair society -- one in which people are treated differently based on superficial qualities -- and to listen to reasonable arguments to rectify those situations, one by one. True, America has still not resolved its problems around race -- despite hundreds of years of evidence that it is a significant factor affecting how Americans treat one another. But contrary to libertarian fears, there has not been, nor will there be, a totalitarian effort to punish whites or to enforce some Orwellian "race reversal" mind control.

Indeed, it is this capacity to evolve that may well doom Rand Paul's candidacy. Regarding the right of business owners to discriminate against people of their choice,he asked the question: do people really want government to tell business who they can serve and who they cannot? Paul might be shocked to find that, generally speaking, the answer is yes. Having fought or witnessed or read about the civil rights struggles in this country, Americans do believe that there are simply some things that are unacceptable: not because market efficiency demands it, but because people's own sense of morality and their belief about what this country stands for says so.

Values don't trade well in markets
What libertarians -- and many liberals -- fail to understand is that values matter to people in a way that economists find difficult to predict. The libertarian may win some attention -- and even some votes -- preaching small government. But when that small government is not protecting marriage (for conservatives) or protecting minorities from discrimination (for liberals) most people's values will cause them to turn to other candidates.

But Dr. Paul can take some solace in this: he will provoke some much-needed debate (and in Kentucky, of all places!) and maybe, just maybe, he might even encourage some future political candidates to step outside their ideological box and reach across the divide to find that there are some good ideas in all segments of the political spectrum.


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Member Opinions:
By: Terry_Schnurr on 5/24/10
Wow, Aaron, what a great article! I wish I'd written it.

I do have one quibble, though: There is some implication that the Civil rights Act of 1964 was necessary because businesses chose to discriminate. I think it's important to note that from the settlement of the Hayes-Tilden dispute in 1877 until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there was in place a patchwork of state and local laws, which we tend to call collectively Jim Crow, which required businesses to discriminate. Clearly, Jim Crow violated the same principle of libertarianism that makes the younger Dr. Paul so uneasy about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While in a simpler world it might make sense to say that government should not decide whom we do business with, it requires a remarkable obstinacy to refuse to recognize that, shall we say, affirmative action by government was necessary – and remains necessary – to undo the harm done by nine decades of malign action by government.

While Jim Crow applied mostly to African-Americans, it's also worth noting that other laws have contributed to cultural tendencies to discriminate against a panoply of other groups.

Terrence E. Schnurr
Rochester, NY


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