David Bernstein

Libertarians vs. Rand Paul

A couple of months back Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy when he (briefly) indicated his opposition to Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in “public accommodations” like restaurants and hotels. The controversy was notable not only for its utterly irrelevance to any current political issue, but also for the fact that even many libertarians distanced themselves from Paul’s position. I was out of the country at the time and so didn’t get a chance to comment, but libertarian think tank the Cato Institute recently published a libertarian defense of Title II and other civil rights legislation, which got me thinking about the issue again.

Defenders of Paul’s position (and there were a few) typically made one of two arguments; one based on an appeal to principle; one based on free market economics. The first argument is the straightforwardly libertarian one that individuals have the right to dispose of their property as they see fit, and while we might not like it if a business owner refuses to serve members of a particular racial group, it is still wrong to violate his property rights by telling him he can’t do so. I don’t have much to say about this argument, except to note how incongruously unpersuasive it is to most everyone today. Libertarianism is also criticized as being absolutist, but of course there are areas in which lots of people are willing to be comparably absolutist in their defense of individual freedom. Had Paul said, for example, that he supported the right of neo-Nazis to march through the streets of Jewish neighborhoods waving swastikas, his views would have been in keeping with those of most of the intelligentsia. Yet displaying a similar solicitude when the subject involves commercial activity is viewed as borderline crankish. The reasons for this discrepancy are probably worth further reflection, but I won’t dwell on them here.

Perhaps sensing that the argument from principle is a surefire loser, others have contended that laws such as Title II weren’t really necessary to end private discrimination by businesses. According to this argument, any business that turned away a substantial number of potential customers would soon find itself out of business, and absent legal mandates segregation would simply collapse under its own weight (call it the ‘everyone’s money is the same color’ argument).

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