Rachel Maddow cornered Rand Paul on the subject of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the strangest thing happened. He turned into a politician before our very eyes. This champion of the truth-telling Tea Partiers waffled and dodged like the most seasoned of pols. You half expected him to say, “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
Mr. Paul’s difficulty is this. His libertarian ethic leads him to believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was mistaken insofar as it ordered private businesses to not discriminate. He applauded those sections of the law that forbid the government from discriminating but he equivocated on the section of the law that required private establishments to desegregate. Maddow tried to corner him into a “yes” or “no” on whether or not he supports that aspect of the landmark law, but he refused to answer. He said that liberals have a problem because they want to argue that restaurant owners can prevent patrons from bringing firearms into their restaurants. He brought up William Lloyd Garrison, apropos of nothing really. He began several replies to Maddow’s yes-or-no question by saying, “Well, it’s interesting….” He argued that Maddow’s question was really just a political attack designed to make him appear like a racist. Paul categorically said he opposed all forms of discrimination and racism and there is no reason to disbelieve him. But, that was not the question. The question is about the role of government in society and whether or not the federal government was right to insist that it be against the law to discriminate on the basis of race in private businesses that serve the public. He would not answer. His career as a non-politician politician lasted less than 24 hours.
Mr. Paul also has raised objections to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which has dramatically altered the possibilities open to those with disabilities in our society. He cited a practical example of why he is opposed to the law: Why should a small business owner not be permitted to merely put a disabled person’s office on the first floor rather than be forced to build an elevator so the disabled person can work on the second floor? The problem is that this practical example is false and I know so. Back in the early ‘90s, the business I managed expanded to the neighboring building, which required extensive renovations. Because of our high profile in downtown DC, we were one of the first businesses whose renovation work was done in consultation with the Justice Department for compliance with ADA. Originally, they really did want us to put in an elevator but when we showed them how the cost of this would essentially close the business, they relented. So, his example is a false one and I will be happy to come to Louisville to testify to that fact.
Mark Silk has argued that Rand Paul’s victory shows that the religious right and the libertarian Tea Partiers can happily co-exist. I am not so sure. Certainly, as Silk points out, the religious right felt duped by the establishment Republicans in Kentucky who evidently misrepresented Paul’s position on abortion to them. Paul is pro-life. But, as Silk notes, the libertarians are uniformly in favor of same sex rights, opposed to government intrusions into the bedroom, and they need to keep that quiet until after the November election if their alliance with the religious right is to hold. That might work if we did not have a two-party system, but if I were the Democratic nominee, I would be challenging Paul on the issue of same sex marriage rights in every debate and in every advertisement.
Readers know of my suspicion of libertarianism. I witnessed the damage it perpetrated on the Democratic Party which embraced its cant in an effort to defend abortion rights. It robbed the Democratic Party of its ability to articulate a moral underpinning to its agenda. It will do the same for the Republicans. Libertarians will be at war not only with the religious right on the issue of same sex unions but with the neo-con right on issues of American intervention abroad. Their minimalist view of government coheres with one strand of American political thought, our rugged individualism, but it is completely unable to accommodate the other strand in American political life, the Biblical commitment that we are our brother’s keeper. Any successful politics in this country finds ways to balance both those impulses, not to jettison the one to exalt the other.
Catholics, especially our friends over at First Things who are devoted to the examination of first things, will recognize that libertarianism is not just a bad fit with Catholic social teaching, it is an impossible fit. Two central, foundational concepts in Catholic anthropology – communion and solidarity – find no room at the libertarian inn. In the Catholic worldview, the human person is made for communion with God and other persons and solidarity expresses the social nature of our selves. In the libertarian worldview, interests may converge, but the attempt to articulate common goals to be undertaken not as a congeries of individuals but as a people, as a nation, that is a misguided project. Libertarians are wrong. They are profoundly wrong. And, in the coming months in the great state of Kentucky, it will become more and more apparent just how wrong they are.
Michael Sean Winters