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Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act: Was He Right?

Article excerpt

The controversy over Rand Paul's comments about the Civil Rights Act shows a major misunderstanding of freedom and the road to racial equality.

Fresh from his victory in last week's Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, Rand Paul found himself caught in a whirlwind when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act properly outlawed racial segregation at privately owned lunch counters. Speaking circuitously if not evasively, Mr. Paul finally said:

"[O]ne of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized. But that doesn't mean we approve of it."

So although he supports striking down segregationist state Jim Crow laws, he objected to Title II of the Act, outlawing racial discrimination in "public accommodations." "Had I been around I would have tried to modify that," he said.

However, after a torrent of media and blogospheric criticism, he changed course, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "I would have voted yes.... I think that there was an overriding problem in the South, so big that it did require federal intervention in the sixties."

Which Rand Paul had it right?

The first one. Had he known and related the full story, he could have avoided the metamorphosis.

I write as a libertarian, something Rand Paul claims not to be. The essence of the libertarian philosophy is that each person owns him- or herself and whatever belongings he or she honestly acquires. Thus individuals are due freedom of association and, logically, non- association. It also follows that the owner of property should be free to set the rules of use, the only constraint being that the owner may not use aggressive force against others.

Admittedly, that leaves room for loathsome peaceful behavior, such as running a whites-only lunch counter. Who imagined that freedom of association couldn't have its ugly side?

Nevertheless, individuals are either free to do anything peaceful or they are not. If politicians decide, we have arbitrary government. But government is force, and force is moral only in response to force.

Some champions of Title II acknowledge the opponents' consistency with the libertarian principle but suspect it is motivated by racism. Logically, that is absurd. Even if every racist invoked libertarian grounds for opposing laws mandating desegregation in private establishments, it would not follow that everyone who invokes libertarian grounds is a racist. (Southern racists were hardly libertarians; they supported government-mandated segregation.)

Libertarian opponents of Title II are also accused of being so unmoved by racial bigotry that they are blind to the importance of Title II. But there is no inconsistency in abhorring bigotry and opposing a government-based solution.

A final charge made against Title II opponents - from left and right - is that they are so obsessed with doctrinal purity that they ignore real-world consequences, abominable as those may be. The premise here is, as Maddow put it, "[U]nless it's illegal . …