Friday, May 21, 2010

Libertarianism and the Limits of Ideology

Just in case you've been hiding under a rock these last couple of days, here's Rachel Maddow's interview with newly-minted Libertarian Senate Candidate Rand Paul (R-KY), son of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, in which he admits that he'd probably have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on ideological grounds (can't seem to get the video to embed).

For what it's worth, I don't think that Rand Paul is a racist. He goes to great lengths to say so, and I'm willing to believe him. He even comes across as a not unreasonable guy, who takes his beliefs seriously, even when they lead to conclusions that are difficult to defend.

And see, that's the sticky part. In the rarefied air, well separated from the dirt and grit of the real world in which we are all constrained to live, in which intellectual argument takes place, Paul's argument, and even libertarianism in general, has some merit, and he's to be respected for being willing to enunciate that he believes that business owners have a constitutional right to be racists and to discriminate against potential customers, even if he finds racism and discrimination to be personally abhorrent. On this ground at least, Paul is being intellectually consistent, which is laudable, if in this case almost wholly misguided.

There is, after all, a certain attractiveness to libertarianism. If everybody was cool, it might even be sort of viable in the real world. But everybody isn't cool. And that's where it all falls down.

According to libertarianism, the federal government doesn't or at least shouldn't have the right to interfere with a private business owner. And while racism might be an ugly throwback to a less-enlightened age (as well as just being ugly in and of itself), the progress of human civilization, left alone, will eventually overcome it, without any help and/or interference from Big Government. That's what Rand Paul will tell you (or would have, up til yesterday or so; he seems to have changed his tune once his handlers realized he wasn't ready for prime time and was committing political suicide). To Rand Paul, racism is "a bad business decision."

The problem with his argument, and with libertarianism and ideology in general, is that the rarefied atmosphere in which such intellectual arguments take place has, at best, a rather tenuous connection to the real world where laws are made and implemented. And as has been amply demonstrated over and over in recent years (and perhaps since time immemorial), when ideology trumps empiricism in the making and implementing of laws, terrible things happen (cf. the era of financial deregulation, trickle-down economics, DADT, etc). Put more bluntly, the racist's right to be racist was allowed to flower for generations, and, surprise surprise, did not self-correct, or even begin to, until Big Government stepped in and made it happen. That is simple historical fact.

Now don't get me wrong. Ideals are and can be wonderful things, and I think everybody oughtta have at least a couple of them. But as I get older, and see the world around me as it continues to unfold, what I've come to realize is that what's best is when those ideals are applied to outcomes rather than methodologies, ends rather than means. After all, you can make an intellectual argument that an American citizen ought to be able to own and carry whatever kind of firearm they desire, because they're endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and blah blah blah, but, having espoused such a position, you're on the hook when said American citizen lights up his ex-girlfriend's house because she broke up with him for being way too into his guns.

Philosophies have consequences. And no matter how pure they may seem in the realm of speculative debate, the world does not partake of this purity, and shit will happen. It may be that there is some merit to the belief that the government shouldn't have the right to tell a business owner what s/he can or can't do with regard to their business, but when the obvious real-world historical consequences are there to see that said belief caused generations of African-Americans to be hated and discriminated against for something they had no control over, you have to wonder at someone who can look at that and not go back and question whether they believe the right things or not.

1 comment:

Jed said...

I think darkies are cool. Or is it that coolies are darkies. Either way, you're cool.