Ethics Dunce: Rand Paul

The demise of the Tea Party movement may well come when it actually has to put individual candidates before the electorate and the media to carry its message. At least, that is what the ascendancy of Rand Paul, now the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky after his primary victory this week, portends. Paul, before his first week as the nominee is up, has managed to expose himself as unacceptably challenged by the task of reconciling the deceptively simplistic philosophy of libertarians with real world ethics. Specifically, he has declared that he does not support the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s requirement that private businesses  serve all members of the public, irrespective of race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation. This position Rand haltingly clung to despite withering interviews on National Public Radio and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. You can see the latter, in two parts, here and here. Ideologues often look ridiculous when they stick to abstract principles in the face of circumstances where the principles cause harm, and this is what befalls Paul.  It is obvious, or should be, that allowing bigoted proprietors to refuse to serve the needs of minority groups would permanently stigmatize classes of Americans, burden them with second-class status, embolden further discriminatory practices and attitudes, and make life unconscionably difficult for law-abiding citizens simply because they are the “wrong” color, creed, or have other disfavored characteristics. Yet Paul stubbornly insisted to both NPR and Maddow that the individual’s right to serve whoever he chooses in his own business should be respected above the need for an equal, fair and just society—even though only such a society is consistent with core American values.  Knowing this argument is untenable except as a statement of ideological purity, Paul keeps referring to the importance of First Amendment rights, as if the legal requirement that restaurants serve blacks and gays somehow is a slippery slope that must inexorably lead to government censorship of “hate speech.” It isn’t. Speech isn’t conduct. The Constitution very clearly protects speech, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it does not protect making citizens go to the next town if they want their hair done, just because all the hair dressers in town are bigots. Relax, Rand: they still have the right to be bigots. They just can’t hurt people by acting out their bigotry in certain ways. They can behave like mean-spirited jerks to African-Americans; they just can’t refuse to sell African-Americans bandages at the all-night CVS when their children are bleeding.

The problem with political extremists often isn’t that they are extreme, but that their adherence to rigid ideological rules too often lead them to absurd and unethical positions that have doctrinal consistency as their only virtue, leaving common sense, logic, fairness, respect, empathy and prudence behind. Rand Paul has this problem, and anyone who cannot see that allowing business owners to exclude bar potential customers on the basis of race would be a social and ethical disaster is unqualified to serve in the Senate, among other places.

No, I don’t think Rand Paul’s a racist. He’s an Ethics Dunce, an occupational hazard of being a Libertarian. But when a candidate supports discrimination that would have such devastating and unequal effects on minority groups and the fabric of American society, one is a s bad as the other.

The Tea Party has got to do better than this.

10 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Rand Paul

  1. Jack, I’m sorry, but all people with libertarian leanings are not ethics dunces. I don’t even believe that libertarians (or even Libertarians—“big L’s” being politically involved) are even more ethically challenged than those of other ideological persuasions.
    Full disclosure: I’m a “little L” libertarian, myself. That is, I agree with much of libertarian political thought, believe their message should be more widely heard, and wish them well. But, short of a break-up of one of the two major parties (not a likelihood in my lifetime, at least), they’ve not the proverbial snowball’s chance in the infernal regions of winning anything except the most minor of elections.
    But in my view, at least, government does two things really well; that is, grab power and redistribute income. A few things (such as police authority) it does reasonably well. Most things it does poorly or not at all, even as it pretends that it is doing something worthwhile.
    That is not, or so I believe, an unethical point of view. Others can, and do, view it as being somewhere between impractical and a recipe for disaster. They may be right. Obviously, I don’t think so, but they might be. I believe, in short, in tolerance, and hold that to be an ethical virtue.

  2. Karl: let me clarify. I believe all ideologies create ethics dunces. But libertarianism creates some of the worst.

    You didn’t address Rand’s specific point, or mine. If libertarianism dictates that the government shouldn’t stop every business in a town, including private hospitals, from refusing to serve African Americans, Asian Americans or gays, how can that be squared with basic ethical principles? A non Ethics Dunce recognizes that it can’t, and admits that there are some clear exceptions to the doctrine. A Dunce says, “I don’t care about the consequences, principles are principles.”

    Libertarians are vital ideological ballast against the Right and Left. Lock-step libertarians, however, end up arguing that the U.S. should have let Hitler kill every Jew and over-run Europe. They should be grateful if they are only called “dunces.”

  3. I’m not up to speed as much as I would like to be with Paul’s positions, but I tend to agree with your overall assessment of the Libertarian platform. America was founded on two basic principles: 1) government must have a moral foundation and 2) government must be constitutionally limited. The Libertarians got the second part right and ignored the first. Regretfully, the Republican party has both in its platform but in practice has largely missed both points. The Constitution party has both… (And I say that having served as a Republican sheriff).

    Paul’s comments likely reflected his position on limited government rather than the moral principle.

    Sheriff Ray

    • I’m sure, Jack, that “excessive integrity” is something you probably know a bit about personally. It’s not easy being the “ethics guy” who makes everyone within earshot want to spout speeches about glass houses and stones.

      Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t need laws that prohibited racism, or even murder. But alas, that’s not the world we live in, or even the country we live in.

      I hope Mr. Paul stumbles across your article, because I think you highlight the issue pretty well. I understand where his head is at, but he would benefit greatly from your article and Sheriff Nash’s comment above.

      Let’s not ban him to oblivion just yet. Let’s save that for Blumenthal.

      • Yeah, I feel for Rand. He was painfully sincere and open with Maddow, but you have to wonder why the Ethics Alarms weren’t ringing. It reminded me of that horrible interview years ago in which Dodger exec Al Campanis, by all accounts a decent man who was fair and supportive to black players, got himself on TV saying that blacks weren’t managers because “they lack the necessities.” This is how politicians learn to avoid answering questions honestly, and that’s no solution. But you have to wonder about the judgment of anyone who can’t see the logical results of the policy he says is the “right” one according to his phisosophy.

        • Rand Paul is, in my view, a dangerous man. I will give him a chance to prove me wrong, but I will not vote for him based on what I know now.

          The sad fact is his commentary brings to mind, again, the reality of the intent of civil rights laws versus how they are enforced.

          Anecdotal evidence: My wife and her friend decided to go into a bar in a large Las Vegas hotel from which Latin music was issuing loudly. She stood in a long line, and was informed by all and sundry there that she would not be welcome. She did not believe them — after all, this was 2008 in America.

          When she reached the door, the attendant informed her she was not welcome, but that he would not keep her out. They were rude, offensive, and succeeded in their objective. Understandably, my wife had no interest in entering an establishment with that kind of attitude. She was excluded not by force, but by ostracism.

          This is, sadly, the kind of thing that goes on in many places more and more commonly among many minorities and subcultures. Try that in a white-owned establishment, and you will get a visit from your uncle with the red, white and blue hat, or the local authorities at minimum. The reverse will gain a shrug of the shoulders and platitudes about history.

          We have to do better as a nation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul’s argument would include the inability of government to equally and fairly apply the law as a reason why it should not have been enacted.

          I am not a libertarian myself, but laws like the civil rights act require substantially equal enforcement to be seen as credible with any rational person. I personally think that we are better off with them even though their execution is all too often flawed. By dint of the composition of the country, they do significantly more good than harm.

          Still, it is a troubling problem, and getting more so as the majority the Civil Rights Act was written to address begins to shrink toward a minority, as is currently happening in America. When that happens, will the victims take the place of the former oppressor?

          Let’s hope and pray not, but my own experience is less than totally encouraging.

  4. Jack,
    I’m going to have to side with Karl on this one (full disclosure, I also happen share 1/2 of his DNA). While I tend to agree that Libertarianism (as with most fringe ideologies) can lead some of the worst ethical fallacies and over-simplifications, but that doesn’t mean the principles themselves are any less right.

    Persecution faced by African-Americans under Jim Crow wasn’t simply the result of racist shop owners but was a systematic and, most importoantly, state-mandated policy f discrimination and segregation. In fact, one of the major reasons for its establishment was in direct response to the large number of former slaves who were “taking jobs” away from whites because they were willing to work for less (why does that sound familiar?) How is forced integration any more ethical than forced segregation? It’s also worth noting, by the way, that Malcolm X made a similar point to Rand’s during his “By Any Means Necessary” speech by stating: “I’m for the brotherhood of everybody, but I don’t believe in forcing brotherhood upon people who don’t want it.” (speaking specifically against civil rights legislation).

    Issues of personal freedom are not, I agree, as black-and-white as many libertarians make them out to be, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have real application. Furthermore, (and I don’t mean to sound like a broken record on this point) I find it incredibly unfair to label those with whom you disagree as unethical. Otherwise, how were the critics of the Harvard L3 student any less justified in in attacking her beliefs (or what they perceived as being her beliefs)?

    Rand wasn’t advocating a return to segregation or racial discrimination, he was discussing the unintended consequences that often arise from even the most well-meaning of laws (a point which is discussed far too seldom). It’s impossible to legislate morality and the laws that seek to are often the most immoral.

    That’s my 2¢ ..


  5. Not unethical because I disagree with it. Unethical because it is negligently irresponsible.

    I didn’t say that the principles of Libertarianism are less right. They are not absolute; no principles are, and for Rand Paul to maintain this particular principle is absolute in the face of all the experience and data that tells us otherwise is either ignorant, dumb, or unethical, as in, “I don’t care about whether it works or whether it causes terrible harm to society! Those are the rules!” I agree with Glenn: that attitude is irresponsible and frightening in a public official.

    I don’t believe in forced integration; people should be able to choose their friends and associates. But not letting people buy houses in the neighborhoods they want, letting banks redline loans…these and other practices addressed by the CRA make voluntary social integration possible.

    Beliefs and words aren’t unethical, but a public official advocating historically and practically destructive policies—even for non-racist reasons, as in Rand’s case (reasons: he’s a naif, he’s naive, and he hasn’t thought through his own beliefs because, you know, they are just RIGHT)—gives support and impetus to real racists. The standards have to be different for Senate candidates MSNBC than 3L students in private e-mails, right? If Rand Paul wants to muse about the Constitutional problems with the CRA (and undoubtedly there are some) in private, I don’t care. But his comments on NPR were irresponsible and implicate his trustworthiness, because they show such wretched judgment.

    Applying principles without judgment is exactly the ethical flaw in No-Tolerance policies. That’s what’s wrong with Paul, not the fact that I disagree with him. Anyone who can’t see what a disaster allowing strict individual property rights when it comes to discriminating against minorities in banks, housing, public establishments and accommodations, medical supplies, health care, private transportation (like cabs), insurance companies…I mean, really!—has to go a long was to show me they are responsible, prudent and fair enough to hold office.

  6. I want to make something clear: I chose Paul as an Ethics Dunce for an unusually pure reason: his position is ethically obtuse. That was my point in making him an Ethics Dunce. Choosing pure principle over proven real world consequences requires ignoring basic ethical priorities,and deciding that the freedom of the individual trumps the proven and tragic consequences of allowing volitional discrimination by private businesses shows a lack of respect for basic fairness, human compassion and justice. For the same reason I find pacifists who argue that the U.S. should have let Hitler sweep through Europe is unethical….not because I disagree with them, though obviously I do, but because they think adhering to a principle is more important than stopping the deaths of millions of innocent people. That’s an unethical position under virtually every ethical system. So is Rand’s CRL position.

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