The Blog

Rand Paul and the Politics of Inaction

Liberals find the Pauls attractive because, like John Quincy Adams, they believe "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Unfortunately, the Paul philosophy precludes looking for them at home as well.
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It's the genius of Rachel Maddow that in a simple twenty-minute interview with Rand Paul she was able to expose the essential problem with libertarianism. It provides no solutions except the one your mom offered to hitting your sister: "don't do it."

As a political philosophy, libertarianism makes sense only in opposition. The Pauls oppose the war in Iraq not because they view it as an immoral venture, but because it represents yet another government expenditure. The Iraq War and Social Security are both equally bad by libertarian logic because they misallocate your tax dollars. The Civil Rights Act and the war on drugs both restrict our freedom, whether it be to abuse blacks or narcotics. No wonder liberal blogger Atrios referred to Rand Paul's philosophy as "glibertarianism."

Glib or not, libertarianism is, at its base, a religious reaction to an age dominated by large institutions in an interconnected world. Given that we all have one issue or another that we wish the government would leave us the heck alone over, libertarianism's appeal is not hard to understand. Whether you are an income tax protester, opposed to conscription, or to limits on abortion rights or speed limits, libertarianism provides a one size fits all political philosophy that answers all questions. Well, provided there are no follow ups.

Libertarianism appeals to Americans mourning the death of the frontier. It provides the comforting fantasy that we are all rugged individualists who personally pave our roads, man our fire and police departments, build our satellites, B-2 bombers, and Predator drones, staff our own hospitals where we exchange chickens for medical care, and mine our own coal to heat our homes.

In this world, it doesn't matter if the Civil Rights Act never passes, because black Americans will make their own way. Never mind if they can't buy the medicine their children need, or if they are barred from private institutions of higher education (which should be the only ones around, since government shouldn't be in the business of education), or their right to travel is restricted due to fear of violence by extremist racists.

Liberals find the Pauls attractive because, like John Quincy Adams, they believe "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Unfortunately, the Paul philosophy precludes looking for them at home as well.

In a statement following the Maddow interview, Rand Paul denounced segregation, which for all I know may be a bold political stance in Kentucky. Some are whispering darkly about his possible racism, which strikes me as unlikely.

I certainly doubt he's a racist in the hoary traditional American fashion of foaming at the mouth yelling of racial epithets followed by the ceremonial lynching of a random black man. What's more likely is that Paul suffers from the same historical amnesia with which most Americans find themselves afflicted, in which the lynchings of yesteryear pale in comparison to the indignities of affirmative action today.

I think it is a mistake for Paul to note his problems with the Civil Rights Act without also acknowledging the misuse of libertarian and states' rights positions in the defense of organized racism. Forthright discussion of this could go a long way in redeeming libertarianism's tarnished legacy. Unfortunately, Paul seems to be going in the opposite direction.

What Rand Paul's position on the Civil Rights Act really reveals is that its owner follows a political philosophy that finds almost nothing compelling enough to invoke government action. It's a fine enough stance for a gadfly, but not particularly suitable for an elected representative. Kentucky, after all, receives $1.5 for every federal tax dollar its residents pay into the kitty.

I remarked to a friend upon Paul's victory that it might not be the worst thing for someone like Paul to be in Congress, though one wouldn't want a Congress full of Pauls. Only time will tell if Kentucky agrees.

Buckle up. It's going to be a wild ride.