One of the most honored rule of politics is, don't pick an avoidable fight with your voters. Not all such fights are avoidable, of course: it's hard to run for office without taking a position on something, and there's bound to be someone who disagrees with you whatever position you take. No election is fought over the full panoply of every conceivable issue, though, so most candidates content themselves with promulgating their views on whatever polls show to be the burning issues of the day, leaving the rest alone.
And then there's Rand Paul.
Fresh from a landslide victory in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary, the younger Dr. Paul rushed into an issue where angels might be thought to fear to tread. In several interviews, most notably one with far-left Rachel Maddow, Paul took aim at the 1964 Civil Rights Act - the law that destroyed Jim Crow and brought equality and opportunity to the oppressed. At last, scream the headlines, proof positive that conservatives are just racists in disguise!
The headlines are, of course, lies; Dr. Paul in no way defended any sort of racism or bigotry. He effectively summed up his view in another interview:
I abhor racism. I think it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding.
Dr. Paul's views are so utterly alien, so profoundly contrary to anything that's been seen in the public arena for a half century, that it's almost understandable that the dyed-in-the-wool leftists who command the heights of our commentariat immediately freaked out. That's not a condemnation of Dr. Paul, of course, for he is exactly right.
|The First Amendment at work.|
To understand why Dr. Paul is right and almost everybody else is wrong, set aside the Civil Rights Act itself and let's talk about free speech. Hopefully most of us join Dr. Paul in abhoring racism; equally, though, not everyone does.
We've seen sheeted KKK members and neo-Nazi skinheads marching in the streets and spewing their filth; we've seen and heard equally bizarre and noxious views coming from others. The one common factor is that any and all views, so long as they do not incite violence, are absolutely protected by our First Amendment.
That amendment is the key to all our liberties. What good is it to protect only popular views? The only sort of views that need protection are unpopular ones.
It doesn't, and shouldn't, matter whether the views are right or not; each individual American has an absolute right to make up their own mind, for good or ill, for right or for wrong. You and I despise Nazis; Nazis despise the non-bigoted. The famous quote attributed to Voltaire best sums up the principle:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Our Founders based all our liberties on this one simple, fundamental principle, without which all other liberties are the weakest of reeds.
So, we have established that every American has the right to be dead wrong in his speech. He also has the right to be dead wrong in his religion, again with the restriction that no violence or force can be espoused.
Christians, by definition, believe that atheists and Muslims are going to hell, and probably Jews too; Hindus believe Christians will most likely be reincarnated as as cockroaches. On this earth, in this particular lifetime, as long as you don't argue your corner with anything stronger than words, it's all good. By definition, freedom of religion means that you have the right to believe something I consider dead wrong, and vice versa.
Now, since we're all citizens equally, the government has no right to consider you wrong or treat your views with disrespect. A devout Hindu working at the DMV has no right to refuse service to an atheist eating a hamburger; nor has the government any right to treat blacks less favorably than whites. It was this problem that the Civil Rights Act was intended to solve, and rightly so. As Dr. Paul said:
...A lot of the things that actually were in the bill, I'm in favor of. I'm in favor of everything with regards to ending institutional racism. So I think there's a lot to be desired in the Civil Rights [Act].
By ending institutional racism, the Civil Rights Act was a Good Thing. The President has free speech rights, but if he came out saying that people of a particular race were inherently inferior and unworthy of fair treatment by the government, we would be appalled and consider him unfit to be President; sad to say, standards appear to be somewhat lower for Supreme Court justices. But as we've seen, individual people can express racist views and the police protect them instead of arresting them.
Unfortunately, the Act didn't stop at ending institutional racism; it also banned private racism. Here we enter a problematic gray area. Does the government have the right to tell you that you must have business dealings with someone you don't want to?
Actually, to a limited degree, it does, going back centuries. The Economist explains:
...the idea of "common carriage", a principle that is, in fact, far older than the telephone.
Excerpts from Justinian's "Digest" of Roman law suggest that 6th-century sea captains, innkeepers and liverymen could not refuse board to any cargo, man or horse. William Blackstone, in his 18th-century "Commentaries on the Laws of England", was more explicit: to open a house for travellers implied "an engagement to entertain all persons who travel that way". English common law came to see innkeepers, boatmen, warehouse owners and granary operators as "common carriers": transport trades compelled to serve all comers, and to charge reasonable rates.
In a 2002 paper James Speta of Northwestern University laid out three broad historical justifications for applying common carriage to regulate prices and access. First, many transporters enjoy a natural or state-granted monopoly and need to be restrained from exercising it with too much abandon. A medieval innkeeper, for example, often offered the only lodging in town; a boatman could cross only with the king's writ. Second, the state sometimes offers favours of its own to transporters-public lands and roads, say, or the seizure of private property to make way for new infrastructure-and expects a certain level of public service in return. Third, transport is essential to commerce. It represents an input cost to almost all businesses, and to restrict access or overcharge is to burden the entire economy. [emphasis added]
This is the ancient principle appealed to during the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins. The Woolworth's in Greensboro, SC operated a public restaurant, but segregated service by color: only whites were provided with seats. A group of black students were rightly offended at this discrimination and sat down where they weren't allowed.
It's interesting to note that the store owner did not have them hauled away in chains, as the law of the time allowed; he told his staff to leave them be, called the police only when he feared violence by other customers, and never requested the arrest of any protesters. Not long thereafter, the store desegregated on its own - that is, before the Civil Rights Act required it to desegregate.
The black protesters were right in every way: they had centuries-old legal traditions as well as every moral right on their side. In Jim Crow days, traveling through the South could be a perilous proposition for northern blacks. It's easy to imagine a horror-movie-type situation with a black family trapped in a racist small town, surrounded by bigots who refuse to sell them food, shelter, or even the fuel needed to leave. Nothing could be more unjust or un-American; the Civil Rights Act was necessary to end that kind of evil.
So if the Civil Rights Act did so much essential good, why was Rand Paul complaining about it, and why is his doing so such a tremendously important and laudable thing? We'll answer that question in the second half of this article.