Libertarianism Revealed

Rachel Maddow interviewed Rand Paul yesterday on her show.  The video follows here:

In the interview, Rachel presses Paul to come out and say what he actually believes – that private enterprise should never be subject to government regulation, at least in the context of who they serve and for what reasons.  Rand Paul says many times that he personally finds racism and racist policies abhorrent.  However, he’s also saying that the government should have no role in prohibiting racist policies in public spaces (as the 1964 Civil Rights Act established) operated by private businesses.  I have no doubt that Rand Paul is sincere in his personal distaste for racism.  But, Rand Paul’s dedication to dismissing tangible social chaos as “an abstract argument” (his characterization of Rachel’s real-world examples such as lunch-counter discrimination in the 50s and 60s) should be troubling.  Instead, however, it’s been my experience that Libertarians revel in this cop-out – they frequently reduce most things to very abstract terms, and when you point out the tangible flaws, they get defensive & say it’s only an abstract argument.  Fine, but what about the actual consequences?  Who deals with those?

I’m not trying to put words in Rand Paul’s mouth, nor is it fair to ascribe the ideas of his father to him.  I’m more familiar with Ron Paul, who was my congressman in Texas for quite a while, than I am with Rand.  That said, his dismissal of Civil Rights concerns in private industry is as alarming as it is familiar to anyone who’s had a debate with a dedicated Libertarian.  These people seem far more common in the software industry and in academia than among my circle of friends from other backgrounds, and debating them can be quite enlightening.

The Libertarian argument goes like this:  Freedom is essential and absolute, regardless of social circumstance – any limitation of fundamental freedoms, including the freedom to be racist, is unacceptable.  (I quite agree with the notion that one should be free to hold racist views, but that’s quite different than saying it’s okay to discriminate with your publicly available business).  Rand Paul articulates this argument during the interview – he says that any interference with private industry leads to “unintended and undesirable consequences”, claiming that banning discrimination in privately owned public spaces leads to further erosion of property rights, including the inability for private individuals to ban firearms on their premises.  (This is absurd – the Civil Rights Act no more enables this than it enables shirtless, shoeless people to demand service inside restaurants).  Instead of government intervention, the invisible hand of the free market (ie, the preferences or boycotts of customers and shareholders) should be left to regulate private industry accordingly.  In other words, if people demand an elimination of racist policies in businesses, the businesses will respond.  Thus the Libertarians declare, thus it shall be.  Rand Paul has spoken!

Back in the real world (which Libertarians seem to annoyingly refuse to acknowledge), private businesses in the South did not give a shit if poor black people boycotted their policies.  Rather than working against racist policies, free-market Libertarianism enshrined and reinforced the prejudices of the economically powerful against the economically disadvantaged.  “Don’t want to eat at the segregated lunch counter?  Why, refuse, and someone will open a desegregated lunch counter!”  Except, you can’t get a loan from a bank to open your desegregated lunch counter because banks (under Rand Paul’s Libertarian ideals) don’t have to loan to black people (or people who would empower them).  “Well, then certainly another bank will open and take advantage of this potential market!”  No, the banks knew that the writing was on the wall — boycotts go both ways.  Unlike the black people that wanted to boycott businesses that discriminate, the (more than black people, anyway) economically powerful racists in the South actually had the power to pull out of private institutions (banks, businesses, investments) that might challenge the status quo (which, at that time, was racist).  There was no compelling profit motive to risk any substantial, consistent cash flow (from the white, status-quo, economically powerful) to invest in offering fair services to poor black people.

I’ve purposely ignored the other factor of threats of violence — Rand Paul dismisses these as “illegal”, and yes, in his fairy-tale world, the KKK would’ve been perfectly prosecuted and eliminated, and so he refuses to acknowledge that such things actually do affect how private persons and institutions make decisions.  Fine.  Even in the absence of any threat of violence, the Libertarian view that the free market solves all is pure and utter bullshit.

Now that Rand Paul has won the primary to run for Senate in Kentucky, I’m sure we’ll hear more of his views.  I’m sure we’ll also hear more of his dismissals of real problems — because Libertarians, frequently, cannot solve real problems.  They’re great at debating abstract problems and passionately stating how things should be.  The problem is that the world simply doesn’t work the way they want it to.


One Response to “Libertarianism Revealed”

  1. oldag says:

    If you can read this, then you are not a NASCAR fan.