We’re already getting the world-weary sighing about how we need to move on from the Rand Paul thing—and don’t worry, it’s the weekend and we will—but I do feel the obsession over it that sprouted up needs a defender. Rachel Maddow did an excellent job on this front.
But I’d also like to take the time to talk about Rand Paul, teabaggers, and why libertarianism matters despite being unbelievably childish as a philosophy. I think a lot of media people tend to think of libertarians mostly as a tiny minority of overprivileged twits who are relatively harmless with the power fantasies of what unbelievable sci-fi badasses they would be if the government just got rid of OSHA. But the folks who write for Reason and work for the Cato Institute aren’t really representative of libertarianism as it actually exists in most of the U.S. Because self-identified libertarians are a tiny minority doesn’t mean that libertarian thought doesn’t enjoy widespread popularity amongst conservative Republicans. Indeed, libertarianism is the primary intellectual justification in this country for resistance to most social justice movements. (I use the term “intellectual” loosely here, but you know what I mean.) It is also the primary intellectual justification for unchecked corporate power that leads to disasters like our collapsed economy and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And I would argue that the existence of the Republican party today depends largely on people who are invested in the latter exploiting people invested in the former for support and votes. And that’s why libertarianism is extremely fucked up and concern about it isn’t a distraction. Most people who spout libertarian arguments are self-identified Republicans, and most of them have extremely conservative views on race and gender.
I thought I’d break down my examination into some major points.
One of the unfortunately unquestioned aspects of the argument that folks Paul aren’t racists so much as strict ideologues is it buys into the assumption that the ideologies we support and values we hold just exist, as if they were assigned to us randomly at birth. This doesn’t actually comport well with reality. Most people’s values derive from their ideas of what the world should be like. A common exercise with activists in trying to get them to clarify what their values are and how to fight for them is to have them picture the world they want. What they picture can be used to figure out what they value. (For instance, I picture a world where people are unrestrained by prejudice to live full and meaningful lives.) Therefore, if their values just so happen to create a world marked by racial segregation and most wealth being held in the hands of the few, and most of the people who benefit from these values are people who look like those who hold them, then it’s a safe assumption that they chose their values to achieve these ends.
Which isn’t to say that people can’t make mistakes, or incorrectly think that value X will lead to result Y. However, when presented with historical evidence that their assumptions—in this case that free enterprise would automatically desegregate—are incorrect, if they persist in arguing otherwise, they are being willfully ignorant.
The commerce clause
It strikes me as highly unlikely that many average white Americans suddenly discovered they favored a very narrow reading of the commerce clause in the mid-to-late 60s just because there was something in the drinking water that woke them up. Indeed, I think most people who are modern citizens of the post-industrial age would be grateful that the Founding Fathers had the foresight to give the federal government power to regulate business, because most of us enjoy having clean air and food and seatbelts that work. We would wisely realize that business should be regulated by the people in exchange for our willingness to allow business to prosper off the people. We would suggest that a business that is unwilling to play by the rules of polite society that individuals are subject to shouldn’t have the right to exist. This would be such obvious common sense to your average citizen that they probably wouldn’t even be aware of the commerce clause, because regulating business would seem like such a logical outgrowth of government, much in the way we regard the Post Office or the mint.
The only people who would be motivated in any way to concoct wild theories about how the commerce clause doesn’t actually give the government power to regulate business would be those who want to make money without having to act like good neighbors, i.e. big corporations.
However, a lot of average white people did and still do believe that they should be able to keep other people who aren’t white from using the same spaces as them, living next door to them, or having the same access to jobs and education and health care. And they have to be forced by the federal government not to gang up on non-white people to deprive them of equal access. The power that the federal government used to stop them is the very same power that the federal government uses to regulate businesses on their labor and environmental standards. And because of this, a lot of people who otherwise would think the commerce clause is just common sense are highly motivated to believe arguments in favor of a more narrow reading. Libertarians are the ones who exploit this motivation. But it is, for the people who buy their philosophy, a self-destructive thing. To echo Thomas Frank: Buy into the belief that you can keep black people out of your public bathroom, sign on to allowing BP to turn your coastline into pure oil and dead birds. Buy into keeping black people from buying in your neighborhood, sign on to economic collapse when big finance creates a housing bubble with shady accounting. Buy into allowing your workplace to discriminate in its hiring practices, sign on to having a dangerous and dirty workplace without any recourse.
Public vs. private
“But we’re not racist,” claim libertarians like Rand Paul. “We want public accommodations to be discrimination-free!” But as Marc pointed out to me as we were discussing this last night, they also want an end to most public accommodations. (Most libertarians will carefully sign on to the taxpayers being on the hook to protect their private property, though. Fire departments and police departments that can be used to protect private property, as well as all government functions that make capitalism more profitable are a-okay. It’s just the stuff that exists for to make life better for everyone regardless of property status that is objectionable.) Schools, public transportation, parks—all those things that they sign on to desegregating legally they then object to existing. If you desegregate something that doesn’t exist, does it really count as desegregation? If the only places that you make handicap-accessible are public places that don’t exist, is it really making it easier for them to get around? If the only jobs that don’t allow sexual harassment are government jobs that don’t exist, can anyone really choose those jobs?
This isn’t an abstract question. As I noted before, libertarianism as a popular philosophy enjoyed by people outside a few elites really took off in response to movements like the civil rights movement and other social justice movements. The enthusiasm for privatizing really began when public schools, which weren’t especially controversial before, were forced to desegregate. For instance, there was a huge rash of private schools that opened in the wake of Brown v. the Board of Education and luminaries like Jerry Falwell really rose to prominence defending segregation under this right to private property. You still hear echoes of this attitude in the usual libertarian hang-ups, particularly regarding the scorn for public transportation that is shared with the mass of humanity. And, of course, in other right wing hang-ups like homeschooling and voucher systems aimed at defunded the hated-after-Brown public school system.
As I noted extensively in comments, the real world reality of libertarianism is that whenever there is a clash between the desires of the oppressed and the oppressors, libertarians side with the oppressors and call this “freedom”. They do this so often that I think many liberals don’t stop to think about how this really narrows our conception of what freedom really is. Libertarians take it as a matter of faith, for instance, that a white man’s unwillingness to sell a house to a black family is “freedom”, but the right of a black family to live where they wish isn’t freedom.
Liberals need to loudly and repeatedly lay claim to our broad, justice-oriented view of freedom. Freedom is the right to move about freely, instead of constantly run up against restrictions put upon you because of the color of your skin or the fact that you have to use a wheelchair to get around. Freedom is the right to take a job you wish without being run out of it because your coworkers will harass you to death because they don’t want to work with a woman. Freedom is being able to live where you want, instead of running against a wall of people that aren’t willing to sell or rent a home to a person like you. Freedom is something that belongs to all people, not just to those who have the money and social power to enforce their will on others. The government’s job is to protect freedom, and that means that it is the government’s job to restrict those who would use libertarianism as an excuse to deprive their neighbors of the right to live their lives freely, and to pursue happiness in a land of genuine equality.
I realize that for a lot of people, especially some genuinely great but very privileged white liberal dudes, the constant refighting of the 60s is tiresome. I really get it. I don’t like it either. But if we opt out, we concede to the people who are basically still fighting it, even if they’ve come up with clever pseudo-intellectual justifications for their point of view.