A few minutes late to the Two Minute Hate

I’ve been avoiding the Rand Paul/Civil Rights Act thing for a while now, because I don’t feel like fighting off an infestation of dumbworms this summer, but it’s starting to generate measurable amounts of signal among an avalanche of noise.   If you want a brief overview from a foul-mouthed Torontonian, here’s skippystalin’s take on the whole thing, which is where the signal begins to emerge:

Libertarian-minded conservatives should expect questions about the Civil Rights Act. It is to Libertarians what Brown v. Board of Education is to constitutional originalists, something that is generally accepted as morally right, but flies in the face of everything they believe. Of course the Goddamned Liberal Media is going to try to catch you that way.

There actually is a right way to answer such questions. When asked about Brown by a particularly devious New Yorker reporter, Justice Antonin Scalia answered that “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” For a guy who has never run for anything, Scalia gave the perfect political answer.

Where Rand Paul got in trouble with the Civil Rights Act was confusing eventual ideals with short-term feasible politics.  I’ve mentioned before that some things that may be desirable in the long run would be disastrous if magicked into being tomorrow.  So while Rand Paul obviously isn’t inclined to believe that the federal government should be policing people’s everyday commerce for ideological purity, I doubt he thinks the world would magically get all puppies-and-rainbows if the Civil Rights Act was repealed in, say, November.  But gushing about the form one’s favourite anarchotopia might take is fun and exciting, and sooner or later someone’s going to take your sound bite about vend-bots selling heroin and machine guns and put it on the evening news as if it’s an actual campaign plank.

(For the record, I doubt that having a usually-metaphorical cop put a gun under one’s chin is a terribly effective way to achieve racial harmony — far better to remove obstacles to integration, like harsh immigration conditions, minimum-wage laws, and urban planning boards.  I also doubt that excising things like the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act — while we’re still in the habit of using our every identifiable characteristic as weapons against each other — would be at all helpful.)

Next, we go up a meta-level, where David Bernstein discusses (with dismay) the discourse and its dissatisfactions:

One thing that’s been especially appalling about the Rand Paul controversy is how quick many liberal commentators have been to accuse not just Paul of racism, but also anyone who takes the libertarian position on antidiscrimination laws, i.e. that the government itself may not discriminate, but the government should tolerate private discrimination. Admittedly, someone who takes the libertarian position on this but no other issues, as many did in the South in the early ‘60s, is suspect. But if someone takes a consistent libertarian position on public policy controversies, i.e. that the government should limit itself to banning force and fraud and otherwise not interfere with private behavior, it’s hardly an indication of racial animus to take the exact same position with regard to discrimination.

That, however, is not why the liberal charge of racism is so appalling. Rather, it’s because this is the exact same kind of dishonest, malicious rhetoric that liberals face from conservatives when they take principled positions on issues of importance to them. Consider the liberal defense of Communists’ free speech and employment rights in the 1950s; their critics accused them of being Communist sympathizers, if not outright Communists. When the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right march in Skokie in the 1970s, their critics accused them of giving aid and comfort to Naziism. When liberals defend the right to abortion, they are accused, among other things, of wanting to reduce the population of minority babies. And when liberals stand up for the due process rights of terrorism suspects, they are accused of being American-hating jihadist sympathizers.

Dr. Bernstein is, of course, correct.  The problem is that, by and large, libertarians and leftists are after entirely different things in the realm of rhetoric and discourse.  (I’m generalizing outrageously here:)  Leftists use rhetoric as a means to achieve their ends, and complain about dishonest, malicious criticism when it makes their rhetoric stronger.  (Ask a leftist civil-libertarian about due-process rights for, say, Randy Weaver, and you’ll generally get an entirely different point of view.)  Libertarians — being process people — see even-handed public discussion as an end in and of itself, as part of a political process that leads to better political outcomes.  That’s not because libertarians are necessarily more nuanced and sophisticated thinkers than leftists, but because we have different goals.  Chiding leftists about consistency of principle is likely to get you a blank stare and a deadpan “…but that’s totally different”, because to them it is.

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