Rand Paul, libertarian, a beginner politician and the recent winner of a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, was extraordinarily foolish to get in a conversation about the 1964 Civil Rights Act on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" the other day, even though the views he expressed were basically right.
He said he believed in the act's overall purposes but had problems with the requirement that private businesses had to serve people they might not want to serve. While he later said on another show that he would have voted for the act even so, he has been held up as a mentally and morally deficient throwback to the era of Jim Crow racism, which is itself a mentally and morally deficient assessment.
I say as much, although I also believe the Civil Rights Act was one of the most important pieces of domestic legislation in the 20th century.
What this country had done to its black citizens was unspeakable. We had to change and change dramatically, although, in the instance of commanding unwanted transactions, that change betrayed individual rights. In upholding the abridgment, the Supreme Court cited the Commerce Clause, which is absurd. The clause lets the federal government facilitate trade between the states. It does not let the federal government do anything and everything it wants whenever it wants and in any way it wants.
But while I usually look askance at arguments that the end justifies the means, the end in this case was a law crucial to making ours a just society, and the specific sacrifices were not commensurably important. Absolutism can be a danger, and here was an occasion to let it go, as I think Paul agrees, if with considerable hesitation.
Paul obviously frets as I do that the left is currently in the business of controlling our lives in a whole host of unconstitutional, belittling ways in the name of goals that in some instances are unworthy, that are often minor. And that — when they are justified — could be addressed without rights infringements and would, in fact, be better served by first assuring that our freedoms stay intact.
His libertarian philosophy has a lot to be said for it, and I myself embrace at least one version of it. To me, liberty that respects the rights of others is the most blessed of our political values, fundamental to our very humanity, the prime mover of prosperity and the essential factor making America exceptional in the world.
And yet I do get it that — as in the case of the Civil Rights Act — there are other values, and I sometimes think at least a few of my libertarian acquaintances do not take them seriously enough. Open borders suit them fine. Is war ever justified? Well yeah, when someone invades the continent. Should all drugs be legal? You bet. Is government needed for anything? Almost nothing, they tell me.
Paul is not that extreme, and I myself vastly prefer his ideas to those of arrogant statist bullies flexing their oppressive muscles. The threat now is not too little government. It is too much.
A question nonetheless is whether this tea party-backed ophthalmologist running for office for the first time can beat one of those menacing goofs in the general election this November, and the Maddow adventure suggests cause for concern.
Some may think politics is easy. It is actually very hard. It involves, among other requisites, a keen, refined sense of knowing what not to talk about, and here is a subject a candidate should avoid: a nuanced objection to one piece of a properly revered law that was enacted 46 years ago and is, at this point, an integral part of what we are as a nation.
Try it, and the candidate quickly finds out what happens — nothing else about him gets any attention at all. And an unsympathetic media sledgehammer slams his fine distinctions into smithereens.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.