Cross-posted at Notes on a Theory
For reasons that are somewhat baffling, the coverage of Senator Rand Paul’s plagiarism in speeches and writings got wall-to-wall coverage for some time, although it has now died down. I’m not a fan of Paul, and I don’t think this sort of rampant taking of other people’s words and passing them off as his own is acceptable. Yet I find the whole episode strange. Now that it’s over, I wanted to step back to ruminate on the reaction to this and what it means for the left.
Two claims, largely implicit, have become quite common in Democratic-leaning circles, which are in tension. First, is the idea that libertarians pose an existential threat to the country. Often, libertarian here is used interchangeably for ‘Tea Party,” and while that doesn’t always make sense, it might when it comes to Paul. And while some would make this same claim about the GOP as a whole, libertarians are singled out for particular scorn. Paul, then, is treated as far more threatening that the senior senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.
Now, I’m not sure how I would rate the two senators from Kentucky. I’m sure one could make a case here. But it strikes me that the case is generally presumed, and the differences in terms of whose worse are generally presumed to be really large. This is even more troublesome give that, as minority leader, McConnell likely has a great deal more power in the Senate, regardless of what the comparison might tell us in the abstract.
The second claim is that the problem with libertarianism has to do with the character flaws of libertarians, their motives, and associations, and not, as you might think, with libertarian ideas. So we’ve had weeks of coverage of this plagiarism scandal, which, if Paul is really so awful, seems like a bit of a distraction. If libertarianism is so flawed, so beyond the pale, then shouldn’t those ideas be challenged? There’s a whole lot less of that from the same quarters that have focused so much ire at Rand Paul. (That isn’t to say others haven’t, see Charles Davis, Cory Robin and Matt Bruenig, for example). Even if the focus seems to be about the ideas, critics often move from express libertarian claims and positions to accusations of opposition to all government or anarchy. Aside from being false, this is exceedingly unfair to actual anarchists. But does one really need to engage in catastrophizing or guilt by association to attack a morally misguided ideology? Another common move is to attack what might seem on the fact of it the potentially less-than libertarian positions of self-proclaimed libertarians. An example would be opposition to abortion rights, and support for intrusive laws to impede them. The hypocrisy of supporting broad liberty until it comes to woman is important. It’s very important. But it shouldn’t be the whole story.
Let me be so bold as to suggest that, for me, the problem with libertarianism goes beyond questions of proper citation. It has to do with the idea when government limits what business does to protect us as employees, or consumers, or bystanders, that this is a violation of freedom. I don’t see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a limit on anyone’s freedom, but rather an expansion of it. It facilitated the right of African-Americans to travel about the country (because access to lodging and food are necessary to travel), to be gainfully employed, and to get an education.*
These limits were limits on illegitimate power over other people. They were a step towards “equal protection of the law,” which is not simply a guarantee that government will be formally equal towards people of different races but rather a positive duty to protect everyone. And as Justice Harlan noted a long time ago, the law had long placed requirements of access for some businesses, like public accommodations. Civil rights laws are not special rights but rather extend these long-standing rules to more people.
When Paul, early in his political career, expressed skepticism towards the Civil Rights Act, he was rightly taken to task. But too often this was simply framed as being extreme. While few Republicans would say those things, and Paul himself walked back some of what he said, I’m unconvinced that what he said was outside of mainstream of the Republican Party. Are we really so sure that Senator McConnell is such an ardent defender of civil rights? We might have used this episode to talk about what the Civil Rights Act means, and how it’s ideas apply today. We might have used it to talk about ways many people still are treated as second class in both government and the economy. We might have used it to force politicians to take stances beyond ‘would you have voted for it?’ Those opportunities were missed. (Just so we’re clear, I can appreciate that for many people, this was too much for them to respond with debate. Not everyone can do that. But that collectively we were incapable of doing it is unfortunate. Also, I’m not suggesting this would be about calmly discussing the merits of segregation. I’m talking about a fight–but a substantive one. I’m also talking about an internal conversation about what supporting civil rights means today.)
It’s not freedom for your employer to fire you because you are gay or a trans person. It’s not freedom for your manager to sexually harass you, or decide whether your health insurance should cover abortion or birth control. It’s not freedom for an employer to require you to attend “educational sessions” designed to dissuade you from joining a union, or to attend a political rally for a presidential candidate. It’s not freedom for a corporation to poison the air you breath,the water you drink, or the ground you live on. No, laws that prevent these things from happening are laws protecting your freedom. And it’s important to note that it is people of color, women, the poor, immigrants, etc., that end up most subject to arbitrary power when these protections are lacking. It should therefore be no surprise if deviations from expressed principle end up leaving those people out as well.
What about taxes? I reject the idea that tax money being used to pay for SNAP, so that people eat, or public schools, so people can be educated, or Medicare, so that people can get health care, is a violation of anyone’s liberty. Why should tax money spent for these things be an attack on freedom but money spent on enforcing contracts, protecting property, or national defense (the classic liberal night watchman state) not be? Personal preference? In the end, the tax thing is a ruse. We’re just having a debate about what the role of government should be, and a libertarian’s preference for property protection over mitigating hunger is entitled to no special deference.
Of course, libertarians will disagree. That’s fine. It’s the point. I think my view is more appealing than there’s, and can be better justified. I think it suggests ways we haven’t gone far enough. Taken seriously, my view requires us to criticize Democrats, not just Republicans. If you truly reject the libertarian ideology from the left, that means a whole lot more than simply rejecting Rand Paul. We should own that.
*I say facilitated because a law doesn’t automatically do anything, it is a resource, and enforcement is never guaranteed. In addition, the law itself, even fully enforced, only takes us so far.