Rand Paul, who just clinched the Republican Party nomination for the Senate race in Kentucky, is apparently not quite ready for primetime. His recent remarks on the Civil Rights Act painfully show why being a politician is not as easy as some people think. The problem for Paul, son of Ron Paul, is that even if he somehow survives this flap, it is almost guaranteed that there are going to be plenty more of them during the campaign. Because both Pauls, father and son, are (at heart) libertarians. Which requires some explanation, because many folks have never come into contact with the concept of libertarianism.
Libertarians, much like Democrats and Republicans, can be viewed as both a capitalized and an uncapitalized group. "Big-L" Libertarians are part of the Libertarian Party, the same as "Big-D" Democrats and "Big-R" Republicans. But, much like defenders of democracy and republicanism, "small-L" libertarians may not be official Libertarian Party members, but may agree on pretty much the same political philosophy.
Libertarianism is, to be blunt about it, where the radicals from the far right and the radicals from the far left meet and have a beer. Or, perhaps, a straight-up 190-proof shot of political philosophy, with no chaser. Disenchanted radicals from both ends of the political spectrum join forces in libertarianism, because while their specific issues may differ, they both agree on the fact that the government should just butt out altogether. Libertarians believe, for instance, that all drugs should be legalized and that there should be no restrictive gun laws whatsoever -- on the same philosophical grounds: that the government (especially the federal government) simply has no constitutional grounds for making such laws. Each citizen should be free to go down to the pharmacy and buy some cocaine, heroin, or marijuana (as it used to be done in this country, before drug laws were invented); and they should also be free to own pretty much any weapon they can afford to buy. As I said, it's an interesting political crossroads for a lot of different types of people.
The other thing I've noticed about libertarians (and Libertarians) is that they are like converts to a religion, in a sense -- they have actively thought about their political philosophy, rejected both the major political parties, and have joined the cause of an alternate political philosophy. And they like to talk about it. A lot, usually.
But for all the "Tsk! Tsk!" reactions today over Rand Paul's comments about the Civil Rights Act, most of them are missing the real story here. Because at the core of libertarianism is a fierce individualism, meaning that Rand Paul is going to heavily chafe against Republican political consultants (who must be, even as I type, parachuting into Kentucky) who try to restrain this "talk straight to the people" libertarian urge. Meaning this likely won't be the last such tempest which erupts over something Paul offhandedly says.
The Tea Party is not a true party, after all -- it's a movement. It's got a lot of component pieces moving towards some general (and quite loosely-defined) goals. But one of the strongest elements of the Tea Party (the members of which proudly claim that they are the origins of the Tea Party movement itself) are libertarian followers of Ron Paul. These are not the "AstroTurf" fake-grassroots elements of the Tea Party, which have been formed by Republican operatives in a naked attempt to hijack the movement. These are serious libertarians, instead. And, unlike most Tea Party factions, they already know exactly what they want, because they have their libertarian philosophy already worked out.
This philosophy, for those unaware, is pretty much to get rid of about 95 percent of government -- starting with the federal government. Libertarians are still for the basic governmental duty to protect the country, therefore they support a military for defense. But, at the same time, they do not support American interventionalism abroad (such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), or American soldiers on foreign soil in general (isolationism, in other words). Outside the Pentagon, they'd pretty much get rid of just about every other governmental function the federal government is now involved in. Libertarians are free-market extremists, in favor of getting rid of any government interference in commerce in any way (monopolies are just fine with them). They're also in favor of getting rid of all government interference with how people relate to each other and to businesses. As I mentioned, they're against all gun laws, but also against all drug laws. Libertarians would abolish the federal income tax, and replace it with nothing (since the government will cost 95 percent less than it does now, after they sweep it all away).
A good book, and a funny read, which explains some of how this 95 percent could get cut (while not being a true Libertarian credo or anything) is Parliament Of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke, for those interested (as I said, he's a funny author, so the book's worth reading for that aspect alone).
But the problem with these libertarian ideals is that while a few of their ideas are almost guaranteed to sound pretty good to just about everybody (abolishing the income tax, for instance), there's a lot of "baby" thrown out in the 95 percent bathwater. This is where things get tricky to explain. And where Rand Paul had problems.
Because the libertarian ideal is that government does not have the right to interfere in a private enterprise in such a fashion. This includes a whale of a lot of established legal precedent, as you can imagine. Rand Paul was trying to say he didn't support the Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds -- because he doesn't believe the federal government has the right to make such laws. When viewed from the totality of a libertarian viewpoint, it makes perfect sense to oppose it. But Paul failed to understand two very basic concepts. The first is that very few people see the world through such an absolute libertarian lens. And the second is that there are a lot of things libertarians are against which, when viewed individually, are going to seriously turn a lot of voters off. Libertarians are a lot better at philosophizing about government than they are at actually winning elections, or even governing. Because if voters don't agree with the totality of the libertarian argument, there are going to be individual things about it that they are likely going to abhor. Such as not supporting the Civil Rights Act, for instance.
But Rand Paul could shake off the criticism he's now getting. He's revised his position somewhat, not enough to impress people on a nationwide scale, but perhaps enough to weather the storm among Kentucky voters. But there are other such libertarian landmines dotting the campaign's landscape, and sooner or later another one of them is bound to go off. Such as farm subsidies, for instance. Libertarians are against farm subsidies on general principles, but such subsidies are wildly popular with farmers, of which Kentucky has quite a few. This is just one example, there are many to choose from.
Rand Paul, to be sure, is not a Libertarian Party nominee. He has charted a somewhat modified route, politically (he's anti-abortion, for instance, whereas Libertarians are "get the government out of the decision" types). How modified this will become will be interesting to watch. Because right now, he is obviously getting a whole bunch of advice on how not to answer certain questions. In other words, many kind Republican folks are hastening to his side in an attempt to teach him how serious politicians handle such questions -- by giving vague non-answers, of course. The real question, as happened with Sarah Palin in 2008, is whether Rand Paul is going to follow their advice or not. Because, being a libertarian at heart, he's fully capable of telling all the political consultants and party bigwigs to go pound sand, and that he'll run his campaign the way he likes and say exactly what he likes, thank you very much.
One way or another, this is going to be a highly entertaining race to watch. That's about the only sure bet here. Barkeep! Another shot of libertarianism, my good man! Straight-up, no rocks, no chaser....
-- Chris Weigant
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