Washington Matters


Why the Rand Paul Debate Is Healthy

Mark Willen

Maybe -- just maybe -- Rand Paul's candidacy can spark the serious discussion this country needs.



Whatever your views of the GOP’s new Senate candidate in Kentucky, there’s something to be said for a constructive discussion about the proper size and role of government -- something beyond the slogans and the name calling that has characterized the political discourse thus far.

As everyone now knows, Paul got into political hot water last week when he suggested (as he has since 2002) that a key portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a problem. It’s a mistake, he argued, for government to be telling private property owners what they can or can’t do on that property. He was quick to add that he abhors discrimination and he wouldn’t patronize an establishment that practices it, but he’s uncomfortable banning it.

The story attracted so much attention because Paul is the Tea Party candidate, and his primary win over the GOP establishment-backed candidate represented the first major electoral victory for the Tea Party. Most people know what the Tea Party is against, but few know what it is for, so Paul’s comments were seized as an important indication.

But Paul, like his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), is a libertarian who happens to have Tea Party backing, not a Tea Party candidate with libertarian backing. He is truly for minimalist government, and his comments on the Civil Rights Act are entirely consistent with that. And they’re not as indefensible as some liberals would like to think. In an ideal world, any health club that posted a “No Blacks Welcome” sign would be shunned by patrons and quickly go out of business. But this is not an ideal world, and the reality is that discrimination is far from dead. And even if it were true for blacks, would most people also shun a health club that said “No Gays Welcome”?

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The fact that the Rand controversy involved civil rights was a particular lightning rod because the Tea Party has been fighting hard to shuck its image of a whites-only group that welcomes racists. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party’s rise coincided with the election of Barack Obama. Its main planks are lower taxes, smaller deficits and smaller government. But the expansion of government and deficit spending began under President George W. Bush, not Obama, and brought no rise of the Tea Party. And as for taxes, Obama has lowered, not increased, them. The ugly posters that show up at Tea Party rallies add to the racist concern, as does the fact that 30% of those identifying with both the Tea Party and the racially tinged birther movement denying that Obama was born in the U.S., despite overwhelming evidence.

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times today, points out that Paul could have avoided this debate by simply saying that while he opposes government controls on private institutions, civil rights merits an exception because of our history.

That may be true, but Americans on all sides of this issue should welcome the debate that Rand has spawned. Very few of us are on the absolute extremes -- wanting either complete government control or a total withdrawal of government. The issue, so simple in big vs. small government slogans, is far more complicated: What exactly do we want government to do or not do, and how do we pay for what we want?

This immediately puts us into shades of gray. Private businesses need autonomy, but does that mean they should be free to hire illegal immigrants? Should restaurants be allowed to serve meals without FDA checks on food safety? Should toys be sold without someone checking the lead content? Should oil companies be allowed to drill beneath the sea without government-approved safety measures?

There are a million of these questions, and unfortunately, most need to be considered separately. Some general guidelines might help -- e.g., government is responsible for health and safety -- but they’re no substitute for specifics. Even a health and safety standard quickly breaks down when we can’t agree on the safety of carbon dioxide emissions or whether cigarettes should be banned.

If Paul’s candidacy leads to a constructive debate on these issues, I, for one, will be grateful to him. But that will require an engaged public, lowered rhetoric and politicians interested in more than which party controls the levers of powers. Here’s hoping.




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