Rand Paul's Viewpoints Provide a Teachable Movement

I am deeply frustrated by the public response to Rand Paul's explanation that the 'only' part of the Civil Rights Act is the part where the government makes it illegal to refuse service to people because of their race, sex or religion. He explains that market forces will bring about the right result which, he hopes, may reduce discrimination.

The public conversation focuses on two canards. Whether or not he's a racist and, whether or not he would have compromised and voted for it. Toss in a little, "The media is mean to me," and you have a complete distraction.

These are fun topics for discussion but if you really think about the situation, you have to realize that the big deal is that he finally articulated the fundamental tea party question, when is the government allowed to assert control over the populace? Leaving aside the fact that their anarchic viewpoints tend to attract a lot of lunatics (the nazi picture carriers, etc), there really is an emerging theme in the tea party focused on the idea that much of what the government does to people is illegitimate.

Hitherto, this has only been said general terms. Sure, they like to decry health care reform, but this broad picture gives no view of where they see the boundary. Rand Paul has done us a favor by 1) getting himeself elected by a lot of tea partiers so he really can be said to be a representative sample of the species. And, 2) giving us a couple of really specific, real world examples of where he wants to draw the boundary separating the acceptable from the illegitimate..

I wish the interviewers would forget about the Civil Rights Act. Rand Paul is right, it's history. Further, it allows him to distract us by telling us he doesn't favor repeal. Nobody thinks he does. It's truly a non-issue. He uses all the juicy subtopics of civil rights to get people arguing about that, not focusing on this learning opportunity.

What I want to hear are questions about the Americans With Disabilities Act. I want to hear what he thinks about meat inspection and prohibitions on selling alcohol to minors. He has said that it's illegitimate to use government power to coerce behavior by BP in the Gulf. He brought up the coal mining industry in a context that implies that the intention to regulate them more carefully is inappropriate and meanspirited. He pretty clearly, it seemed to me, said that it's ok for the company to base safety measures on their cost-effectiveness. Sometimes there are accidents he says, and you can't make it all perfect.

I want to know what he thinks those of us that want to act together as a nation should do. I want everyone to be able to forget their ethnic heritage except when they are enjoying it. Along with a lot of people, I want no racial discrimination. What should we do to accomplish that?

He seems to think that the only action we can take is to refuse to buy their goods. What if that doesn't work? Do we have no legitimate recourse? Doesn't that really mean that our ultimate recourse is violence?

What about environmental regulation? I would like to know if he thinks that occupational and consumer safety regulations are overreaching? What about labeling and weights and measures. Should a company be able to actively misrepresent the contents of a package in the grocery store? I guess he see this as infringement on free speech.

I wanted Rachael Maddow to follow this line when she interviewed him. She has the brains to actually follow through, "Ok Mr Paul, what exactly is the 'principle' here?  All of these are fundamentally the same problem of the government imposing contraints on behaviors that are deemed undesireable by the legislators. Rand Paul seems to think any constraint is bad. That those of us in the rest of the society have no authority to say, We don't want to see racism any more!, and the only thing we can do is hope it changes if we only purchase things from people who are not racists.

We have an actual moment now, thanks to Rand Paul, where we could be focused on understanding the idea of limits of power. We also have a moment where this movement has shown it's real colors. I do not believe that the common voter would be pleased with a strong message of his sincerely held beliefs, at least if framed by focusing on the billion actual ways that life would be awful without and much better with, an appropriate amount government coercion.