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Invisible Hands, Invisible Liberty

Mark Bowen: Kentucky does appear to be a state red enough that Rand Paul, no matter how many times he slips up and tells his constituents how he really feels, is still likely to be their next Senator. But in many ways Republicans will be hurt more nationally if he is, making it a minimum of six more years, rather than six more months, that he’ll be their problem.

“Your freedom to move your arm ends where my nose begins” -John Stuart Mill

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“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” -Barry Goldwater

As we continue to review the results of last week’s elections, I don’t think anybody truly appreciates just how much good news these results contain for the Democrats. It’s not just that they now have a Senate nominee in Pennsylvania who has a prayer of beating Pat Toomey in November. It's not just that the voters in a red district didn’t seem to get the message that they’re supposed to make all Democrats, including those who opposed the health care bill, pay for its passage. And it's not even that Kentucky’s Republicans have selected a Senate nominee who will, supposedly, be easier for the Democrats to upset in November to pick up a seat.

In fact, looking at the situation honestly, Kentucky does appear to be a state red enough that Rand Paul, no matter how many times he slips up and tells his constituents how he really feels, is still likely to be their next Senator. But in many ways Republicans will be hurt more nationally if he is, making it a minimum of six more years, rather than six more months, that he’ll be their problem.

Right wing talk show host Michael Medved is already alleging a liberal media conspiracy to make Paul the nominee by waiting until after the primary to ask tough questions that might reveal the depths of his depravity (AOL News, 5/24/10). Speaking for mainstream media, Howard Fineman is able to cast aside the conspiracy theories, but still laments that Paul’s candidacy unfortunately “plays right into the developing stereotype of the tea party” (The Chris Mathews Show, 5/23/10).

In other words, if we allow right-wingers to “stereotype” themselves by being as honest about their extremism as their hero was in 1964, Americans just might start to get the right impression about them, and vote accordingly, as they did in that year. The right is shaking in its boots at this prospect. Progressives should be jumping for joy.

The fact that they aren’t yet suggests that hardly anybody, including progressives, seems to understand the logical destination the extremist ideology of Laissez Faire takes us, or its connection to the Civil Rights Act any better than Medved and Fineman. To put Fineman’s comment in its proper context, he was referring to how inappropriate it was to discredit right-wingers as racist.

Unlike Fineman, most progressives recall the attempts of George Wallace and company to portray the Civil Rights Movement as a communist conspiracy, but that doesn’t mean they really see the connection between the right’s defense of crony capitalism and its defense of Jim Crow. They probably attribute this attack line to the McCarthyism of the age, in which “communist” was the favorite ad-hominem attack to level against anything you didn’t like.

Surely this was a factor in the Right’s perception of such a conspiracy, but not nearly so much as this perception being the logical extension of an economic philosophy that is extremist in its very nature. If a capitalist has an inalienable right to do whatever he wants in pursuit of a profit, and any law that stands in the way is a conspiracy to expand government and lead the country toward socialism, then that long list of a capitalist’s rights quite obviously includes the right to discriminate.

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But the potential of Paul’s big mouth to expose to America the fallacy of the libertarian philosophy of “the freer the market the freer the people” does not end with his reluctance to join “mainstream Republicans” (the oxymoron of the year) by at least pretending this philosophy makes exceptions for civil rights. It isn’t just the inviolability of private property that libertarians venerate to a degree that should scare us all, but its reach, as illustrated by the one point of the original interview with the Louisville Courier Journal that is not being given its proper due by anybody, including Rachel Maddow.

When Paul tried to clarify his position by insisting that Congress was undoubtedly within its power to ban discrimination in places that receive federal funding, and that he’d wholeheartedly have supported legislation that applies to such places, the next question should have been, “and just what places would those be?”

And there’s the rub. The courts have consistently ruled that the protections of individual freedoms given to us by the Constitution do not apply in the private sector. That’s why a kid living under your roof does not have a First Amendment right to say whatever he or she likes, a point that even the most liberal among us who has ever been a parent would gladly concede. But that’s also why civil society has always depended on the existence of a vibrant public sector, a commons where the Bill of Rights does still mean something. It is this very commons, and all the rights associated with it, that are threatened by the “privatize everything” ideology that promises you liberty in all areas that are declared public, and then decides that there will be no such areas.

Thus, even the harshest rebukes thrown Paul’s way over the past week have missed the larger point, identifying the wrong danger in the extremism the libertarian philosophy represents. Whether or not Rand Paul personally abhors discrimination is not the issue. I have no doubt that he does. Whether or not every individual attending a Tea Party rally personally spat on Congressman John Lewis and called him a nigger is not the issue. I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of attendees do not share those racial attitudes. The danger of the extremism personified by the Tea Partiers lies not in the fact that they are racist, but because they are not.

What’s at stake is far more serious, a philosophy that puts property rights ahead of all others, saying that this right must not only be absolute where it does exist, but also omnipresent, so there’s no place in America where this right of the top one percent does not trump all the others claimed by the other ninety nine. The ruling class, in whose hands is being concentrated a larger and larger share of the nation’s private property, sees a future in which their right to move their arm does not end where your nose begins, and where your rights extend nowhere. Extremism in defense of liberty is a contradiction in terms.

The problem has always been how difficult it is to explain this to your average American, who doesn’t have 46 years of experience witnessing the failure of the “privatization” panacea to create a private alternative to “big government” that doesn’t contain bureaucracy and better protects their freedom. But you’d have a difficult time finding anybody whose knowledge of history is so poor as to believe that the lack of “big government” interference with lunch counters created a freer society in the South prior to 1964. And once the failure of Adam Smith’s invisible hand to promote liberty becomes manifest in one segment of American life, its many other failings will become more and more apparent to the public.

Although the immediate impact of Paul’s words has certainly hurt him and the larger tea party cause, continuing to play the racism card has never been a winning issue for progressives. But what happened in Kentucky last week has opened a door to go much farther and attack the prevailing tenet of the right’s extremist ideology. We’ll get more and more opportunities to do so as the tea party inevitably produces more and more Rand Pauls. Bring him on!


Mark Bowen

Long Beach Community College District Board