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Ron Paul AFP/Getty

I understand the appeal of Ron Paul.  He is the authentic “get government off my back” candidate.  He is against almost all wars, and he is for many of the same “individual liberties” that I support, including the right to choose whether or not I can smoke marijuana in my home, or drive the car of my choice.  Essentially, his political philosophy promotes the seductive belief that most of us are mature, responsible citizens who will make good decisions if left alone by the government.  Unlike most politicians, he doesn’t seem the least bit cynical about any of this.

But as I look more deeply into his positions on education, health care, race, and the environment, I find his particular brand of libertarianism to be less “liberal” (in the classic sense of “freedom-promoting”) than “self-interested” (that is, in the Ayn Rand sense of “I worked hard for what I’ve got, now leave me alone and do the same”).  The problem with the latter type of “libertarianism” is that its claim to authentic liberty is not supported by historical and social circumstances.  Moreover, it confuses a free society with a completely self-interested one.

Take a look at Paul’s position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example.  On June 3, 2004, the fortieth anniversary of the bill’s passage, he rose alone on the House floor to declare his opposition to a resolution honoring it.  He argued that while he believed civil rights for African-Americans is a good thing, having the federal government intervene to “force” it on us is not.

Mr. Speaker, I rise to explain my objection to H.Res. 676. I certainly join my colleagues in urging Americans to celebrate the progress this country has made in race relations. However, contrary to the claims of the supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the sponsors of H.Res. 676, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

The bold print is his (as it appears on his website) so I think it is safe to assume that Paul believes this to be an important element of his argument.  As a son of the south (or Texas anyway) this is an argument that I’m quite familiar with.  In my case, I grew up in Friendswood, Texas, just north of Paul’s own congressional district, so I understand the context in which this rhetoric is employed.  And context, in this case, is everything.

Notice how Paul’s statement shifts the blame for racial tensions in America from the issue of racism itself toward a supposedly freedom-hating federal government. The main problem with this line of reasoning is that it was actually freedom-denying, segregationist, local and state officials (including sheriffs such as Bull Connor in Alabama) who wouldn’t relinquish their power over African-Americans.  When even the local sheriff won’t protect you, where do you turn?

So, when federal officials finally intervened to correct these abuses of liberty, the fight was on, and of course racial conflict increased.  When restaurants and department stores post signs that say “No niggers allowed,” and Jim Crow drafts legislation that denies African-Americans their right to vote, how can the federal government not intervene?  It seems to me that the expansion of civil liberties to African-American citizens would be an issue that libertarians would whole-heartedly embrace.

Instead, Ron Paul continues to oppose it.

Of course, America has made great strides in race relations over the past forty years. However, this progress is due to changes in public attitudes and private efforts. Relations between the races have improved despite, not because of, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

A little historical context is in order here.  While Paul is correct that attitudes have been slowly changing, it is also a historical fact that it took federal action to enforce desegregation in the first place.  It simply wasn’t happening on its own.  After being confirmed in the supreme court ruling on Plessy vs. Ferguson (1898), racial segregation in America was actually the law of the land until 1954, when the court finally reversed itself in its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.  Even then, local and state officials in the south simply refused to comply.  Let us not forget that president Eisenhower had to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas just to make sure that African American children could go to school with white kids.  Also, let us not forget that James Meredith’s attempt to enter the University of Mississippi was denied on the grounds of “states’ rights.”  In both cases federal intervention was necessary to correct these injustices because racism was so deeply entrenched in almost every aspect of white southern “culture,” including its positions of leadership and law enforcement.

Yet an image of the federal government as some kind of rights-hating monster persists, especially in regard to race relations.  But the truth is the federal government has actually been quite hesitant to intervene in matters concerning race.  This goes back as far as the original consitutional convention which coughed up the tragic conclusion that African Americans count as 3/5 of a human being.  Closer to our own time, let’s not forget that long after Brown vs. Board (which was decided during the Eisenhower administration) John Kennedy was seen by many African Americans as being too passive in the enforcement and expansion of civil rights.  Apparently, the political consequences of losing the south weighed heavily on him.  But when the nation saw the ugly images of Bull Connor’s German Shepherds and fire hoses (see the video below), as well as the violent protests at the University of Mississippi in opposition to James Meredith’s enrollment, Kennedy’s hand was forced.  The result was the Civil Rights Act, which Kennedy initiated and Lyndon Johnson saw through (at great political cost for his party, at least in the short-term).

All you have to do is look at this National History Day video on segregation in Alabama to see that private efforts, while important, were not enough to secure the freedoms of black citizens in the south.  As you watch this clip ask yourself if things would have just worked themselves out.

Ron Paul’s claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional because it limited the rights of white business owners reveals an alarmingly narrow sense of what freedom means.  It also demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution.  While freedom from government was certainly an important principle in the framers’ minds, as exemplified by the Bill of Rights, so was the freedom from mob rule, as exemplified by the separation of powers.  It is for the latter reason that we are not simply a “democracy,” but rather a constitutitonal republic.

As John Locke, the Scottish philosopher (and libertarian hero) whose ideas had a profound influence on both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, suggested, we are all participants in a social contract between the governed and the government. The government’s role is to protect and promote each citizen’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property.  On the one hand, if a government acts arbitrarily to deny those rights, then the governed have a moral obligation to replace it.  On the other hand, as citizens we ask the government to protect us from any infringement of our liberties by other citizens.  Is this not what African Americans did in the southern states?

Our framers clearly understood that the most vulnerable among us are the ones most in need of protection from the mob.  When I see those images of Bull Connor’s attack dogs, I cringe at the thought that a serious presidential candidate believes that Connor’s freedoms are somehow being violated by the Civil Rights Act.  That isn’t freedom, it is self-interest.