The Right to Be Racist?
With Ron Paul well positioned to win the Iowa Caucuses, the Republican establishment is in full panic mode. They are well aware that Paul actually means what he says about cutting $1 trillion from the federal budget during his first year in office, including removing U.S. troops from the active wars in the Middle East and from their decades-long deployments in Europe and elsewhere around the world. In other words, for the beneficiaries of big government, both liberal and conservative, the party will be over. Desperate to prevent this, they are looking for something, anything, that they can attack him on.
The trouble with attacking Paul is there is not much to attack. He has no closet full of ex-wives, tawdry affairs, or dirty political deals. More importantly, he has been a consistent conservative throughout his political career. He doesn't have to explain away a Romneycare or television ads promoting the liberal environmentalist agenda. He doesn't have to explain why he has changed his position on issues conservatives deem crucial to their ideology and platform. He can't be attacked for his economic plan because it is precisely what conservatives say they believe in, but never do. While his foreign policy is out of step with the current Republican establishment, it is consistent with that of conservative icons Ronald Reagan and Robert Taft, which Paul takes every opportunity to point out. It is also resonating with the American people, including active military personnel, who donate more to Paul's campaign than to all of the other Republican candidates combined.
So, in a desperate attempt to find something to attack, Republicans are resorting to the old, liberal trick of implying that he is a racist. They can't call him a racist outright because the allegation would be ludicrous. Paul and his positions have become too well-known, including his own denunciation of racism as "an ugly form of collectivism." Instead, the establishment seeks to associate Paul with racism indirectly, citing campaign contributions from white supremacists that Paul didn't return or the famous newsletters, an issue that was put to rest a decade ago.
However, the one question of substance that the establishment can raise and which Paul should expect to be heavily emphasized should he win the nomination is his stance on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here, Paul's strict adherence to libertarian principles would seem to mean that Paul recognizes a right to be racist, regardless of how distasteful he may find racism personally. If that's true, then it is going to hurt Paul politically, especially in the general election when the full power of the liberal media is aligned against him. Paul should expect to be questioned on this in every interview. The strategy was effective against Barry Goldwater, who also opposed the Civil Rights Act, and will be effective against Paul if he cannot answer it more effectively.
It is a testament to the character of the American people that any association with racism immediately elicits aversion and disgust. The idea that a human being might somehow be inferior because of a superficial genetic variation like skin pigmentation, which is about as significant as attached ear lobes, is the height of ignorance, leftover from a more barbaric past. The majority of Americans have decided long ago that this is something that they want no part of and ought to be banished from civil society. But what about the minority who do not agree? Does Ron Paul or the libertarian philosophy in general recognize a right to be racist?
The short answer is no. The whole line of reasoning comes out of a misunderstanding of libertarianism and, more fundamentally, rights. Libertarianism does not recognize the existence of "positive rights." To libertarians, all rights are negative. Thus there is no right to be racist, just as there is no right to be charitable, tolerant, or honest. There is only the right not to have force used against you unless you have previously initiated force against someone else. This is the essence of liberty and libertarianism. It is the only theory of rights that can be reconciled with reason.
Consider the right to life. Regardless of how they feel about the supposed right to healthcare, a living wage, or other controversial "rights," everyone recognizes the right to life. But what is this right? Is it a right to live under all circumstances? No. When someone dies of natural causes, no one alleges that their right to life has been violated. Similarly, if one dies of a fatal disease or is killed by a flood or eaten by a lion, no one would allege that their right to life was infringed, however tragic their death may have been. The right to life is specifically the right not to be killed by another human being. Even this definition of the right to life has a limit. Your right to life does not protect you from being killed by another human being if he is defending himself against you while you are trying to kill him.
This reasoning applies to all rights. The right to liberty is the right not to have another human being forcefully inhibit your actions if they do not harm another person. The right to property is the right not to have another human being take your justly acquired possessions away from you against your will.
Thus, libertarianism does not defend the right of an employer to discriminate based upon race, it defends his right not have violence initiated against him if he does. Understanding this point requires a recognition of reality - that every law is backed up by the threat of violence if it is not obeyed. While the vast majority of libertarians - in fact, the vast majority of all people - find racial discrimination distateful, libertarians recognize that it does not constitute violence against other people and therefore its practitioners have a right not to have violence used against them. Thus, there can be no just law against racism or racial discrimination. That is not an endorsement of bigotry. It is merely a consistent application of the principle of liberty.
So would a libertarian society include signs on restaurants saying "No Blacks Allowed" or vast inequities in employment opportunities for racial minorities, women, or the disabled? No. Why not? Because a libertarian society would include an unregulated free market, with no privileges or artificial advantages for connected corporations, which means unlimited competition among firms selling similar products and services. As I've said before, the racist employer loses in such a market economy. Any employer that consistently chooses to hire less talented employees based upon their race will, by definition, have a less talented workforce than its non-racist competitor. This does not rely upon altruism, boycotts, or any other sacrifice of individual self-interest. The employer that hires the most talented people, regardless of race, sex, or other non-essential characteristics does so because it is in his economic best interests to do so. A more talented workforce increases his profits and allows him to gain market share, eventually putting the racist out of business.
Similarly, the restaurant or movie theater that turns away customers based upon race (or other non-economic factors) puts itself at a fatal disadvantage against the restaurant or movie theater that sells to all consumers willing to buy its products. This doesn't even account for the societal aversion that would result from anyone putting up a sign saying "Whites Only" or "No Blacks Allowed." Even discounting the fact that most Americans would boycott such an establishment merely on principle, the racist restaurateur or movie theater owner loses, for purely economic reasons. In other words, even assuming that all economic players act only in their own self-interest and no one makes any decisions based upon moral aversion to racism, the market will still defeat racism, every time.
The only other solution is totalitarianism. If government regulation is really the answer, then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not nearly go far enough in fighting racism. Regarding employment, the legislation is arbitrarily selective in the racism that it prohibits. As I've said before, the employment contract is merely a buyer-seller arrangement. Employers are buyers of a product (labor) from sellers of that product (employees). Why should this buyer-seller contract be treated any differently from any other buyer-seller arrangement? Why should the government not be regulating every purchase we make, ensuring that we buy approximately 12.5% of our food, gasoline, or toilet paper from black-owned firms, or approximately 50% of those products from women-owned firms? While that might seem ludicrous, it is not substantively different in principle from the idea that the government can prohibit racism when employers purchase labor. Neither is the prospect of punishing black or female consumers for not buying enough products from white-owned or male-owned firms.
If Americans take the time to think these issues through, they will continue to abhor racism but will join Paul and libertarians in their opposition to those sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that deal with private property and personal decisions. Liberty does mean that some people will do things that we don't like, but it affords us the ability not to associate with those people, to disapprove of their actions, to voice that opposition openly, and to persuade others to condemn it as we do. It gives us the ability to make our own decisions about who we associate with, who we do business with, including who we buy from and who we sell to, and forces us to live with the consequences of those decisions. By prohibiting racism under the threat of violence, the government actually gives racists cover. If given the freedom to hire, buy, and sell based upon race, as they wish to, the market will more quickly put them where they belong - out of business.
So how does Ron Paul handle this deeply divisive philosophical issue without compromising his principles, and do so during the average one-minute soundbyte during an interview? While I would not presume to be able to articulate the principles of liberty better than Ron Paul, who has been doing so for over 30 years, I humbly suggest the following:
"Personally, I agree with the vast majority of Americans that abhor racism and other forms of discrimination against people based upon superficial characteristics that have nothing to do with the content of their character. However, we have to find a way to fight this problem without trampling the rights to liberty and property that are the bedrock of a free society. So, I'll make you a deal. You give me an unregulated free market where everyone is free to dispose of their person and property as they see fit, as long as they do not invade the person or property of others. If, under those circumstances, someone actually puts up a sign that says "Whites Only" or "No Blacks Allowed," I'll be open for business the very next day, right across the street. My sign will say "Everybody Welcome." We'll see who's still in business a month after that."
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.