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Civil Property Rights

May 23, 2010

Say what you will about Michael Steele, but his statement on the controversy surrounding Rand Paul’s comments on the Civil Rights Act is right on spot:

Mr. Steele said that view expressed by Mr. Paul in his letter was “a philosophical position held by a lot of libertarians, which Rand Paul is. They have a very, very strong view about the limitations of government intrusion into the private sector.”

Mr. Steele added, “We have had a lot of members go to the United States Senate with a lot of different philosophies, but when they get to the body, how they work to move the country forward matters.”

There clearly are two things in this argument: one is racial discrimination, the other is property rights. For Monsieur Paul, even racial discrimination isn’t good enough a reason to break (broadly defined) property rights. He’s a libertarian, all right.

Needless to say, Paul has clearly and repeatedly stated that he abhors racial discrimination of any sort. What Paul is actually saying in his Civil Rights Act comment is that government shouldn’t have the right to make it illegal for you to be a bigot on your property. If you abstract the notion a little from the context of the Civil Rights Act that sounds pretty reasonable.

Imagine you wanted to invite some friends and neighbours to a garden party. But one of your neighbours is the French Cowboy and you just don’t really like the French – no offence and all, but you think the frog eaters really stink. So the French Cowboy’s invitation gets lost in the post. Would you like there to be a law that would make you end up in a prison cell with a bail bond of $500 when the French Cowboy suspects something and complains about you? If you do, then you are beyond help. If you don’t, then you see Rand Paul’s point.

Of course, in the particular context of the 1960’s, after slavery and then segregation, less staunch libertarians than Monsieur Paul would probably see a need to force even private institutions to refrain from racial discrimination. It seems necessary to tear an entire society out of its segregation mindset.

But what does Paul’s opinion on this specific matter mean for today? Where is the institutional discrimination that is equivalent to the situation that led up to the 1964 Act? There is none of this kind. Racial discrimination we have today is either really out of government’s reach unless you want a thought police, or it’s a result of too much government activity, not too little. And this means, that all Paul’s statement signifies for today’s politics is that he is a strong believer in private property rights, particularly given that he strongly and unequivocally denounced all sorts of discrimination based on race.

Because the US is no longer a society in which racial discrimination is rampant and that begs for legislation to end bigotry of this kind, Paul’s statement has nothing to do with his views on race, but is all about the limits of government with respect to your property and privacy.

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