“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney famously told a room full of donors in May of 2012. These are the people, Romney claimed, who are “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
It was an extraordinarily damaging moment for Romney’s campaign, but it was an equally candid disclosure of Romney’s campaign strategy. Romney — who campaigned on a budget that would privatize Medicare, throw as many as 13 million people off of food stamps and give the richest 0.1 percent of Americans a $264,000 tax cut — admitted that he had little to offer voters who live close to the margins of American society. So his best path to victory was to cobble together a coalition of Americans who did not need a social safety net to protect them from destitution. Ultimately, however, the strategy failed. In an ironic turn, Romney received only about 47 percent of the vote himself.
What makes Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) own bid for the presidency so fascinating is that he wholeheartedly rejects the strategy underlying Romney’s campaign. Though Paul supports slashing America’s safety net in ways that make Romney look like Paul Wellstone, and though Paul famously opposes bans on discrimination by private businesses, the senator behaves as if he can peel off traditionally Democratic constituencies by emphasizing the one aspect of his anti-government philosophy that has real potential to improve the lives of marginalized Americans, criminal justice. As Paul told a predominantly white audience in Nevada on Saturday,
Go meet people who live in poverty, and ask them why their sons all seem to be incarcerated or killed . . . . The war on drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in an impossible situation. Three out of four people in jail for drug crimes are people of color, but if you look at the statistics, white people are using drugs at the same rate. We have somehow snatched up so many people of one race that it is now unfair, and we should do something to make it fair.
While Romney simply wrote off 47 percent of the nation, Paul calls for a philosophical sea change in how Americans view the role of government — and he offers the poor and people of color a devilish deal: allow Paul to dismantle the American welfare and regulatory state, and he will free them from the all-too-common stories of police brutality and overincarceration. Before anyone agrees to buy what Paul is selling, however, they should understand the full contours of his proposed deal.
Genocide by Neglect
The degree to which Paul proposes to tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools cannot be overstated. Though Paul now presents his anti-government philosophy as the antidote to a society which dooms far too many poor people of color to a life behind bars, that philosophy has far more insidious roots. As I explain in my book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, economic libertarianism was not built on a foundation of empathy for the poor and the downtrodden. To the contrary, the social theorist who is arguably the father of modern libertarianism literally argued that the impoverished and the unfortunate should be left to die in order to purify the human race.
Though Paul’s proved more willing to compromise his libertarian principles — especially on matters of foreign policy than his father, the staunchly anti-government former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the younger Paul’s departures from libertarian orthodoxy are typically on matters such as gay rights, marijuana legalization, and defense policy — issues where libertarians and liberals often find common ground. On economic matters and on issues like civil rights, Rand is very much his father’s son. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza explained in a profile of Rand, “[i]t would be impossible . . . to describe Rand Paul’s politics without indicating his father’s influence.” Rand “grew up steeped in the libertarian political philosophy beloved by his father, and he worked as a strategist on Ron Paul’s many political campaigns, watching as his father’s ideas helped to shape the Republican Party and give rise to the Tea Party.” Where Rand has departed from his father’s rigid views, a friend and advisor to both Pauls told Lizza, it’s because Paul is more “committed to winning” than his father is.
Ron Paul claims the late Murray Rothbard, an economist and self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” as a foundational figure in his own intellectual development. “It would be difficult to exaggerate Professor Murray N. Rothbard’s influence on the movement for freedom and free markets,” the elder Paul wrote in a collection of essays celebrating Rothbard’s work. “Rothbard is the founder of the modern libertarian movement,” Ron Paul continued, adding that “in my own political work, I have been profoundly influenced by the lucid and brilliant works of Rothbard.”
Meanwhile, the man that Paul, père labels as “the founder of the modern libertarian movement” was himself heavily influenced by nineteenth century thinkers who laid the intellectual groundwork for modern libertarianism. The “greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written,” according to Rothbard, is the British social theorist Herbert Spencer’s 1851 text Social Statics.
At the height of his popularity, Spencer enjoyed the kind of celebrity among American elites that is now reserved for movie stars. Spencer sold nearly 370,000 copies of his works to American readers, a figure that is virtually unheard of for authors producing difficult works of philosophy and sociology. When he toured the United States in 1882, hotel managers and railways competed for the opportunity to serve him, while reporters clamored for interviews. At a New York banquet in Spencer’s honor, he was toasted by a former United States senator and member of President Rutherford B. Hayes’s cabinet.
At the time, America looked much like the kind of libertarian paradise that the Pauls offer up as utopia. The Industrial Revolution and the railroads enabled a single business to serve an entire nation, and that, in turn, enabled the owners of those businesses to grow wealthier than anyone who had ever previously lived. Meanwhile, the framework of worker safety laws, antitrust laws, and other legal protections needed to smooth the rough edges of this new economic reality did not yet exist, and the courts were often openly hostile to attempts to craft such protections.
Indeed, many of the decisions of this era would probably even make the Pauls blush. When a 14-year-old girl employed by a laundry crushed her hand between the two heavy rollers of a machine used to press collars, New York’s highest court held that by merely “accepting this work and entering upon the employment about this machine,” the young girl assumed the risk she would be injured by it. Workers like this permanently disabled girl, the court wrote, “cannot call upon the defendant to make alterations to secure greater safety.” (The author of that decision, Judge Rufus Peckham, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1895. Last January, Rand Paul praised Justice Peckham’s most famous decision, Lochner v. New York, which gave employers sweeping rights to exploit their workers, as a model for the judiciary to follow.)
Speaking at the banquet in his honor, Spencer lavished great praise on the proto-libertarian nation where he was a guest. “From biological truths it is to be inferred,” Spencer told the attendees, “that the eventual mixture of the allied varieties of the Aryan race forming the population [of the United States] will produce a finer type of man than has hitherto existed.”
Spencer’s own philosophy can safely be described as genocidal libertarianism. In Social Statics, the book Rothbard raises up as the “greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written,” Spencer argues that “[i]nconvenience, suffering, and death are the penalties attached by nature to ignorance, as well as to incompetence.” They are also, he adds, “the means of remedying” these traits. “By weeding out those of lowest development” Spencer explained, “nature secures the growth of a race who shall both understand the conditions of existence, and be able to act up to them. . . . Nature demands that every being shall be self-sufficing. All that are not so, nature is perpetually withdrawing by death.”
Rather than proving nature’s cruelty, Spencer believed that this deadly game “purif[ied] society from those who are, in some respect or other, essentially faulty.” If a man or woman is “sufficiently complete to live,” then they should live. But if “they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
Needless to say, Spencer saw no place for what he labeled “[a]cts of parliament to save silly people.”
A Kinder, Gentler Libertarianism
Since the publication of Social Statics in the mid-nineteenth century, similarly-minded thinkers have learned to express their views in less stark terms, but they rarely tried to pretend that their philosophy would lift up the poor and the downtrodden. Economic libertarianism lost its hold on American government in the 1930s, when a nation caught in the grips of the Great Depression looked to Washington to relieve its suffering. Justice George Sutherland, the intellectual leader of a bloc of conservative justices who fought a losing battle to preserve Peckham’s libertarian approach to the law, took on a decidedly Spencerian tone in a dissenting opinion scolding the millions of Americans cast into destitution by the Great Depression. The “vital lesson” these Americans failed to learn, according to Sutherland, was that “expenditure beyond income begets poverty.” And just as Spencer urged lawmakers not to enact “[a]cts of parliament to save silly people,” Sutherland insisted that “[i]ndiscretion or imprudence was not to be relieved by legislation.”
Today, activists who share the Pauls’ belief that Sutherland was right and President Franklin Roosevelt was wrong about the proper role of government frequently look to Ayn Rand for inspiration. Yet Ayn Rand dismisses people who seek government assistance during times of need as “irrational,” “parasites,” “dishonest,” “thieving loafers,” “compromising knaves,” “sniveling neurotics,” and as “both a beggar and a sucker.” This is not, to say the least, the kind of rhetoric that is designed to coax Americans close to the margins of society to support dismantling the safety net.
In a 2009 video explaining that he is not, in fact, named after Ayn Rand, Rand Paul describes himself as a “big fan of Ayn Rand” who “cut my teeth” on her books in high school, and who “read a lot of the different free market Austrian economists who were sort-of fellow travelers with Ayn Rand.” One of those economists, by the way, was Rothbard, who Senator Paul says that he was “lucky enough to meet” in the 1980s when Rothbard spoke to a group of interns working in Washington, DC. After the talk, Paul drove Rothbard to the airport, and the economist regaled the future presidential candidate with personal stories of his (at times tense) relationship with Ayn Rand.
It is easy, in other words, to draw a clear intellectual line to Rand Paul’s anti-government philosophy that travels through past thinkers like Spencer, Ayn Rand, Rothbard and Ron Paul. What makes Paul different than the earlier members of his philosophical lineage, however, is his confidence that a broader libertarian philosophy can be sold to the men and women Ayn Rand once described as “parasites” if he only shifts focus to his own legitimate concerns about criminal justice.
The Hard Part About Believing In Freedom
Paul’s bid for those voters Ayn Rand calls “thieving loafers” and “compromising knaves” is an extraordinarily bold play. Outside of the criminal justice context, Paul’s policies are far crueler to marginalized Americans than Romney’s or even Romney’s running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI). Under Paul’s proposed budgets, “the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are basically eliminated; there are no Title I grants, IDEA grants to fund special education, or Section 8 housing vouchers; Obamacare is repealed; and Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and food stamps see more than a trillion dollars in cuts” — and that’s before you account for the fact that he also “substantially privatizes both Social Security and Medicare.” Paul’s 2014 budget also suggests that progressive taxation is unconstitutional, a view that makes Romney’s proposed $264,000 tax cut for the very wealthy look downright moderate.
On race, Paul believes states should be free to enact laws that serve no purpose other than to disenfranchise voters of color and other groups that tend to prefer Democrats to Republicans. He claimed that he wants to “restore a federal role for the government in the Voting Rights Act” sometime after the Supreme Court neutered one of the act’s core provisions, but he’s neither signed onto a bipartisan proposal to reinvigorate the act nor has he proposed his own alternative. And then there’s his opposition to anti-discrimination laws.
Last week, ThinkProgress argued that Paul “would be the worst president on civil rights since the 1800s” if he were elected. Though America has had no shortage of presidents who were openly racist and who pushed despicably racist policies, no president in the last century has called for the kind of wholesale dismantling of hard-fought civil rights legislation that Paul supports.
According to Paul, “[d]ecisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered,” even if that leads to employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters. Allowing discrimination, Paul said in a 2010 interview where he explained his opposition to many key provisions of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, is “the hard part about believing in freedom.”
Nevertheless, in an essay that, had it not been published in the Daily Beast, would now exist in a metaphysical World of Being as the Platonic form of a #SlatePitch, the libertarian writer Nick Gillespie argues that Rand Paul may be the single best presidential candidate in any party on issues of race:
[O]f all real and imagined Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House, Rand Paul is the only one who seriously questioned just what the fuck was going on last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, when an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white policeman. “There is a systematic problem with today’s law enforcement,” wrote Paul in Time, on August 14. “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.” It was only a long two weeks later that Hillary Clinton, then and now the presumptive Democratic candidate, got around to weighing in on the matter with platitudes such as “we are better than that.” . . .
Racially divisive drug laws and indefensible sentencing guidelines punish all Americans, but they punish blacks far more often and far more intensely. There’s only one major-party person running for president who has been raising any of this since he took office, and his name is Rand Paul.
Notably, Gillespie barely mentions Rand Paul’s lifelong opposition to anti-discrimination laws preventing private discrimination, and he only mentions them long enough to assert that fears that a presidential candidate who openly opposes such laws may significantly harm the cause of civil rights are “wildly overblown.”
The unspoken premise of Gillespie’s essay, and of Senator Paul’s broader appeal to low-income voters and people of color, is that addressing our broken criminal justice system is a matter of such paramount importance that a politician who speaks boldly about solving its many problems can overcome a litany of other proposals that would cast millions of Americans into destitution — or, worse, that Paul’s opposition to civil rights law should not count as a demerit against his civil rights record. In reality, however, the bargain the younger Paul offers is profoundly pessimistic. It tells the residents of poor and still-segregated neighborhoods throughout America that they cannot expect government to protect them from discrimination or to give them a leg up out of poverty, so the best that they can hope for is that their unarmed children will not be shot and killed by police officers.
Moreover, even if one ignores the vicious intellectual roots of Paul’s economic policies, his suggestion that the federal government must curb its ambitions when it comes to civil rights ignores history. Jim Crow public school segregation did not end because the Supreme Court ordered state governments to cut it out — ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, only one in eighty-five Southern black children attended an integrated school. Rather, Southern schools began to integrate after big, Washington-centered government intervened, in part by making federal education funds contingent upon segregated schools agreeing to allow black and white children to learn together.
Similarly, bans on private race discrimination did not, as Paul suggests, tear down respect for property rights. What they did do is help build a national consensus around the view that race discrimination by businesses is morally wrong and unacceptable. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for example, which was decided almost exactly half a century after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act that Paul criticizes, all five members of the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc joined an opinion acknowledging that there is such a “compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race” that this interest can overcome the strictest level of review under the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Gillespie is right to acknowledge the challenge that Rand Paul presents for Hillary Clinton. Voters should not need to choose between food stamps and freedom from police brutality, or between the Civil Rights Act and the right not to be locked away over a few grams of marijuana. But if Clinton allows Paul to attack her from the left on criminal justice, many voters could face that choice in 2016, and some of them may be so consumed by their fears of a police force run amok that they will cast their lot with Paul.
Clinton, and her fellow Democrats, can ensure that voters do not have to make this choice by offering equally ambitious proposals to reform our criminal justice system. If they do not do so, they shouldn’t be surprised if many of their traditional supporters take comfort in Paul’s rhetoric on police and incarceration, and fail to notice the many strings that come attached to Paul’s criminal justice agenda.