The Fuzzy Public/Private Line

Posted on


File:JimCrowInDurhamNC 1

One thing that I hope people will come to appreciate now that Rand Paul has given more exposure to libertarian opposition to the Civil Rights Act is that questions of racism aside, any effort to ground your political philosophy in an incredibly rigid and dogmatic division between what’s “public” and what’s “private” is ultimately going to fail. For one thing, as Charles Lane points out the way you enforce your private “no black customers in my restaurant” law is by having the police arrest someone for trespassing.

But more broadly, precisely because our society isn’t organized around the principles of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute there are no private businesses in which government activity isn’t somehow implicated. The federal reserve controls the money supply. State, local, and federal governments build the roads. Electrical utilities are regulated. Bank deposits are insured. Public policy is everywhere, and thus just about everything could be legitimately considered a subject for public regulation. That’s not to say that everything should be considered a subject for public regulation.

It makes an enormous amount of sense to give private individuals and businesses a wide degree of freedom in how they want to conduct themselves. But it doesn’t make sense to hold that there’s an impenetrable wall of principle that prevents regulation of private business affairs. Now perhaps Paul would just argue that this shows we need to return to the economic stone age—scrap the FDIC, return to the gold standard, undo a 200-year tradition of public investment in infrastructure, etc.—but that’s really nuts. And this is why I think the “Paul’s not a racist, he’s just an ideologue” defense is ultimately so weak. It may well be accurate, but it’s still incredibly damning.