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Rand Paul Compartmentalizes Jim Crow Laws—But Continues Slow Crawl to Right Conclusion

Gage Skidmore / Flickr.com
Gage Skidmore / Flickr.com

In her long, begrudgingly admiring profile of Sen. Rand Paul, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe relays this anecdote from Paul’s visit to a historically black college in Louisville:

Though he would still not give them a definitive answer on his position on the Civil Rights Act, he did say that he believed federal intervention had been justified. “I’m not a firm believer in democracy,” he explained. “It gave us Jim Crow.”

Paul’s apparently tepid enthusiasm for democracy set Jonathan Chait on a rant about the insidious influence of Ayn Rand on the Kentucky senator’s political ideology: “horror at segregation isn’t really what drives Paul’s distrust of democracy.  It’s the idea that democracy allows the majority to vote away the property of the minority.”

I think Chait’s uncharitable interpretation is unfair to Paul. It seems to me that the senator was defending “federal intervention” (Ioffe’s term, to be sure) on grounds amenable both to self-described constitutional conservatives as well as high-liberal “interpretivist” defenders of judicial review: when the fundamental rights of individuals are traduced by majorities, federal intervention is warranted. That is, the realization of democratic values sometimes requires antimajoritarian means.

For what it’s worth, I doubt it’s the shadow of Ayn Rand lurking over Paul here, but, rather, those of Hayek and von Mises and their disciples. It’s a talking point one encounters frequently: Jim Crow was an inefficient distortion of the marketplace (true, as far as it goes!). Or, Jim Crow was a “product of government.”

This sort of hand-waving—“Government did it; nothing to see here”—is an unfortunate tic. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Freeman, riffing on C. Vann Woodward’s classic midcentury text The Strange Career of Jim Crow, has written:

Jim Crow laws were not the primary cause of segregation in the South. In many places few laws, if any, explicitly restricted blacks from entry into desirable social positions, from purchasing property in white neighborhoods, from entering private schools and colleges, or from using hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and other private businesses frequented by whites. Still, these events rarely occurred due to tacit (often explicit) agreement among whites.

Racial injustice (hardly limited to the South) was not merely a body of statutes. Jim Crow laws did not emerge ex nihilo; they were a product of culture and custom. To approach this period of American history strictly in terms of property and “the marketplace” is to cut oneself off from the neck down. As I implied earlier, however, I don’t want to make too much of this: whether from intellectual mellowing or political calculation, Rand Paul seems to be coming to grips with the limits of libertarian thinking on civil rights. He is behaving less like an ideological android and more like a politician.

I say, good for him.

about the author

Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. In addition to contributing to The American Conservative, he writes for TheWeek.com and reviews live music for The Washington Post. He was formerly a staff writer for The Washington Times and worked on Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife and two children and writes about politics to support his guitar habit.

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