The day after Rand Paul won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, his views on civil rights legislation sparked a media feeding frenzy so intense that Paul became only the third guest in recent history to cancel a scheduled appearance on “Meet the Press.”
Several prominent Republicans, including Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley, have distanced themselves from Paul’s ideas about whether the government should be able to bar discrimination by private businesses. Paul walked back his comments on civil rights too.
I contacted the campaign of Iowa’s Libertarian candidate for governor, Eric Cooper, to get his take on Paul’s remarks and government regulation of businesses in general. Cooper’s responses are after the jump.
Cooper sent me the following by e-mail:
I thought that Dr. Paul did a really bad job of explaining the libertarian position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as he appeared to be more worried about getting bad press than in clearly explaining the libertarian position. I’ll try to be clearer than he was.
Virtually all libertarians support some of the elements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title I that required the government to apply voting procedures equally to all races, Title III that barred state and city governments from denying access on the basis of race, Title IV that desegregated public schools, and Title VI that prohibited discrimination by government agencies are all strongly supported by most libertarians. The government should never discriminate among its citizens on any demographic characteristic.
The elements in the Civil Rights Act that libertarians object to are generally Title II that made it illegal for private businesses (such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters) from discriminating on the basis of certain demographic characteristics and Title VII that prohibited employers from discriminating on a number of demographic characteristics. Libertarians agree that the “Jim Crow” laws in the American South that mandated discrimination in certain private businesses were terrible (because they interfered with business owner’s freedom of association) and to the extent that Title II invalidated such laws, it was a good thing. No private business owner should be told by the government that he or she must discriminate against customers or employees on the basis of race. However, Title II went further than simply striking down the Jim Crow laws that mandated businesses must discriminate and instead mandated that they may not discriminate. A law that takes away the freedom of association of private individuals by saying they may not discriminate infringes on private individuals freedom of association just as much as Jim Crow laws that mandate that they must discriminate. Just as employees and customers may chose or not chose to work or shop at a business on the basis of the race of the owner, the owner of a business should also be able to chose or not chose to serve or employ someone on the basis of their race (or any other characteristic). Business owners should have the same rights of free association as do employees and customers in the libertarian view.
I followed up along lines raised by Jonathan Singer here, asking whether Cooper supported any federal or state regulations on private businesses, such as minimum wage and child labor laws, or worker and public safety rules. From Cooper’s reply:
The government’s role in society, according to most libertarians, is to provide those functions that require force: physical violence. There are four activities that society needs to have done that require force, and the purpose of the government is to provide those activities. The activities that require force are:
1. Protecting people from body crimes (for example: murder, assault, and rape).
2. Protecting people from property crimes (for example: theft, vandalism, fraud, and pollution).
3. Enforcing the terms of contracts when there is a contract dispute
4. Provide “public goods” which are goods and services that the market left on its own cannot supply for one reason or another (fairly clear examples of public goods would be: lighthouses, currency, patents & copyrights, and building (although not maintaining) roads. More controversial and less clear examples of public goods might be: subsidizing education (education can be provided by the market, but arguably, it will be provided in less than the optimal amount without government subsidy) and collecting the money necessary to provide for the poor (although definitely not actually administering the programs to help the poor which should be sent out for bids)).
OK, given the role that libertarians grant to government, what federal or state mandates should exist on businesses? Just like individuals, businesses must be legally prevented from committing body crimes, property crimes (including pollution), and fraud. Businesses should be required to clearly explain to workers any potential dangers present in the workplace, and workers must be accurately and clearly informed of the probability and severity of such dangers. Failure to accurately and clearly explain potential dangers constitutes fraud, and business owners should be held both criminally and civilly responsible if they fail to supply clear and accurate information to their workers. Business owners may also be required to carry insurance to pay for any harm that comes to workers while on the job. Further, businesses must clearly and accurately explain to consumers any potential dangers from using the products that they sell including the probability and severity of such dangers. Again, failure to clearly and accurately explain such dangers constitutes fraud and the business owners can be held criminally and civilly liable for failure to do so.
What libertarians absolutely object to are laws that specify, for example, the exact number of fans that a factory must have, the exact height of the railings in a factory, the type of fire prevention system a business must use, and other specific mandates about how the business owner must construct their business. Government should not have unlimited power to “regulate businesses” any more than the government should be given unlimited power to “regulate citizens’ lives”, but rather, businesses must be prevented by the government from committing body crimes, property crimes, and fraud but should otherwise be allowed freedom in conducting their affairs (just as with individual citizens).
Regarding bans on child labor, Cooper commented,
Freedom is for people who are mentally adults (i.e., they must be over 18 and mentally competent). Government restrictions on actions taken by people who are not mentally adults (children and people who are not mentally competent) are permitted including bans on child labor.
You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to be troubled by how Cooper’s ideas would play out in reality. Most people’s basic sense of fairness tells them we don’t want to live in a country where shops, restaurants, or theaters can keep people out because of their race, or because they have trouble walking. Most people don’t want to let the boss refuse to hire people of the wrong color or gender, or fire people for reasons like these. I would guess even Cooper recognizes that Libertarian views on civil rights are a political liability, because his campaign website says nothing about freeing businesses from anti-discrimination rules or labor laws with broad acceptance (like minimum wage or overtime pay rules). Instead, Cooper highlights his support for overhauling our system of public education, changing our drug prohibition policies, and ending Iowa’s bans on fireworks and smoking in public.
Cooper’s not risking much by espousing a coherent Libertarian philosophy about workplace regulations, because he is not trying to win the election. His goal is to win at least 2 percent of the vote in the governor’s race so that Iowa’s Libertarian candidates will have an easier path to ballot access in 2012 and beyond. It’s a strong strategy for a third-party candidate, and it just might work.
A major-party candidate can’t afford to be as frank as Cooper, which explains why Rand Paul backtracked before deciding to lay low for a while. He may come back to win the Senate race in Kentucky, but I suspect he has done some lasting damage to the Libertarian brand nationally. Many Americans like the concepts of lower taxes and less government, but letting business owners discriminate is a different story.