Rand Paul is Incredibly Boring

by zunguzungu

It’s weird to see people getting scandalized by Rand Paul’s free market extremism. As a free market zealot who believes that total capitalism will bring us freedom, he might want to brand himself a libertarian or a tea partier or some kind of alternative to the normal republican party, but this is the pot calling himself not-black. And while various and sundry leftish bloggers are proclaiming Paul to be “an ideological extremist” whose views on “federal regulation of private enterprise…are clearly very, very far from the mainstream” (as Ezra Klein is representative in putting it), Eric Rauchway is right to paint him as simply a Goldwater republican, a free-market zealot whose bad faith posturing on social justice issues like race just demonstrate what is no less true for all radical free-marketers (as Yglesias, citing Rauchway, also points out). Unchecked capitalism and racial discrimination are perfectly capable of co-existing — even of syncretically enabling each other — and if you’re overwhelmingly interested in the former, you will have problems when you have to choose between the two.

Paul just a little less articulate than most politicians; Maddow made him look like a rube because he’s a rube and because she’s really good at making people look like rubes. But turning the display of her feeding him his own ass on a silver platter into a grand vindication of liberal principles nicely overlooks the vast difference between mainstream liberalism of the sixties and mainstream neoliberalism of last few decades, and that’s what this is really about, I think. After all, the socialistic fringe of our left-wing party is still defined by Barack “Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market” Obama, a man surrounded by more Chicago-school economists than the Economics department of the University of Chicago.

The people vicariously thrilling to the spectacle of Paul squirming fundamentally lack the sense of both history and proportion that would make this the scandalous fact. Paul is an extreme Randian, it’s true, and his ridiculous understanding of the world does means, in my opinion, he should never be allowed anywhere near any kind of important policy-making discussion. But his ideological extremism also makes him all but indistinguishable from the median republican congressman, a party filled with people who think the gulf oil spill proves the necessity of deregulating the oil industry and that mandating everyone to buy the product of a private company is the second coming of Lenin and Mao‘s love-child. In such a party, calling Rand Paul an “an ideological extremist” is one of the reddest herrings I can think of.

But that position also puts him only ever-so-slightly to the right of Barack Obama. Which is why I suspect that a lot of this sound and fury is really coming from the bad faith position that free-market (neo)liberals themselves occupy, people who would love to imagine that the difference between Barack Obama and Rand Paul is enormous and substantial, because they’d like to think that his principles places his party today within the tradition of its prior iteration. But while the mild liberal activism of the Civil Rights Act is acceptable — in which the right of businesses to not make money off black customers is strictly forbidden — the driving principles of the Civil Rights Movement itself is almost unthinkably radical and heterodox, as the yearly MLK-day ritual of remembering only the least unchallenging parts of his legacy illustrates.

In this sense, while Paul’s declaration that he would have marched with MLK is as uninteresting as he himself is, I’m interested in Maddow’s lasering in on the Civil Rights Act as the be all and end all of racial progress, because I think it displays the kind of myopia that you need if you want to imagine you can ever end social injustice through the free market. This exchange, for example:

MADDOW: …unless it’s illegal, there’s nothing to stop that — there’s nothing under your world view to stop the country from re-segregating like we were before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —

PAUL: Right.

MADDOW: — which you’re saying you’ve got some issues with.

PAUL: Well, the interesting thing is, is that there’s nothing right now to prevent a lot of re-segregating. We had a lot of it over the last 30 or 40 years.

Hear that? After the Civil Rights Act, we de-segregated. And yet when Paul points out that we have managed to re-segregate quite nicely since then, the utter impotence of the Civil rights Act in the face of the forms of post-civil rights era segregation we now enjoy is conspicuously unmentioned, as is the fact that the most blatant race-based mass disenfranchising of civil liberties is happening right before our eyes in Arizona, for which all the legal sanctions we’ve inherited do almost nothing. And as important as it was to open up all public spaces to all Americans, an inevitable effect of ending the kinds of discrimination which obtained in the Jim Crow south (without economically redressing the generations of immiseration it had caused) is a horse-out-of-the-barn problem, while allowing generations of white people born on third base to admire themselves for having hit a triple. Segregation was over, it was proclaimed; now it’s up to those who were born into poisonous social, familial, and economic quagmires to solve their own problems, as if the circumstances of their birth were any more under their control than their color, or any less determined by America’s history of institutional racism.

In any case, it’s worth noting that the way Rachel Maddow demolished Paul was not by cannily rousting him out and making him display deeply held but hidden convictions[1] in some fantasy Frost/Nixon faceoff; she simply steamrolled him into the particular rhetorical framing of the issue where free-market ideology comes into conflict with the standard “civil rights was a good thing” narrative of American history. Making him answer the question of whether he would have supported the civil rights bill is a no-win situation for him because it forces him to choose between government regulation of private industry in the name of broad social good and of basically hanging a sign around his neck that says “I am a racist.” Yet since the former is verboten for all free marketers, and virtually all of our government ascribes those principles, it’s unclear how they don’t fall into the latter category with him, a fact that needs to be continually re-obscured for that reason so we don’t have to think about it.

And one way of doing that is to pile the sins of both houses onto a rube like Paul, as if there’s something unusual about his free-market-or-bust thinking. But there isn’t. Old school liberals accomplished what they did because they weren’t wearing the same ideological straitjacket that both Paul and Obama put on every morning, the idea that all action must proceed through the market. And the primary difference between the people who voted against liberal policies in the sixties and today’s neoliberal political class is that today’s politicians know how to manage things so they never have to put their money where their mouth is. If Paul were a little smarter, he would have done what all the other republicans do and refused to open his mouth in that kind of conversation. But if he were a free market democrat, he would learned that the right answer to that question was to refuse to admit the contradiction that she forced him to inhabit, to pretend that the civil rights movement was fully compatible with radical free market principles and consisted of nothing more than opening up lunch counters to black people. Because in terms of hiding behind ideology to rationalize policies that hurt people, Paul is only unusual only in that he sucks at hiding from the inhuman aporias in his own discourse.

[1] After all, he did answer the question pretty clearly:

MADDOW: Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don’t serve black people?

PAUL: Yes.