Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Public In The Private [UPDATED]

[UPDATE at the bottom]

We speak of private spheres and public spheres when we debate politics, and what sort of barrier between these two spheres is appropriate.

The idea is that there are places government should not go. A hot example is abortion: some argue that this is a moral abomination that society must prohibit. Some argue that this is an intrusion, by government, into a private and personal decision.

One of the reasons we can't get universal single-payer health insurance in our country is a widespread unease with entrusting that responsibility to the public sphere. "Big government" is a pejorative phrase in our land. There is an assumption by many that large government programs never work well -- an assumption that is eagerly fed by the corporate sector to protect its business interests. Even so, the unease is real, and sensible. The public sector doesn't always operate efficiently or competently; but then, neither does the private sector, as we see from the state of our economy. We also see it in the largest oil spill in our history, which is still in progress as I write.

Last night, I watched a television interview with the Republican candidate for Kentucky's seat in the United States Senate, Dr. Rand Paul. (The interview is embedded below.) Dr. Paul took some heat during the primary campaign for comments he made about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although he takes pains to acknowledge and condemn "institutional racism," he has expressed concerns about telling the private sector what it should believe about race.

During this interview, Rachel Maddow worked hard to get him to clarify his views on this. He squirmed all over the set to avoid answering the question directly. What he did say convinced me (and if I'm wrong, he could always prove it by addressing the question) that he sees an absolute public/private split that bears even on the matter of civil rights.

What he stated repeatedly (again, the interview is below, you can check me if I misrepresent him) is that racism is very bad, and no public entity should ever be permitted to discriminate on the basis of race. Maddow asked the logical followup: what about private entities? What about, say, restaurants? Should a restaurant be permitted to post a sign saying, "We don't serve blacks?" Dr. Paul conspicuously avoided a yea or nay about this.

I wish he would. We are a country of free speech. I suspect that he views this is a right: that a private business owner should get to decide whether he wants to sell to a black person, or a gay, or a whatever. That government should leave that business owner alone. In this view, if government forbids such discrimination, it is imposing tolerance and therefore being tyrannical.

If that is his belief -- and it sure looked like it to me -- I wish he would say it. As a candidate for public office, one can't be surprised he would avoid a controversy if he can. It would certainly be controversial, but perhaps a profitable one for public discourse. A "teaching moment," to exercise a well-worn phrase.

Is it an infringement of private liberty to tell a business owner they must serve all races with the same facilities and at the same price? Was desegregation an overreach of government authority?

Nothing would be harmed from a little civic education on this point. A private business is not a separate nation. We need things like building codes and health standards to keep everybody safe, even though -- yes, we know -- the details can be tedious and inconvenient. So there is a permeable layer between the public and private -- separate, but in touch with one another.

We live in one nation, this republic, and a decision we made as a society in 1964 is that we will no longer be a nation where people of darker skin are made to feel like second- or third-class citizens every time they ride a bus or go to a lunch counter or go to their job or to school, etc. In order to do that, the public sector instituted a rule -- like a public safety code, if you will.

There is nothing in this interview that suggests to me Dr. Paul is a racist himself -- on that point, he seems very sincere. To my ear, he seems to hold (while trying to keep it a secret) an extreme libertarian position about public vs. private.

The part of this issue I think Dr. Paul has overlooked is that a privately owned business is still a public place, where every customer possesses full rights of citizenship.

Here's the interview:

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Today, interviewed by Laura Ingraham, Paul sadly expressed regret for even showing up on Maddow's show, and basically blamed any controversy on her and the rest of the press:

"...they can play things and want to say, 'Oh you believed in beating up people that were trying to sit in restaurants in the 1960s.' And that is such a ridiculous notion and something that no rational person is in favor of. [But] she went on and on about that."

Well, no, actually, as anyone who watches the interview knows. When Dr. Paul dismissed the question for being "abstract" and not "practical," Maddow asked if it seemed abstract to civil rights activists who endured beatings in order to desegregate lunch counters. She wasn't distorting anything he said; she was applying appropriate historical context and demonstrating this is not an abstract philosophical problem, but a real-life problem.

It would all too familiar if Paul decides to run away from this and blame the press for fabricating the controversy. Voters in Kentucky have a right to know what he really believes about this; and, as I argued above, it might be useful to air out this whole public/private thing in blunt terms.

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