It is typical of man’s optimism, or idealism or perhaps just arrogance that we believe that if we codify a set of rules, we can solve the world’s problems. When we apply any academic construct to reality, the construct will ultimately fail. Why? Because life is messy. Life throws curve balls. Life is full of exceptions.
This week we got clear evidence of this in the travails of Dr. Rand Paul. Paul won the Kentucky Republican Senatorial nomination this week in a primary against a more moderate opponent. Paul is, as far as I can tell, the first national candidate who can truly claim to be a Tea Party candidate. He has embraced the Tea Party Movement and they have embraced him. Paul has lent some legitimacy to the movement by casting their concerns in good old-fashioned Libertarian philosophy. The cornerstone of this ideology is government staying out of the everyday lives of people. It is this very fundamental notion that got Paul in hot water within 24 hours of his nomination.
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Paul has said that he supports nine-tenths of the 1964 civil rights legislation. He says that no public entity should be allowed to discriminate against minorities. It’s that one tenth of the law that troubles him, the part that prohibits private entities from discrimination. True to pure Libertarian doctrine, Paul believes the government should not be allowed to tell a private restaurant owner or store owner how to conduct their business. If that means that they discriminate against blacks, so be it. Paul makes the point that such a decision ultimately hurts the vendor since he’s turning away business. He makes the additional point that if a vendor uses violence to enforce his discrimination, then he has crossed a clear legal line and must be prosecuted.
With respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Paul says that its goal is praiseworthy but its method of enforcement is overly burdensome to businesses. For example, why is it not reasonable to provide a disabled worker with a first floor office, rather than install an expensive elevator?
I chatted about this with my wife a couple of mornings ago and she made an interesting observation. “It’s one thing to debate these intellectual points in an all night BS session when you’re in college but to voice them during a political campaign is suicide.” The trick with politics is that it is the place where ideology clashes with real life. As a politician you have to sell your ideology to average people and convince them that your way is the best way. The problem that Paul is having is that he is persisting in an intellectual argument that doesn’t square with the real world.
Discrimination in housing or services is a problem because it exists within a larger scheme of societal dysfunction. When you allow private enterprise to discriminate against a minority, you end up with an apartheid system as an end result. The intellectual argument can be made that private enterprise is guaranteed by the Constitution to be free to discriminate but does granting that freedom serve the greater good?
In the case of the ADA, is giving the employee a first floor office sufficient accommodation? Not if virtually all of his co-workers work upstairs. By being segregated, the disabled worker misses the key elements of team work and camaraderie essential to a well working organization. He is made to feel isolated and second class. I got a taste of this myself at college. There were three dorms that were designated handicapped-accessible. One of the three allowed access to the dining room only via a freight elevator that led to the kitchen. So, in order to go the dining room, if I wanted to avoid the stairs, I would have had to go through the kitchen every day. Harvard considered this reasonable accommodation (back in 1980). For some it might have been. I personally found it distasteful and I chose a different dorm with a more dignified route to the dining room. Here again, the application of a law when it meets reality must take into account the personal impact upon real people.
So Rand Paul finds himself in a bind now because his ideological purity, with no ill intent (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), flies in the face of what makes many of us comfortable. A strict reading of Libertarian ideology is not the only non-starter:
Communism/Socialism: Great idea on paper. Spread the wealth, elevate the working class, eliminate economic inequities. Fails because humans being who they are, will always separate into haves and have-nots and attempts to stop this usually result in an overbearing government … leading to tyranny.
Capitalism: Great idea on paper. Allow man’s desire for a better life to fuel creativity and industry. Get out of the way and let people succeed beyond their wildest dreams. The rising tide of ingenuity lifts all boats. Fails because it ignores man’s fatal flaw of greed. When left to their own devices, men will try to get richer and with limited resources, the poor can then only get poorer.
Liberalism: Great idea on paper. Equality of all people is paramount. The rich devote a part of their wealth to elevating the poor from poverty. Government does for people what it deems they cannot do for themselves. Tolerance of social differences is fundamental. Fails because some take advantage of the system or through no fault of their own become dependent on the system. Tolerance leads to slippery slope of no standards at all.
Conservatism: Great idea on paper. Limited government. Delegation of authority to lowest levels of society (state and city). Belief that a strict social order leads to a healthier nation. Fails because without leadership at the top, lower levels of government go off in all directions and sometimes seek the lowest common denominator in how to conduct themselves. Focus on individual responsibility becomes an excuse to ignore the truly vulnerable. Enforcing a strict social order leads to mistreatment of non-conformists.
The reason why so few problems get solved anymore is that, as a society, we are more locked into ideology than we have ever been in recent history. We are unable to pick the best ideas from a variety of constructs to solve any given problem. In politics, the true problem solvers, the moderates, are getting drummed out of the game.
The result is that we will continue to select leaders like Rand Paul, an ideological purist totally out of touch with reality.