Friday, May 21, 2010

Fringe; Taking a Look at Rand Paul

Hey! Happy Friday! Hope everyone is doing well.

So what's up? Last night I watched the season finale of Fringe, and it was pretty good. That show had a slow start, and it still has moments where it definitely shows its flaws (in particular, it can skew toward melodrama and cheesiness a little more often than I might prefer), but, on the whole, I've been pretty darn impressed with the way that they've developed the characters and plot over multiple seasons. They've done a good job of moving the plot away from a sort of "scary monster/paranormal event of the week" format to a more cohesive plotline that ties all of these strange events together in a fairly interesting and compelling plotline that deals with unorthodox scientists, parallel dimensions, and a possible interdimensional war.
Like I said, the show isn't perfect, but it definitely has its moments.
(Incidentally, I've recently been rewatching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and even thought that show was cut down in its prime, I think that show had some really exceptional writing- especially for a major network sci-fi show).

What else? Rand Paul got himself into some hot water over the last couple of days, apparently making comments on The Rachel Maddow Show and on NPR in which he said that he took issue with some things in the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination under federal law both for government entities and for private business). I saw Paul on CNN this morning, and he was backpedaling quite a bit, saying that if he voted today he would support the Civil Rights Act if it came in front of him today and claiming that cable news television and the twenty four hour news cycle were responsible for taking his comments out of context and making them sound much worse than they actually were. Today Paul followed up yesterday's comments with new claims that President Obama has been acting "unAmerican" by trying to "play the blame game" in taking BP to task and promising to hold them accountable in connection with the oil spill in the gulf.
My personal feeling is that these comments are just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of the nuttiness contained within the libertarian political ideology of Ron and Rand Paul. In the simplest possible terms I think that libertarianism appeals to a lot of people because at first blush it sounds like a simple, uncomplicated, straightforward ideology that adheres to an extremely simple, "straightforward" reading of the constitution and an application of its principles. The libertarians basically believe that the activities of the federal government should be limited, almost exclusively, to a few enumerated federal powers that were laid out by our founding fathers in the original constitution (well, they may go so far as to agree that we should abide by the consitutional amendments, but I've heard some hardcore libertarians even quarrel with quite a few of the amendments). Libertarians (at least of the Paul family variety) couple a strong belief in extremely small government (i.e., they think the government should basically be staying out of the way of both individuals and private businesses and allow them to operate in a largely unregulated fashion. They also believe that private businesses should be handling most of the duties that the government currently performs) with a fervent belief that the U.S. Constitution is an almost perfect document (allowing almost no room for the interpretation or expansion of constitutional ideas).
I tend to think that most modern libertarians are attracted so strongly to this ideology because it's a political philosophy that has never really been tested or implemented in the real world.
It's easy to think of libertarianism as a political panacea when it's never really been put into practice and none of its flaws have had a chance to manifest themselves as real world problems.
First of all, let me just say that I've been getting increasingly annoyed for years now with this sentiment that our founding fathers were some sort of divine beings who never made a bad decision and who could foresee and anticipate every single future event and plan accordingly. Our founding fathers did a good job with the constitution- a great job, really, in which they crafted one of the most powerful founding documents the world has ever seen (although our constitution, itself, has ideas that were borrowed from French political thinkers like baron de Montesquieu, English political ideas such as those in the Magna Carta, and ideas on democracy dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans)- but the founding fathers weren't perfect, either, and like any other mortal men, they were creating our founding document within the historical context of their own time period (and aware of their own limitations, they left room for a constitutional amendment process by which their original document could be altered, added to, and changed. They created a national legislature to create new laws pursuant to their new constitution and a court to decide which laws were constitutional. Federal law was declared the Supreme Law of the land and the states were left with whatever powers were not spelled out by federal law as belonging to the federal government). And sure enough, over time we've had to use constitutional amendments to accomplish things ranging from the abolition of slavery (slavery was permitted in the original constitution and not abolished until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865), to the imposition of taxes on income (16th amendment in 1913), to equal protection and due process under the law (the 14th Amendment, which not only protected against racial discrimination, but which also repealed the three-fifths compromise, a provision of the original consitution which had allowed souther states to count their enslaved black inhabitants as three fifths of a person for purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives) to protection against discrimination in voting on the basis of sex (the 19th Amendment).
So the founding fathers made some mistakes. (Personally, I think that if they knew the Second Amendment was going to be used for private citizens to stockpile powerful, fully automatic weapons that can take out dozens of people at a time, I think they might have crafted that passage a little more carefully, too, but I'll just leave that one open for debate).

So my point with all of this is that the consitution is a very powerful document, but it's not perfect. Never was. Most legal scholars recognize this and prefer to think of the constitution as a living constitution- a document which provides the fundamental foundation and framework for our system of government, but which allows for the document to be modified and changed through the legislative and judicial process as the need arises over time (they put some hoops and hurdles in place for us to jump through so we didn't go around changing the constitution all willy nilly, but the thing can be changed, and they gave us that power for a reason). Amendments can be passed, and laws can be passed which expand and interpret constitutional powers- just so long as the constitution isn't actually violated (and when this happens, the Supreme Court is responsible for rendering those laws illegal).
So Rand Paul was, in essence, trying to argue that the Civil Rights Act overstepped its authority when it declared that private businesses and insitutions could not discriminate on the basis of race. Paul was claiming that the federal government shouldn't have the power to make those determinations (or that's what he was claiming before the public backlash forced him to retreat). Paul believes that the government should have the right to outlaw discrimination by governmental agencies, but that private businesses should be allowed to do whatever they want, and the federal government should have no power to intervene. He never said he was in favor of discrimination, but he said that the federal government should be powerless to prevent it when it occurs within private organizations. And if you're concerned only with the freedom of individuals to do as they please, it might even has its own tortured logic.
Problem is, we've seen where that sort of thing leads. Segregated bus seating, separate drinking fountains, diners where black people can't eat at the counter, and lynchings perpetrated by a population who's come to see dicrimination as "normal" and something that they have every right to engage in.
We actually studied the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act in law school. The question of whether or not the law has a constitutional basis was decided long ago, and (if I remember correctly) the constitutional basis for the law is premised upon the Commerce Clause of the constitution (Article 1, Section 8, clause 3) which allows the federal government to regulate commerce between nations and among the states within the U.S.. The Commerce Clause was already doing things like allowing the federal government to monitor food and product safety in 1964 (the Commerce Clause also prohibits states from doing things like passing tarriffs against products brought into one state from another for sale), and the federal government used this authority to regulate commerce in a new way, saying that any businesses that were open to the general public for business (meaning open to customers and interacting with other businesses within the sort of larger world of United States commerce) could be regulated in terms of being prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race.
Doesn't matter to Rand or Ron Paul, though. They still want to believe that the federal government shouldn't have any powers not specifically spelled out in the constitution itself, as opposed to allowing the constitution to be interpretted or developed in accordance with the ebb and flow of history.

So the Paul family (and many other libertarians) don't believe that the federal government should really be allowed to make laws or implement orders that aren't specifically delineated in the constitution. Think about the potential implications of this for a moment. No environmental regulation (which, in combination with his views about keeping private industry absolutely free from government interference, pretty much helps explain the comment about why he thinks it's "unAmerican" for Obama to criticize BP), virtually no regulation of business or the private sector (those child labor laws always were a little stupid, and who needs any sort of banking regulations or consumer protections, anyway? Plus, once again, those comments about BP), no medicare, no federal income tax (well, I don't know about Rand Paul, but I've seen Ron Paul talking about how he thinks the federal income tax is unconstitutional), no federal education dollars (why should we be giving the richest states be giving money to those kids in poor states, anyway?), no federal highway dollars (I'm sure it won't be a problem when there aren't any functioning highways that go through our poorest states), no department of the interior (stupid national parks), no Medicare, no social security, no FEMA, no support for the arts, and so on and so forth...
The libertarian theory is that private business would pick up the slack if government wasn't already involved in most of these areas, or that the less important things would fall by the wayside because they're not that important, anyway (once again, the supposition being that the private sector will always take care of the things that are genuinely in the public's best interest- a supposition which I strongly disagree with. We are, after all, a country that gleefully consumes tabloid reality television while educational, artistic, and informative programming constantly struggles to survive through a patchwork of donations and government grants, a country where investment schemers make untold millions by betting against housing schemes that they helped create while consumers have their houses foreclosed upon because of bad lending practices).

Anyway, in truth, I actually kind of have some respect for the libertarian ideology in that it primarily concerns itself with freedom from governmental intrusion and the rights of individuals to protect their own liberty and live as freely as possible. I also like the fact that they generally tend to favor a pretty peaceful foreign policy in which they insist upon only engaging in military action when there's a clear, direct, and demonstrable threat the the United States (they advocate a restricted use of the military for truly defensive purposes). The libertarian ideals strike a positive chord with me in a way that the more traditional, Republican ideologies do not (I'm not a big fan of parts of the Republican worldview which seem to more judgmental and oppressive in terms of their social/moral agenda- e.g., their tendency to try to impose conservative Christian views on the population, their battles against gay rights, their battles against abortion, their arrogant attitudes when making foreign policy decisions, etc.).
I just think that the libertarian worldview puts way too much faith in the private sector and remains unjustifiably paranoid about the activities and intrusions of government (admittedly, I can be paranoid about the government, too, but I don't see every program that's designed to help other people or provide a public service as an affront to my personal freedom).

Like I said, the implications are easy to ignore when the ideology remains hypothetical. Ron Paul is just about the most prominent libertarian in Washington, and the guy still has to function as a Republican because the libertarians don't have enough political clout to really accomplish the sort of things that would look more distinctly libertarian (e.g., doing away with a lot of the government programs and institutions that they consider unconstitutional). Personally, I tend to be a little more accepting of the whole idea of a social contract and a social fabric that we exist within. Having a social contract is the only way a society can effectively function. I don't find our current social structure to be overly burdensome in terms of infringing upon my freedoms. Sure, there are things here and there that annoy me, but I guess that I accept those relatively minor impositions as a small price to pay in exchange for the opportunity to live in a society where I can more or less live my life as I please and in which certain fundamental government actions help to insure my quality of life and provide me with at least some sort of social safety net should some sort of catastrophe befall me (oh yeah- government disability? Also not gonna be covered under the libertarian model).
And I know it makes me a dirty hippie, but I'm also just attracted to the idea that hopefully my government is taking some sort of steps to insure that my neighbors aren't living in pain, suffering or distress- that people in other parts of my country aren't breathing in toxic air or drinking toxic water or suffering from a complete lack of education and so forth and so on.
I like libertarianism more than I like the typical Republican agenda, but, unfortunately I just see it leading to a similar place- an America totally polarized into wealthy and poor segments of society with a disappearing middle class and an affluent upper class who gather increasing wealth while the working underclass receive fewer and fewer services and benefits.
Anger at Obama for criticizing BP just seems crazy, but Rand Paul doesn't want the government infringing on anyone's right to make money- even if those people are making money in a way which directly harms a whole lot of other people and destroys the environment (by the way, I agree that sometimes "accidents happen", but if someone wants to engage in an enterprise which puts a lot of other people at risk, than the person creating the risk assumes the responsibility for that risk. That's just social contract 101, but we all know that the Pauls aren't really big on the idea of a social contract).

Crap, I gotta go.

Hope you guys have a good weekend!


horus kemwer said...

Some great points here and interesting discussion. This is a bit off, though:

"Problem is, we've seen where that sort of thing leads. Segregated bus seating, separate drinking fountains, diners where black people can't eat at the counter, and lynchings perpetrated by a population who's come to see discrimination as "normal" and something that they have every right to engage in."

Of course, the buses were public, as were presumably most of the drinking fountains. And of course, lynchings should be prohibited no matter what the color of the victim's skin. The only thing on this list which would be a live possibility if you allowed private organizations to practice discrimination is the segregated diner.

This argument looks a lot like the far right argument against rights for homosexuals - if you allow behavior I disagree with, then there's a danger it will be judged "normal" and spread throughout the population. But, of course, that argument is fallacious: walking down the street with a teddy bear on your head is legal, but that doesn't mean anyone treats it as normal. Legality does not imply either normalcy or acceptance.

J.S. said...

It's true, those buses were publicly owned. But under Rand Paul's theory, a privately owned bus company would be allowed to continue to discrimate. Privately owned bus companies operating under a government contract would probably have to follow government rules- it's not entirely clear- but bus lines like Greyhound or any other priavte bus company could continue to discriminate with impunity under the Rand Paul model. (and any time you saw a water fountain in a department store, privately owned hospital, or other large business- it would be okay to keep those segragated under the Rand Paul model as well) I guess some people are okay with making discrimination legal in these sort of public but privately owned establishments. I am definitely not okay with it. There's a reason the Civil Rights Act had to be passed (with its accompanying rules about outlawing discrimination in private establishments). Before the passage of the Civil Rights, segregation and discrimination were rampant across the south in restaurants, hotels, bars, clubs, etc. Black jazz musicians would be invited to play in clubs, but club owners would require them to enter and exit though backdoor kitchen entrances so as not to come into contact with white customers. Blacks and whites couldn't share fitting rooms in department stores. They had spearate dining areas in restaurants, and yes, there were separate drinking foutains for blacks and whites in large businesses.
And obviously lynchings were never legal, and I'm not saying that there's a one to one correlation between the absemnce of private sector anti-discrimination laws and violence against minorities, but I DO think that any time you allow widespread, systematic discrimination against a given people, allowing them to be treated as a second class citizens by the majority population, you create a situation which invites abuse and oppression of the people being discrimnated against.

I DO believe that legality implies acceptance (I don't think that legality necessarily promotes behavior, but, unfortunately, I think there are still plenty of people around- entire communities, actually- who are quite bigoted and who would happily act on those instincts given the opportunity to do so) and I believe that the history of our country (as well as the history of other countries- South Africa as a prime example-) supports my belief.