idealism and reality: rand paul's troubles

After winning the Republican primary to be the party's Kentucky Senate candidate, a series of interviews - one with NPR and another with the Rachel Maddow Show - left Rand Paul in a bit of trouble. The issue concerned his views on a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In summation, his views are that the federal government does not have the constitutional right in legislating who a private business may or may not choose as patrons - if the business owner decides to refuse service to a person of another race, it was within his right as the property owner to do so.  This is in keeping with the libertarian view that a key function of government is to protect the rights of property owners and the right to free speech of its citizenry.

In theory, the community at large (leveraging their collective might as consumers) could boycott the discriminatory business owners and hurt him economically as a protest against his opinions. In the libertarian viewpoint, this is a self-correcting mechanism that does not require governmental involvement and zero infringement on the property rights or freedom of speech of anyone person...in theory, at least.

The problem with Paul's (and libertarians') view on this issue is that it makes several assumptions:

  1. Government is an entity separate from the wider society that has a set (if arbitrary) role in protecting "natural rights" - rights that include the protection of private property and free speech but not freedom from unjustifiable discrimination or injustice; essentially,  government has no right to protect the welfare of a minority group due to an arbitrary demarcation of responsibility and duties libertarians adhere do.
  2. The notion the wider society would actually be opposed to the discriminatory actions of the hypothetical business owner and be bothered to actually boycott the hypothetical business. For example, we all know that many goods on sale at your local discount store are made in sweatshops that abuse the rights of their workers - how are the boycotts against these sweatshops and Wal-Mart working out? They're still in business (and thriving) despite years of knowledge of these practices.
  3. The notion that property rights are more important than the right of a citizen from being discriminated against.

While these views may seem reasonable to Paul and his ilk, these ideological views are completely out of touch from reality. It is easy to say that people will unite and protest against unfair business practices if these practices are known in the open; but when the situation emerges, how many people will actually partake in the boycott? And what is to be done when nearly every business in the hypothetical community are also discriminatory as well? Who will protect the minority group from this?

It is easy for an idealistic libertarian to tout how, if given the chance, he would march along side Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement in condemning racism...only after the fight for equal rights has been mostly won already. An idealistic libertarian does not have the burden in having an internal debate over the rampant racism and discrimination against blacks and other minority groups pervasive throughout the entire country and the rights of business owners in choosing whether or not to discriminate. When faced with a situation that causes this type of conflict between one's ideals and one's common sense, it is always troubling. Fortunately for most libertarians, they do not have to face history in their day to day lives.

Unfortunately for Rand Paul, he now needs to balance his idealism and reality. It will be interesting to see how he proceeds from here.

a uniquely american debate: democracy or republic?

No matter where you hear it – be it a ranting posting on a forum, a podcast by a know-it-all, an editorial in a newspaper, or the rhetoric of self-righteous politicians – the expression "America is a republic, not a democracy" is used to show that the United States was not founded on the principal of majoritarian rule, but on the principals enumerated in the Constitution. The writings of some of the Founding Fathers seem to point towards this view.

Thomas Jefferson – the oft used source in discussion on the structure of American governance – wrote:

A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.

The framers of the Constitution (excluding Jefferson) sought to limit the idea of mob rule from forming in the nascent United States.  James Madison, instrumental in crafting the Constitution, wrote in Federalist #10:

Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions

Similar ideas written John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other figures crucial for the formation of the United States show that the idea of a direct democracy, in the minds of the founders, would devolve into mob rule, where the majority will undoubtedly strip away the innate rights of the minority.  In this context, we need to keep in mind that the government of the United States was idealized to be a bulwark against the return of tyranny.  It did not matter if the tyranny came from the King of England or from the majority rule of Americans.  Democracy was a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

The founders used the term “republic” to describe the governmental structure of the United States. Instead of direct democratic rule, this republic would instead be governed by elected representatives and appointed leaders that would guide and manage the United State in an enlightened manner. With the exception of local congressmen, major offices in the government were either appointed or elected by bodies independent of the federal government (e.g. the electoral college and state legislatures).  Of those who could vote, only property-owning men of English or Scottish origin could.  Needless to say, the percentage of eligible voters was small compared to the entire population of the United States.

The constitutional structure of the federal government - with its enumerated definition of powers - is contrasted with simple majority rule. At the end of the day the founding fathers sought to emulate republican Rome, not democratic Athens.

I guess this settles the debate:  America is a republic, not a democracy!

...except that it's not over.  Two centuries have passed since the revolution and the drafting of the constitution; many things have changed. Suffrage has been extended to all American citizens; Senators are now elected by the citizens of their states, and Presidents, while still elected by the electoral college, campaign across the country for the millions of votes needed to win the Presidential elections.  With a wider electorate, the US has become much more democratic.

A thing to consider is the definition of what is a "republic" versus a "democracy" has changed in the intervening two centuries. Political scientists argue over the exact definition of the word "democracy", but they agree that democracies share similar traits with one another: free, multi-candidate elections; the ability of voters to punish elected representatives by voting for someone else into that office;  and the institutional constraints on executive control.  We can argue over the meaning of what is a "true" democracy, especially argue over a definition that fits our opinions of that definition.  But if we to place the United States as either a democracy, an authoritarian state, or an anacracy (i.e. without an government of some import to the state), the United States is considered a democracy.  This poli-sci definition doesn't make everyone happy, but it does seek to be as free from ideological biases and as objective as possible.

Then, what is a republic?  The term originates after the ousting of the Tarquinii dynasty from ancient Rome and the establishment of a government free from monarchal tyranny. This res publica - "thing of the people" - was named as the power of the state did not lie with the kings of Rome but on the Senate and the two consuls elected every year by the citizens of Rome.  It's perfectly understandable the American revolutionaries, fighting against monarchal tyranny, would hark back to Rome for inspiration in setting up the government. The term "republic" was naturally appropriated by the early Americans to signal a disdain towards monarchy; a repudiation of the "divine right" of rule; and an appreciation for a government based on the concept of natural law and the rights of man.  The fact that a government based on high-minded principals was not democratic - democratic as we define it - was noted with irony by the early American leaders. We need to remember that the federal government was meant to be anti-tyrannical and not pro-democratic.

The hoopla this debate incites is also political in nature.  A typical debate follows as such:

  1. The more leftist/liberal side of this debate will argue for a particular policy position and cites polling and mass opinion to show popular support for this position.
  2. The more right-wing/libertarian side would then argue that the United States was founded as a republic and not a democracy; essentially, damn public opinion.
  3. The right-winger would then look at the befuddled face of the leftist and elaborate that the republican nature of the United States is designed to prevent rash, popular ideas from being implemented to prevent the "mob" from imposing their will on the minority(i.e. the right-wingers) and stripping away the freedom and liberty of the minority.
  4. The leftist would then argue that the terms "republic" and "democratic" are not mutually exclusive...
  5. ...and the right-winger would then use his own definition of the word to argue against the lefty.

I admit, this is a vast oversimplification of the debate, but tends to be true. What is revealing in this debate is how self-serving the leftist and the right-winger are: the leftist and the right-winger will conveniently abandon their definitions if popular opinion or constitutional constraints are in contrast to their ideological view point.  But - more important on the topic on-hand - is that both sides are arguing over two different sets of definitions and misconceptions of the founding of this country.

The United States is, by every objective definition of the word, a democracy.  But this definition did not exist in 18th century America.  The term "republic" is now meant to be used as short-hand for "representative democracy" - but this term was also not a construct of the 18th century.  The United States was not founded as a democracy, but the United States has changed, as have the words we use to assign what America is.  As long both sides of this debate are completely unaware of the differing definitions each has, the debate will be a futile, aggravating experience for all involved.

*On a side note, it doesn't help matters when Republicans (i.e. the GOP) are more likely to use this debate not only to invalidate the positions of Democrats, but the basis of the Democratic party.  Republican = defenders of the Republic VS Democrats = advocates of democracy

Get it?  Partisanship sucks, doesn't it?

a few words on the texas textbook controversy

The problem with any "debate" about the Texas textbook controversy is the illusion that there needs to be "balance" in the way history is presented; that the goal of the education system is to present "both sides" of any given issue. In all cases of history, there is not a liberal historiography or a conservative historiography, but simply history itself.  The idea that we need to "balance" history is absurd.  The goal, rather, is to strive for a general, objective overview of world, national, and state history that will be taught to kids in our education system here in Texas.  This not only applies to conservatives who wish to gloss over inconvenient facts that conflict with their political ideology (e.g. the secular nature of the Constitution), but also to post-modernist/deconstructionists who wish to impose a world-view hostile to empiricism and replace it with the notion of relative truths.

We need to get outside this frame of mind that celebrates the balancing of two mutually exclusive "truths" and instead focus on the idea that history, even inconvenient histories, should be taught to students despite the inevitable cries of protests of special interests groups and stiffing parents.  Likewise, educators do not have the right to make moral or political claims about historical events because ideological groups will always try to indoctrinate children to support their own viewpoint on a given matter.

As a scientifically minded individual, I am always in favor of teaching kids critical thinking skills.  Critical thinking, however, is always endangered when ideologues try to influence not only what is taught, but how one should think and feel about a historical matter.  If given the mental toolkit in order to think critically, we need to trust kids to learn history and interpret the causes, the effects, and the morality of those events on their own and amongst themselves.  If we cannot trust them to think for themselves and instead feel the need to teach them the "proper" histories, then this paternalism negates the purpose of teaching critical thinking.

In the end, however, the children and teens of Texas (and other states) will get a stilted textbook that is devoid of any interesting history that will lead most students to disdain any future references of historical matters.  This bothers me more than anything else about this whole controversy.

impact of the austin terrorist attack

It's not news to anyone about what happened in Austin this past Thursday. The crashing a personal airplane to an office building housing an IRS bureau was a blatant act of terrorism. This is an act of violence by a man disgruntled with the government. In the aftermath of this terrorist attack, a manifesto of Joe Stack emerged on his personal website. Suicide notes are not unusual to find, especially ones after a terrorist attacks; one only has to see the videos of "martyrs" from Palestine and Iraq to know this. Political manifestos are not unusual to find after terrorist attacks. The manifesto of McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombings and the manifestos of Ted Kaczynski come to mind.

In the case for McVeigh and Kaczynski, their "manifestos" tended to be incoherent screeds in protests of society and their hope their attacks would precipitate a societal change. Kaczynski railed against the industrialization of civilization, while McVeigh hoped to avenged the siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco and to start a race war, a la the "Turner Diaries". In both cases, the general public (at least those who bothered to read the manifestos) were at best perplexed and bemused by the thought process that went into writing incoherent, self-righteous nonsense.

When Joe Stack's suicide note/manifesto came to light, I, the masochist that I am, decided to read a cached copy of his website. I was fulling expecting yet another illogical and nonsensical rant. The logical conclusions that Stack makes, namely that violence is the only way to enact change, is absurd. However, the gist of his argument is so emotional and filled with passion that I think will lead people to sympathize with his situation, even his actions against the federal government.

The words Joe Stack writes do not seem illogical. I don't mean that I agree with him; my own interactions with the IRS have been painless and easy to deal with thus far. But I know full well that his words have struck a cord with many disgruntled Americans. The anger against this government, especially during this economic recession, will lead to copycat acts inspired by Stacks' actions.

In surfing Twitter, I see many people posting this excerpt from Stacks' suicide note:

*The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.*

*The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.*

In reading many more comments online, many people are essentially saying "I don't agree with Stack's actions, but he has a point". How many of these people are thinking along Stack's reason? Of the hundreds of people joining Facebook groups in memory of this terrorist, how many will be inspired and follow in Stacks' footsteps? These same people are calling Stacks a patriot and a hero!  If they admire this man so much, then one would fathom to think that people will emulate him.

Many right-wing pundits are now backtracking from their calls of "revolution" against the "tyrannical" and "communist" policies of the Obama administration.  Even though Stack shows no sign to being a part of the Tea Party movement (he showed disdain for Republicans in his message), the mere fact he attacked the IRS for "robbing" him will resonate to many of the "Taxed Enough Already" movement.

I think Stacks is just the first of many more to come.

It's certainly a rough time for our Republic.

it's about fairness, isn't it?

I understand the sentiment behind hate crimes legislation: I understand the well-meaning people who want to end the continuation of hate crimes

I understand the seeming high-minded and noble belief that we, as a society, must combat despicable human attitudes like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia.

I understand.

Yet I cannot support hate crime legislation, despite the good intentions behind it.

Despite the good intentions, the "noble" idea of enacting hate crimes legislation, I believe the end result is not a solution of discrimination but rather a perpetuation of discrimination.

The most noblest, high-minded ideals, when enacted and legislated, can result in evil.


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