In Defense of Rand

I’m no big Rand Paul fan. I think his politics of abortion are fundamentally inconsistent with his otherwise Lockean definition of property, I think he would make a bad president, but I do not think he is racist. And I am perhaps duped into thinking he is more sincere than your average senator. I think, net-net, I am glad Rand Paul is an elected member to Senate. (By the way, I feel no sympathy for his father who is devious and racist).

So I (think I) disagree with Brad DeLong. Eliot Isquith’s critique of Conor Friedersdorf’s (sometimes rambling) defense of Rand was not satisfying. Friedersdorf argues that it’s natural to question democracy:

If a scholar of political thought said of ancient Athens, “I’m not a firm believer in democracy — it required slavery, war, or both, to subsidize the lower classes while they carried out their civic duties,” no one would think that a strange formulation — it is perfectly coherent to talk about democracy in places that didn’t extend the franchise universally, given how the term has been used and understood for two thousand years of political history.

To which Isquith responds:

Well, here’s the thing: Rand Paul is many things, but he is not “a scholar of political thought.” And he’s certainly not the senator from Athens. What he is, though, is a man who still can’t give a straight answer as to whether or not he finds the Civil Rights Acts constitutional, though he’s proved happy to brandish Jim Crow as a kind of shield against further inquiry.

Even on its own terms, the Jim Crow example falters. If you listen to Friedersdorf or Paul, you’d almost think that majoritarian democracy is what led to Jim Crow. One imagines it as if, after the Civil War, there was a big meeting in every city, town, and holler of the South, and there was a show of hands. Jim Crow: yea or nay?

But, of course, that’s far from the truth. Jim Crow wasn’t a product of a democratic process — of the kinds of democratic processes we think of as our own in the United States. Those institutional channels were the ones that passed the laws that broke Jim Crow. The American apartheid, on the other hand, was the product of terroristic violence, white supremacy, and Northern indifference; of the kind of evil Rand Paul’s father’s newsletters trafficked in.

So as I’m reading it, Isquith’s contention with Friedersdorf is predicated on the following:

  1. Rand Paul is no Aristotle and his expression of doubt makes him illegitimate as a critique of democracy (?)
  2. Jim Crow America was not Democratic
  3. Direct legislature is the only facet of modern democracy.

I’m not sure if I parsed (1) correctly (needless to say the comparison with Ancient Greece or Aristotle is confusing), but (2) and (3) are certainly wrong. And to the extent these are true, it is America’s least representative component of democracy that struck Jim Crow at its heart in Brown vs. B. of Education.

If you consider alienation of civil rights as inherently undemocratic, you will find (2) a natural statement. But taken to its logical conclusion, Isquith must accept that America 2012 is somehow not “democratic” because of DOMA. Perhaps he will make that argument, indeed he would be wrong. Democracy is a self-correcting system. As Bill Clinton put it, “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America”. An act of justice, like the Civil Rights Act, is not a sudden emergence of democracy, but a confirmation thereof. Those who take a discrete approach to political systems find themselves in a quite a quandary.

At first approximation, democracy in America – to use another man’s phrase – is defined not just by majoritarian elections (as Isquith has you believe) but by a vibrant, activist, and independent judiciary. Indeed, it would be fundamentally less democratic if majoritarian will had crushed the civil rights movement. The Constitution via the justice system, and not direct election, started the movement.

It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that we may disdain a system that perpetuated racial discrimination for so long. We may disdain the fact that American democracy was too representative. That it did not give sufficient emphasis to natural rights, a concept to which Rand Paul presumably subscribes.

Therefore, I read Rand Paul’s skepticism of American politics in the mid-20th century not as a referendum on democracy, as much as one on a democracy divorced from classically liberal beliefs. I am a harsh statist if next to Rand, but I can appreciate a more nuanced depiction of democracy.

Indeed, I do not doubt that my grandchildren may one day wonder the failures of a democracy that let George Bush lie his way into war. I will imagine the Isquith’s of tomorrow tell us no, that was the outpour of too little democracy, too little oversight. And yet, the media – a robust organ of any democracy – played sucker to an evil war effort. Directly elected representatives, chose to cede good judgement in favor of god knows what.

I believe that if America instituted a universal draft, Iraq would not have happened. I also believe universal draft is at its core undemocratic. It is evil, but only the lesser of two.

In similar vein, Rand Paul believes the redistribution of income, and forced regulation are evil. But he also believes forcefully in natural rights. It is cheap to argue that John Locke would forbid discrimination in defense of “life, liberty, and property”. Indeed, Paul believes in the virtues of negative, over positive, liberty.

Therefore, it is entirely legitimate for Rand Paul to support a very active, somewhat undemocratic, judiciary that protected at all costs the right to life, liberty and property. It is further legitimate for him to see a divorce between contemporary perceptions of democracy and classical liberalism. And therefore, it is legitimate for him to oppose Jim Crow on grounds of a democratic excess.

(P.S. What makes him a quack, however, is his idiotic approach to the relationship between women and womb, and his inability to apply his own Lockean logic thereof. I do not respect those who selectively choose classical liberty, and of this Rand Paul is guilty. But less guilty than his fellow republicans).

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