Rand Paul, the libertarian who last week won Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary, is a pleasure to listen to. He is intelligent, thoughtful, straightforward, civil, well-intentioned – and, in my view, badly wrong in many of the conclusions he draws.

He finds discrimination abhorrent – to take one example – but not so abhorrent that it trumps individual liberty. So if he had been in Congress in 1964, he says, when the Civil Rights Act was being debated, he would have been fine with the parts about government not discriminating, but not the part about private businesses. Forcing restaurants to serve blacks or Jews or the Irish? Forcing movie theaters to allow blacks to sit in the same seats as whites? Forcing any private buisiness open to the public not to discriminate? That he would have opposed.

A lot of people agreed with him in 1964; a few still do.

I want to link you to a terrific Rachel Maddow segment on all this, but before I do, let me take a crack at it myself.


If you’re like me, you have some wonderful libertarian friends – virtually all of them super-smart (and virtually all white, male, and affluent).

They believe the government’s role is to protect private property (so, an army and a police force). Talent and drive should not be impeded by regulation or taxation. Private enterprise and charity can handle everything short of protecting the system itself. (Did I mention an army and a police force?)

At its extreme, it is the complete opposite of communism, where individual talent and drive are essentially the property of the state – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Having flirted with both extremes in my youth, here’s what I think I know: both are beautiful, inspiring notions in theory – truly – but each has a fundamental flaw.

Communism faces the insurmountable problem of human nature: we don’t want to do everything for “the community,” let alone be forced to. We’re hard-wired to want to do things for ourselves – and to help the community, when we choose to, voluntarily. Freedom! (Hence the beauty of the “invisible hand,” which results in harnessing all that talent and drive to produce unparalleled innovation and abundance, as each of us seeks personal advantage by providing things or services others want.)

Libertarianism faces the insurmountable problem of the bell curve: For every child with a 130 IQ, there’s another with an IQ of 70. Sure, if his parents are nurturing and affluent, it may work out. Blessed with good looks? Better still. But what if he was born into a disadvantaged family, has a relatively weak immune system, and is, frankly, no joy to look at? (Not least because he can’t afford dental care.)

The true libertarian would have him beg on the streets, to be rescued and sustained by private charity. (And would also allow him to be evicted or fired if it turned out he were the wrong religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.)

Needless to say, even Rand Paul isn’t a complete libertarian (any more than the Soviets ever tried pure communism).

Most of the libertarians I know are okay with some form of public education and even public sidewalks and highways (although with today’s Easy Pass technology, that could all be privatized). Some are okay with a social safety net and with National Parks and the Peace Corps. (And all of them are fine with those leftie notions of legalizing marijuana and keeping government out of the bedroom.)

By the same token, most of the liberals I know see considerable virtue in personal liberty, incentives, and the free market. They just believe that the free market works best – for virtually everyone, including the corporate elite – when it is responsibly regulated, whether with regard to financial transactions, safety, anti-trust, discrimination, or the environment.

So really, even those on the left have a libertarian streak, while those on the right support a degree of socialism. (Yes – socialism! Highways are socialist! Public schools are socialist! Medicare, out of which many believe the government should keep its filthy stinking hands, is socialist!)

It is elements of each, blended together, that are likely to come closest to producing the optimal outcome. (Not that everyone agrees what’s “optimal.” But it probably includes ample measures of happiness, health, and harmony.)

So what’s the right blend? Where do you draw the line on any particular issue?

This is the eternal discussion, the eternal tension. It will never go away, nor should it – but can we please stop demonizing each other? Either extreme is a disaster.

We really do need responsible government and regulation and progressive taxation. I’ve been pitching that line with my more extreme libertarian friends for a long time, with no discernible success. But a few nights ago, Rachel Maddow took her stab at it, and, as she often does, nailed it.

In a really remarkable 11 minutes, Rachel does libertarianism.

Don’t be put off by the tuning fork (huh?). It slowly builds, as the Rand Paul flap is examined until, by the end, the case is really, really made – and you might even buy in to the tuning fork.

From now on, when “the discussion” begins with my libertarian friends, I’m just going to cue up this clip.


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