I’m amazed by the controversy around Rand Paul’s interview by Rachel Maddow the other day.I guess people aren’t too familiar with the intellectual history of Libertarianism. Now, Paul himself is not entirely a Libertarian, and the Tea Party movement that backs him is so far from being libertarian that it’s not even funny. But Paul does bring a libertarian pedigree to the table, and thus I think it is important to clearly define the philosophy which he is arguing for.
Libertarianism, as I understand it, wants the government to intervene as little as possible in the private sector, except when it is necessary to enforce laws defending private property rights. The reason for this is that Libertarians believe that government authority can be used to commit extremely evil acts, and that the government is more likely to harm people than to help them.
Many of the mistakes, injustices and downright atrocities that we think of governments committing in the past were not committed out of purely evil motivations. Rather, they were inspired by some government official who thought that more governmental intervention would serve “the greater good”. Hence, many people are leery of trusting the government with this authority, on the grounds that it sets dangerous precedents that some future government may choose to exploit.
Having said that, it is true that Rand Paul has handled the situation in a truly dreadful manner, and failed to make his argument in anything like a persuasive fashion. On her show the night after the interview, Rachel Maddow actually articulated what Paul was trying to say better than he did.
For the moment, the Tea Party and its supporters are apparently going with their standard “The Liberal Media is out to destroy us” defense. They’re wrong. Neither Maddow nor NPR’s interview with Paul were “hit pieces”. Sure, they are all liberals, but Paul himself is ultimately responsible for the things he says, and his defense was pathetic. I confess that Maddow’s reaction to what Paul said seemed odd to me, but it seemed like she was genuinely unfamiliar with libertarianism, rather than out to paint Paul as a racist.
I suspect, however, that the Tea Party, should it gain any political power, will not follow through on the pure libertarianism that so many of its candidates and members occasionally espouse. The tea party’s support for the Arizona immigration law is best hint yet of this.
Indeed, this is the fundamental tragedy of the libertarians: they are forever being used as a tool to advance the cause of the minority party. Rand Paul’s father, Ron, got a lot more favorable attention from liberals back during the Bush years, because he was opposed to the Iraq War. He was useful for the Democrats, because he criticized Bush, yet was not himself a Democrat. Now that the Democrats are in power, the Republicans, and the Tea Party, have welcomed him with open arms, because he opposes Obama’s spending policies, yet can be called an “Independent thinker”. Will they listen to him should they regain a majority, and/or the Presidency? I doubt it.