In Defense of the Impious Rand Paul

If there is anything that demonstrates enduring intellectual piety in American politics – fealty to doctrinaire positions, reflexive demonization of those who don’t express them as a form of religious observance – it’s the fulmination from both left and right against Rand Paul.  I actually disagree with Paul quite seriously on foreign and security policy; I’m not a Paulista by any means.  But the reflexive, religiously doctrinaire reaction of his critics certainly suggests that any remaining aperture in their American minds can today be measured, at best, in micrometers.

There have been two incidents now, since the Kentucky primary, in which Rand Paul has failed to prostrate himself automatically before a political shibboleth.  One concerned the Civil Rights Act, the intent of which Paul has expressed full support for.  His quarrel is with the element of the Civil Rights Act that authorizes the federal government to regulate private businesses.

The other is Paul’s criticism of Obama’s “boot on the neck” comment about BP, and of the general societal attitude in the US that everything must be litigated and litigable fault assigned for any bad thing that happens.

Now, it may well be that there is litigable fault in the Gulf oil spill situation, and that it belongs to BP.  The cards appear, at least, to be stacking up in that direction – although I’ve reached the point at which I simply don’t believe what the MSM tells me about these matters any more.  Since I haven’t researched the thinking on the spill’s cause, I’m reserving agreement with any position for now.  But ultimately, it’s not an exercise in mere doctrinaire politics to suppose that BP may be genuinely at fault for the spill.

That said, it’s drooling like Pavlov’s dog to excoriate Rand Paul for not assuming that (a) there must, in principle, be fault, if only because of the magnitude of the problem; and (b) the appropriate way for our chief political executive to approach the problem is to assume fault, and promise to have his boot on the neck of a company with thousands of American employees (many of them in Louisiana) and millions of American investors.

Only if you think Americans are morons do you insist that they can’t handle the making of logical arguments and reasonable distinctions.  It’s thigh-slappingly hilarious to watch commentators – people who actually imagine themselves to be independent thinkers – go to general quarters over breaches of their rigid, logic-chopping protocols for speech and political response.  The Paul record on the Civil Rights Act is a particularly telling issue because quite a few Republicans are terrified of being seen as violating an article of faith – even though the highly questionable assumption of federal authority to regulate business practices in this realm is the same assumption at issue with the individual health insurance mandate.  It’s to the advantage of only the left, for this assumption to be considered sacrosanct and beyond question because of what the assumption was made for.

Federal overreach in a good cause is still federal overreach.  Republicans must reflect on this fact:  that if we refuse to reexamine the loose thinking about federal authority in the Civil Rights Act – thinking that was strongly opposed by many at the time, as older readers will remember – then we have already ceded the principle of federal overreach, and, by our own agreement, there is nothing the US federal government can’t do to us.

The funny thing is that in the 1960s, men like William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan opposed the title of the Civil Rights Act that constituted federal overreach:  that is, the assumption of federal authority to regulate local business practices.  Goldwater ultimately voted against the Act precisely because of that one concern.  All of these men – unlike, say, George Wallace – were relentless opponents of state-level racist policies.  Few on the right today consider them to have been extremists.

America’s leftists, for their part, have long considered it wrong for those on the right to oppose central government action on the principle of limiting the federal government to enumerated powers.  But in the decades of my life, this point of contention has shifted from an honest political debate to the enforcement of a religious doctrine.  No longer are logical arguments made from the left.  Partisans of the left’s point of view merely express reflexive horror, demonize those making the limited-government argument, and invoke the horrible problem – whatever it is (or was) – as the evidence that it is essentially satanic to oppose doing the thing they propose to do about it.  Logical and temperate discourse has no place in this dynamic; it is reminiscent mainly of fire-and-brimstone demagoguery.

This is not just a dangerous way to make law, it’s a way that must inevitably lead to greater and greater overreach.  Nothing we do, nothing we are is protected from the federal government if we sit still for these elisions and ellipses in our observance of constitutional limits.  Most of the first ten Amendments can be effectively abrogated – and the abrogation called due process of law – by the exercise of the “authority to regulate interstate commerce,” or by findings based on “privacy” and the Fourteenth Amendment, or by the exercise of eminent domain.

Letting the federal government overreach in its application of these concepts, first in one instance and then in another and another, is what has led to the individual purchase mandate for health insurance and the other assumptions of federal authority in Obamacare.  Under the Obama executive and the current Congress, every effort is being made to extend that authority far beyond what most Americans consider appropriate, from centrally regulating the thermostat in your home to forcing the internet into the “common carrier” model of television and radio, so that content can be regulated by virtual channelization and access- or broadcast-licensing procedures.  (Bloggers, that means you.)

Tacit, unexamined acceptance of federal authority to do these things is what Rand Paul is challenging.  In 2010, he is the one asking people to think, rather than to merely repeat doctrinaire talking points taught to them since birth.  His critics, on the other hand, sound like nothing so much as children reciting a catechism, and tsk-tsk-ing over those who don’t recite it in exactly the same way.  That includes many of his critics on the right – who have agreed to be governed by a list of pieties that makes effective dissent from the left’s religious doctrine impossible.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.