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The Relevance of the Civil Rights Controversy

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The civil rights controversy that has arisen in the context of Rand Paul’s U.S. Senate bid might seem out of date given that it involves a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Actually, however, the central issue involved in the controversy is as relevant today as it was then and, in fact, highlights the moral and philosophical differences that divide libertarians from statists on both the right and the left.

Here is the core principle of libertarianism: People have the right to do whatever they want in life — to make whatever choices they want — just as long as their conduct is peaceful.

In other words, as long as someone doesn’t murder, rape, steal, burglarize, defraud, trespass, or commit any act of violence against another person, he can make whatever choices he wants during his life.

Notice something important here: When someone is free to make peaceful choices, that doesn’t mean that those choices are going to be ones that are popular, beneficial, constructive, credible, beautiful, or mainstream.

In fact, it’s the exact opposite. When people are free to make any choices they want, so long as they are peaceful, inevitably some of those choices are going to be unpopular, self-destructive, damaging, dangerous, ludicrous, irresponsible, immoral, ugly, and extreme.

This, in fact, is the distinguishing characteristic of libertarians, as compared to conservatives and liberals. As advocates of liberty, we protect the right of people to make bad choices, so long as such choices don’t involve the initiation of force or fraud against others.

Does that mean that because libertarians favor freedom of choice, they necessarily support the choices that people make? Of course not. To paraphrase Voltaire, we don’t necessarily agree with your peaceful choices, but we will fight for your right to make them, no matter how bad, immoral, or ugly they might be.

Statists, both liberals and conservatives, take an opposite view. They too want people to be free, but only if the peaceful choices they make are the “right” ones. As long as such choices are responsible, moral, credible, popular, or mainstream, conservatives and liberals argue that people should be free to make whatever choices they want in life.

That difference in perspective goes to the heart of the debate in the Rand Paul civil-right controversy.

Libertarians say: private individuals should be free to make the choices as to the people they wish to associate with, even if they choose to not associate with blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, women, gays, or anyone else.

Statists, on the other hand, say: Private individuals should be free to make the choices as to those with whom they wish to associate, but only so long as such choices do not discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, etc.

We can point to more modern-day examples to demonstrate how fundamentally different libertarians view the concept of liberty as compared to statists.

Consider, for example, the drug war, a vicious and destructive war that conservatives and liberals have waged for decades (one whose adverse consequences, ironically enough, fall disproportionately on blacks).

Libertarians say: People should be free to ingest any substance they want, no matter how harmful or destructive. If they initiate force against another person while under the influence of drugs, they should be punished for that.

Statists say: People should be free to ingest any substance they want, but only so long as the substance has been approved by public officials. If people choose to ingest a substance that hasn’t been approved, they should be punished for that.

Statists often accuse libertarians of favoring drug use or drug abuse. Their rationale is: If you support the legalization of drugs, that has to mean that you favor drug use or drug abuse.

Obviously, they miss the point: Libertarians favor freedom of choice, especially when the choices are unpopular, irresponsible, et cetera, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we favor the choice that is made.

Another example: pornography.

Libertarians say: Adults should be free to choose to look at depictions of other adults engaging in consensual sex acts, even if most everyone in society considers such conduct immoral and sinful.

Statists say: No, what an adult looks at should be subject to community standards or the will of public officials.

Consider adultery.

Libertarians say: Legalize it. Does that mean we favor adultery? Of course not. It simply means that the choice to engage in this particular activity should not be the domain of the government.

Statists say: Adultery is sinful and immoral, and, therefore, the state should prosecute and punish people who are caught engaging in it.

Consider financial help to others, including the poor and the elderly.

Libertarians say: Freedom entails the right to do whatever you want with your own money. If you want to donate it to the poor or use it to help your ailing parents, that is certainly your right. But if a person says, “I hate the poor and I refuse to help them or my parents” libertarians will fight for the right to make that choice as well.

Not so with statists. They say: It’s immoral to turn one’s back on his neighbor, and people have a moral duty to help the poor and to honor their mother and father. Therefore, statists say, freedom goes only so far and does not encompass the right to say “no” to the poor, the elderly, or anyone else who needs the money.

The irony is that a statist society, one in which people are not free to make bad choices, tends to produce the very types of people that statists wish to avoid — selfish, bigoted, irresponsible, etc. Like mold in dark, musty areas, such traits thrive in an environment where genuine freedom is denied.

It is when people have the widest ambit of freedom to make choices, especially the wrong choices, that such things as conscience, responsibility, morality, and ethics are nurtured and developed.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.