The Rand Paul Distraction

We've got plenty on our plates without debating the past.

Health care reform? Cap and trade? Deficits? Terrorism? Boring.

Isn't it time we started querying our political candidates on issues that really matter?

Let's start with this one: If you were a convention delegate in 1778, would you have voted to ratify the Constitution of the United States?

If the answer is yes—and you don't hate America, do you?!—it's only fair we conclude that you support restricting voting rights to male landowners exclusively. Surely, from your position, we can also deduce that you support slavery.

Now, if the answer is nay on ratification, we will take this to mean that you oppose a document that provided the infrastructure for more long-term liberty and prosperity—for all races—than any other in history.

Creating racists is really no problem at all.

Ask Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican who made the unfortunate decision to be a guest on MSNBC after his victory in the Kentucky's Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Paul went on to clumsily talk about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, expressing misgivings about the "public accommodation" provision that stopped segregation in privately owned establishments.

Alas, earnest ideologues do not make for good politicians. And Paul made the error of discussing the consequences of stripping citizens—even racists—of their right to free association and speech.

And, as Julian Sanchez in Newsweek pointed out, "There's nothing intrinsically racist in the argument in favor of property rights—and indeed, any real liberal ought to at least have some sympathy for it."

Agree or not, shouldn't Americans armed with historical perspective be able to engage in constructive dialogue about the positive consequences—and some of the negative complexities—of legislation from 1964? (I know. Just kidding.)

Some critics eagerly blasted "naive" libertarians, and others, like Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, used Paul's "extremist position" to wring their hands over the coming Republican crusade to overturn the Civil Rights Act—which fits neatly into an arching (and largely imagined) narrative that puts America squarely in the mid-1960s.

As much as liberals love to imagine they're re-fighting the battles of 40-plus years ago, there is little institutionalized racism in the United States today. The accusation might excite some eager activists, but retroactive arguments about long-decided legislation, stirring up racial turbulence and distracting voters from contemporary debates is not helping anyone's cause.

The fact is, nearly everyone—including, it seems, most libertarians and Paul himself—agree that the Civil Rights Act was necessary in untangling repressive, government-codified Southern racism. The problem is that some of this kind of well-intentioned and important legislation has been used to validate the infinite creep of Washington intrusion into commerce and life.

While it is inarguable that many in the South used the Constitution as a pretext to solidify their racism then, today it is often the mainstream left that uses racism to smear those with an earnest belief in the document.

After all, today's political battles are about "extremist positions"—issues like socializing medicine, nationalizing the energy sector, and other various hyper-regulatory projects that are baking in Washington's oven.

We've got plenty on our plates without debating the past.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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