Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post beat me to the punch in noting the similarity between Republican senatorial candidate Rand Paul’s recent ruminations about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and an ancient (1963) article by Robert Bork in The New Republic. That article played a big role in defeating Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Democrats hope that Paul’s comments may have a similar career-crushing effect on him.
The argument in both cases is boilerplate libertarianism: racial discrimination may be very wrong, but the government doesn’t exist to right every wrong. If someone doesn’t want to serve African-Americans at his or her lunch counter, that’s his or her own business, not the government’s. Bork described the imminent Civil Rights Act as “regulation by which the morals of the majority are self-righteously imposed upon a minority,” and he compared it to Prohibition.
Rand Paul (son of Ron) is surely sorry he ever wandered into this thicket. He made the classic political beginner’s mistake of listening to a question, thinking about it, and then answering it honestly. Senator Jon Kyle no doubt expressed the view of many Republicans when he said, in effect: save all that thinking and stuff for dorm-room bull sessions. We’ve got elections to win. This doesn’t help.
I, on the other hand, am glad that Rand Paul brought this up. And I wish The New Republic would put the Bork article on-line. Not just because it will embarrass Republicans, but because it is a healthy reminder of how big a deal the Civil Rights Act was. Today, it’s hard to imagine why anyone except a racist would oppose this exercise of social engineering. Bork, a Yale Law School professor at the time, and no racist, makes a case for freedom to discriminate which is not persuasive. But it ought to give you pause. Or turn it the other way: what political disagreements today—when everybody agrees about the Civil Rights Act-- will seem inexplicable 47 years from now?
Bork, by the way, did not remain a libertarian for long. By the time he had his 15 minutes, he was sneering at “the shopworn slogan that the individual should be free to do as he sees fit so long as he does no harm to others.” And, in hindsight, he was in favor of the Civil Rights Act.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.