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Rand Paul's Principled Absurdity

Rand Paul’s touching (and temporary) display of honesty on the Rachel Maddow show last week has triggered an enormous amount of criticism. Liberals and progressives have denounced as morally offensive Paul’s constitutional concerns about certain provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Conservatives, meanwhile, have taken to ridiculing Paul as a political novice who doesn’t know when to compromise his principles for the sake of expediency. But what Paul’s remarks really demonstrate is not that he’s too principled, but rather that the particular principles he’s set out to defend—the principles underlying libertarianism as an intellectual and political movement—are absurdly one-sided.

Speaking broadly, modern government moves between two poles, each of which has a seventeenth-century thinker as its champion, and each of which is focused on minimizing a particular form of injustice. On one side is Thomas Hobbes, who defended the creation of an authoritarian government as the only viable means of protecting certain individuals and groups from injustices perpetrated by other individuals and groups. On the other side is John Locke, who advocated a minimal state in order to protect individuals and groups against injustices perpetrated by governments themselves. Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night watchman state.

Aside, perhaps, from the pretty thoroughly Hobbesian state of North Korea, every functional government in the world mixes elements of each of these pure forms—and partisan disputes within nations can often be reduced to conflicts over how Hobbesian or Lockean the state should be on a given issue. There are endless examples. Should health care be delivered by the state, by private entities, or by some mixture of the two? How much should the state regulate the market, and in what areas? And as Rand Paul has recently reminded us: Should racist business owners be free to treat black Americans as second-class citizens? Or should the federal government forbid such discrimination? In each case, to favor government action is to lean toward Hobbes; to oppose it is to favor Locke.

What makes Rand Paul’s position (as he originally expressed it on the Maddow show) noteworthy is that it’s a pure, unadulterated expression of Lockean anti-statism with little admixture of Hobbesian sentiments at all. Paul, like many libertarians and Tea Party activists, is so obsessed with the possibility that the state might commit an injustice that he’s indifferent to the reality of actually existing injustice at the hands of private citizens. As far as these radical Lockeans are concerned, the former is tyranny, pure and simple, while the latter is just life: yeah, it’s sometimes unfair, but freedom requires that we (or rather, in this case, blacks living under Jim Crow in the South) get over it.

But the reason why politics normally takes place in the messy middle between Hobbes and Locke—between the maximal and the minimal state—is that most of us don’t get over it. We recognize that both thinkers have a point. Decent politics—properly liberal politics—involves the attempt to combat both forms of injustice in full awareness that seeking to eradicate one form will often produce an increase in the other. The distinctive glory and pathos of liberal politics can be found in the endless effort to achieve and maintain precisely this precarious balance.

Those who give up on that effort and seek instead to realize one notion of justice to the exclusion of the other are history’s political mischief-makers. When untempered by Lockean considerations, the pursuit of Hobbesian justice justifies tyranny in the name of moral righteousness. It is thus a serious danger and a potent threat to civilized life and human freedom. The single-minded pursuit of Lockean justice, by contrast, with its paranoia about imagined wrongs and relative indifference to expressions of actual human suffering, is merely callously ridiculous. But as Rand Paul has helpfully reminded us, it is a form of ridiculousness to which Americans tend to be inordinately tempted.