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After winning Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary, Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, swiftly became the focus of a furious racial controversy. Quotes began to circulate that made it appear that Paul advocated repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In subsequent statements, Paul sought to clarify his position on the question, eventually conceding that if he had been in Congress in 1964, he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Paul explained: “I think that there was an overriding problem in the South that was so big that it did require federal intervention in the ’60s. There was a need for federal intervention.”
As someone who lived in the South during the period leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I could not agree more with the statement that there was a need—indeed a desperate need—for federal intervention. As a young teenager, I was a fervid supporter of the civil rights struggle, a position which put me sharply at odds with many of my white Southern contemporaries. But this fact did not stop me from trying to talk even the most dyed-in-the-wool segregationist into changing his mind on the question. Sometimes I made a little progress, but often I felt that I might as well be slamming my head into a brick wall. No surprise, most of the anti–civil rights diehards were also self-confessed racists who made no effort to conceal their true motives in opposing racial integration. But not everyone who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fell into this disreputable category. In particular, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater didn’t.
With the Civil Rights Act, the liberty of some was being sacrificed for the liberty of others—and the federal government enforced this sacrifice. Today the vast majority of Americans believe that the sacrifice was worth it.
Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president in 1964 and opposed the Civil Rights Act. Though I supported Democrat Lyndon Johnson, I admired Goldwater as a man and I was convinced that his opposition to the Civil Right Act was genuinely based on principle, and not on racism or mere political pandering. After all, throughout his career Goldwater had amply demonstrated a consistent refusal to sacrifice his cherished principles to mere political expediency. The most famous example of Goldwater’s defiant integrity was the rousing line he included in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention of 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Any savvy political operator could have told Goldwater to cut this line, because it played right into the hands of his political adversaries, who were busily tarring him with the lethal label extremist—the kiss of death in American politics. But Goldwater did not cut this line, because it represented his genuine convictions. Like Henry Clay, Goldwater was that rare politician who would rather be right than be president.
But was Goldwater right? That question troubled me in 1964. It was easy to dismiss objections to the Civil Rights Act that were motivated solely by racial hatred. But it was not so easy to dismiss Goldwater’s principled line of argument, because it was derived from his ardent libertarianism. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act because it required government interference in the way individual business owners managed their own businesses. He argued that the Civil Rights Act would take away the freedom of business owners to decide which customers they would serve and which customers they could refuse to serve—indeed, that was the whole point of the new federal law. This meant that even if the Civil Rights Act gave new freedom to African-Americans to eat in restaurants of their choice, which it obviously did, it was only able to obtain this worthy goal by stripping from business owners the liberty that they had traditionally enjoyed. The liberty of some was being sacrificed for the liberty of others—and the federal government enforced this sacrifice.
Where does this attitude eventually lead us? To a society in which we are only willing to give other people the freedom to do things we approve of, while denying them the freedom to do things of which we disapprove—and what kind of freedom is that?
Today the vast majority of Americans, including me, believe the sacrifice was worth it. Understandably enough, there is little sympathy nowadays for those racist Southern business owners who were compelled, very much against their will, to serve black customers along with white. Even Paul, in explaining his own position, made it clear that he loathed the practice of racism by business owners, and correctly pointed out that it is economically irrational to turn away paying customers simply because you don’t like the color of their skin. What got Paul in hot water, however, was the perception that he favors giving back to business owners the liberty to engage in racial discrimination. This perception has fueled the liberal attacks on him. It has been used to revile Paul as a racist and to condemn the entire Tea Party movement as a coalition of white supremacist bigots. Regrettably, this highly partisan brouhaha has obscured a point of immense importance for all of us, both liberals and conservatives—sometimes you need extremists to defend liberty, because otherwise no one else would do it.
The Civil Right Act of 1964 represented genuine progress. It offered freedom to millions of American citizens who had been denied it by the practice of segregation. Nevertheless, Goldwater was right: the new law did take away the freedom of other American citizens, namely, that of the racist business owner, who was no longer free to deny service to black customers. The federal government was essentially telling owners how to run their own businesses, at least in this one respect. It is senseless to pretend that this did not entail a sacrifice of liberty for some Americans. In the eyes of most Americans today, however, this sacrifice was amply justified by the results. But it is still important to recall that a sacrifice did have to be made—some people had to give up what they had long taken as their rights, in order that a new set of rights could be extended to others. And this was the point that Goldwater insisted on—and he was right to insist on it. Someone must always be ready to point out the cost in terms of human liberty that is often the unavoidable consequence of even the noblest political objectives.
Someone must always be ready to point out the cost in terms of human liberty that is often the unavoidable consequence of even the noblest political objectives.
The attitude of many Americans today is to say “good riddance” to the obnoxious freedom to practice racial discrimination. This response may be understandable, but it lies upon a well-known slippery slope. It is simply too easy to say “good riddance” to those rights and liberties whose exercise we personally deplore. In many states, people once had the right to smoke cigarettes in restaurants. Today they don’t. Those who support smoking bans do not regret the loss of this noxious right in the least. Good riddance to it. Many Americans would love to ban guns as well. Because they would not regret in the least abolishing the right to bear arms, they are perfectly prepared to say “good riddance” to this right, also. Many patriotic conservatives deplore the right to burn American flags. Again, because this is a right they would never wish to exercise themselves, and whose exercise they abhor, they would be more than happy to abolish it. But where does this attitude eventually lead us? To a society in which we are only willing to give other people the freedom to do things we approve of, while denying them the freedom to do things of which we disapprove—and what kind of freedom is that?
The temptation to abrogate rights when we happen to disapprove of their exercise is so common that we should all be grateful when committed libertarians, like Goldwater and Paul, come forth to remind us to regret every curtailment of human liberty, even when—or rather especially when—curtailing this liberty is necessary to create a more just and free society. In the 18th century, the wise Samuel Johnson remarked that human liberty was such a rare thing in this world that men should always think twice before they begin to curtail it, even when they are acting with the most laudable intentions. For once liberty is lost, it seldom, if ever, returns.
Like Henry Clay, Barry Goldwater was that rare politician who would rather be right than be president.
Not all of us need to be extremists in the defense of liberty. But some must be, and a healthy democratic society should be grateful for those who are willing and determined to play this role. By simply forcing us to think twice before we curtail our traditional liberties, they may well save us from the tyranny of our own political agendas—a tyranny that seeks to deny to others those rights we have no interest in exercising for ourselves.
I cannot predict what role Paul will assume in the future of American politics. But if he can play the honorable role in our national debates that Goldwater once played, by making us think twice before abolishing yet another liberty in the name of progress, then he will have my admiration, even when I must respectfully part company with his positions, as I did with Goldwater on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lee Harris is the author of the book, The Next American Civil War, as well as Civilization and Its Enemies and The Suicide of Reason. He spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in September 2007. Read more of his writing here.
Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.
A healthy democratic society should be grateful for those who are extremists in the defense of liberty. Even when the extremists are wrong.
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