The question Rand Paul forces us to look squarely in the face is a sensitive one: when, in human affairs, does pragmatism trump principle? Fairly often, is the answer. It is what we learn at a Certain Age. The world has its own ways of working; nor do all the consequent results interlock in satisfying ways.
On the technical question that Rachel Maddow put to Kentucky's Republican nominee for Senate -- was the government right to desegregate lunch counters? -- Paul made a plausible reply; to wit, he abhorred not only racism but the notion of telling private property owners what they may do with their property.
Paul was hardly the first American to make the point. In 1964, Barry Goldwater -- virtuous constitutionalist and strong civil rights supporter -- voted against the civil rights bill on grounds akin to those that Paul invoked. "You can't legislate morality," Goldwater said on a related occasion -- a watchword much in favor with many of the folk now raking Paul over the coals.
The civil rights bill supposedly rests on the foundational authority of the 14th Amendment, a Reconstruction Era attempt to entrench civic rights for the newly freed slaves. Yet, as the late 14th Amendment scholar Raoul Berger wrote in 1977: "The historical records all but incontrovertibly establish that [the amendment's] framers excluded both suffrage and segregation from its reach: they confined it to protection of carefully enumerated rights against State discrimination, deliberately withholding federal power to supply those rights where they were not granted by the State to anybody, white or black." Which, he added, for better or worse, "was all the sovereign people were prepared to do in 1868."
Where does this leave Rand Paul? On the right side of the Law but the wrong side of History? Perhaps. Wearisome all the same is the modern habit of beating up on parties who don't get with the Moral Program fast enough and enthusiastically enough, due to one honest scruple or another.
Let it go, is the best counsel for these situations, including all the stuff -- Vietnam, pot, and so on -- Americans have gotten into over the past chaotic half century. Just so long as the subjects of conversation come clean about the conflicts their actions create! How much better off Dick Blumenthal would be in his campaign for senator from Connecticut had he not postured as a Vietnam war vet instead of the uniformed onlooker he actually was during the war.
The worst feature of arguments over the use of government power to enforce particular moral outcomes is the tendency of the winners to sweep away all objections by means of their claim to righteousness. Thus with some of Paul's critics: Don't give us that stuff about what the Constitution allows or what the prescribed powers of government should be! Give us the results that Humanity demands!
A kind of ends-justifies-the-means framework encases this grand assumption. If we're right, we're right, and that's all anybody needs to know. Paul proves himself less the politician -- quick to duck complexity -- than the amateur who just says what he thinks; a dangerous habit that, in an anti-establishment year, could boost his standing materially, to the dismay of the moral police.
We'll see. Meantime, inadvertently, the Libertarian Republican from Kentucky reminds us why the power of government remains a less certain instrument for effectuating moral change than does a general change in moral opinion. Pretty much the same thing Barry Goldwater said!
Government is all about the deployment of power, often as a means of appeasing resentments. That very exercise of power can provoke countervailing resentments, as in, how dare they tell me I can't ... !? Recall, for instance, how the federal judiciary's insistence on racial balance busing as a cure for racial isolation helped deplete the public schools of white students.
In reform movements, you want to keep the government out for as long as possible. Alas, in reform movements, the political tendency is to jump in with all four feet. I do believe that's where we came in.