(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine.  I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).

Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership.  The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.

The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”.  This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions.  Would policy x move us closer to libertopia?  Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion?  The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.

But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia.  They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom.  The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom.  A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).

A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?).  More on this soon.

I’m a little late on the Rand Paul controversy, but since I’ve finished up the last of my work for college and finally have a bit of free time, I’ll give my brief take on the matter.

Rand Paul, the Tea Party-affiliated Republican nominee for one of Kentucky’s US Senate seats, has come under fire for declaring his opposition to the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits  business owners from turning away customers based on race:

I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners [what to do].  I abhor racism… but at the same time I do believe in private ownership.

After an ugly session with Rachel Maddow, Paul’s alleged racism became a national story.  This is clearly a political disaster for Paul; you know a politician is in trouble when he has to issue a statement saying that he won’t try to overturn the Civil Rights Act.

Some libertarians came to Paul’s defense.  In response to Paul’s assurance that he would not try to repeal the Civil Rights Act, John Stossel wrote, “None of it?  How about the part that denies private citizens the right of free association? I hope Paul stands up to the pressure.  If not, freedom of association is in trouble.”

This position is seriously misguided.  Of course, all else equal, private businesses should be able to discriminate between potential customers.  But in 1964, all else was definitely not equal.  The south had, for hundreds of years, state-sponsored, institutionalized racism.  There’s a difference between uncoordinated, free individuals choosing whom to associate with and an entire culture and social system based on racial oppression.

The principle of free association is a good one, but that doesn’t mean that it should never be violated, if its violation is necessary to combat some greater evil.