Lots of television pundits are opining of Rand Paul that his statements about the Civil Rights Act and his view that, in essence, private property rights trump the government’s right to enforce anti-discrimination laws — and the wisdom of doing so whether or not it’s constitutional to do so — are a replay of the debates of the 1960′s. They’re correct, but that’s not the whole philosophical story.
The real philosophical debate is over 17th Century philosophy and the varying views of individual rights espoused by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
17th century philosophy postulated that before modern society and the formation of governments humans lived in a “state of nature,” a logical construct more than a real anthropological order. In the “state of nature,” these philosophers set out their ideas on the basis of whether human nature itself was to be barbaric and cruel or civilized and respectful of others. The Hungarian sociologist, Karoly “Karl” Mannheim summed up the basic differences in what we now distinguish as “left wing” and “right wing” political thought in connection with views of human nature in assigning to the “right” the viewpoint that human nature is essentially depraved and in need of restraint by the heavy hand of government, whereas the “left” was optimistic on human nature, believing humans to be essentially decent and in need of less restraint.
Hobbes for his part on the right viewed life in the “state of nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short…” which was why a strong centralized government was necessary to protect people from each other, especially when it came to property rights. Locke viewed life in the “state of nature” as merely inconvenient, so that people would only give up so much of their liberty as necessary to promote a more orderly state of affairs to a government by consent. Rousseau on the “left” was optimistic on human nature believing that in fact it was government that had messed everything up between people who were naturally harmonious and decent by its obsessive protection of private property rights over all else.
Now that we have the empirical evidence of sociology, anthropology, zoology, and other sciences to guide us, we can actually look for parallels to human society that give us a clue as to whether human nature, left to its own non-governmental devices, is closer to the pessimistic view of Hobbes or Rousseau’s optimistic view. If we’re more like wild chimpanzees, then Hobbes or Locke may be more correct than Rousseau. If homo sapiens is more akin to the bonobo (‘pygmy chimpanzee’) then Rousseau would appear to be correct about the “state of nature.”
Either way, in the great gap between these philosophers and life as it confronts us today is a major phenomenon known as the industrial revolution. This seminal occurrence is why much of their debate is fundamentally irrelevant to the way that government ought to work in the modern age.
The ‘libertarian’ trend in present day social and political thought poses a particular problem for political scientists because it postures on many issues from the left’s traditional construct of an optimistic view of human nature: they support abolition of social and political prohibitions on personal behaviors, such as drugs, sex, sexual orientation discrimination, and the like. But when it comes to the Rand Paul libertarian obsession with private property rights, all of a sudden government cannot be trusted to properly protect the individual by legislating about what the individual can do in the business they own.
The problem with this viewpoint is that by legislating restrictions on discriminatory behavior, government is protecting private property and individual liberty at the same time by balancing individual rights against social rights. In the modern world, if a Lester Maddox, who chased African Americans out of his Georgia restaurant with a gun and an axe handle before the Civil Rights Act was enacted, tried to do that today, there would like be a race riot and the commensurate social chaos would jeopardize everybody’s life who happened to be in the vicinity. Government can anticipate the likelihood of this kind of social chaos and legislate reasonable restrictions on behavior to prevent it, just as it regulates “free speech” with disturbing the peace statutes that criminalize the use of “fighting words,” i.e., words that are likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.