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The Practical and Economic Bankruptcy of Rand Paul's Lunch Counter Libertarianism

05/20/2010 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last night, on the Rachel Maddow Show (of all places for this to happen), Rand Paul said that he wasn't necessarily comfortable with the government telling private businesses how to deal with race. Specifically, he didn't seem particularly favorable to desegregating lunch counters.

Pretty much everyone is rightfully offended by this sentiment. The question of whether or not it is an overreach of government to desegregate lunch counters is long settled. What still exists is the sort of economic libertarianism that drives one to Paul's conclusion.

Paul's beliefs about constrained government - one so limited that it can't enforce basic rules that serve the good of society - translate on the economic front into a free market responsible for virtually everything. In this case - theoretically - if the market was not amenable to segregated lunch-counters, people would stop buying food at segregated diners, and the hidden hand would have cured racism.

What we know from actual experience is that, in some parts of this country, things just did not work that way. Cultural norms allowed discriminatory practices for generations until the federal government stepped in.

It seems obvious, but it's worth saying: there are lots of other important functions the free market can't fulfill. We look to the government to provide infrastructure, schools, national defense, public health and emergency services, etc. One of the best parts of living in a modern, advanced industrialized nation is that life doesn't have to be nasty, brutish, and short. And with the protection and services of organized government come certain responsibilities for the private entities that enjoy said benefits.

Is there a legitimate debate about the proper role of government in the economy and our everyday lives? Of course. And the ideological consistency of Paul and other libertarians has its attractions, especially when contrasted with the Republican party, which wants "liberty" in some places (taxes) and the heavy hand of government in others (the bedroom).

But the fact is that, as America enjoys its place as the one true global superpower, we no longer have the luxury of a government that sits idly by and allows the free market to solve every problem, whether of civil rights or economic prosperity. While competition and markets have been key to allowing the innovation that has driven American prosperity, so too have crucial pieces of government investments. From decisions over two centuries to build a world-class Navy capable of allowing the U.S. to be a titan of global commerce, to Eisenhower's National Highways, to the creation the Internet, to preventing a second Great Depression, key, responsible government actions have not only not impinged on our economic freedoms, they have enabled the prosperity that has made us not just free, but truly great.

In the months ahead, we will hear plenty about freedom from those who claim its mantle. But right now, the great economic challenges that face the nation do not arise from the heavy hand of government in the affairs of the private sector, but instead from the potential economic catastrophe that government action is required to avert. So consider - what sort of economic stewardship would Rand Paul's ideological consistency offer us? What would he and those who agree with him have done over the last two years as the American and global economies melted down?

There can be only one conclusion: While Paul's lunch counter libertarianism disgusts us, it is his economic libertarianism that truly imperils us.