By Ray Abernathy, From the Left Bank of the PotomacWhen Rachel Maddow asked Kentucky GOP U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul whether lunch counters should be allowed to discriminate and asked for a yes-or-no answer, Paul refused and launched into wandering allusions about freedom of speech and gun owners rights versus rights of private business. Earlier in the interview he’d made it clear he thought “blurring the difference” between private and public businesses was dangerous, and that had he been in the Senate in 1964, he would have “led the debate” to modify the section of the Civil Rights Act pertaining to restaurants.Maddow revealed him as an artless equivocator, but she could have nailed him for the bogus ideologue he is by confronting him with one undeniable truth: there simply are no “private businesses,” food-serving establishments or otherwise, in our society.I’ll leave Rand Paul’s record as a racist wing-nut to The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who writes, “From all evidence, Paul lives in a Libertarian La-La Land, where purist philosophy leads people to believe in purist nonsense.” For my part, I’ll probe Mr. Paul’s errant worship of so-called private enterprise.Maddow’s opening question to Dr. Paul was whether he believed private businesses should be able to discriminate against black people, gays and the disabled. The myopic opthamologist responded: “I oppose efforts to impose Washington’s will on states and private institutions. As a student of the history of segregation and slavery, however, I would have made an exception for the Civil Rights Act.” After Maddow pushed him again and again for a response, Rand replied he supported nine of the ten basic provisions of the Act, would have “marched with Dr, King,” and then launched into an out-of-context spate of stories about the City of Boston passing anti-discrimination laws in 1840 (you could have fooled me and 90 percent of the residents of Southie) and William Lloyd Garrison going to jail for his abolitionist preaching.Even with his evasions, it was clear that Paul, and presumably a good many of his fellow teabaggers would turn back the clock and grant “privately-owned” businesses the right to do operate without regulation of any kind from government.Rand’s reasoning ignores the reality that all “privately-owned” businesses in our country are in fact private-public partnerships. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Burger King, General Electric and Denny’s are certainly those kinds of joint endeavors — the “owners” are the public. That’s why we call them publicly-held corporations, charter them to operate in the public interest and subject them to regulations (not enough) protecting the owners.However, the practice of public-private partnership goes much deeper, all the way down to the mom-and-pop level of entrepreneurship. There isn’t a business in America, large or small, that could survive, much less make a profit, without public investment and public infrastructure support. Who supplies the clean water, electricity and the sanitation services that allow Joe’s Grill to open its doors in the morning? Who makes sure thieves don’t sashay in at closing time and steal the day’s receipts? Who rumbles up to put out the fire when the grill itself catches fire?Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: private businesses pay taxes (at least some of them or) or contract for the services they consume. But there’s not a business in our country that could afford to set up its own fire or police department, or its own sanitation department or electric or water co-op (and that includes doctors, lawyers and lobbying firms). And how about the postal service we supply business at a fraction of what it costs? The local and federal regulatory agencies that make sure “privately owned” restaurants can buy the meat and produce they need without worrying about consumer lawsuits breaking their bankbooks? The streetlights, traffic signals, paved roads and subway systems that bring customers to their doors?The American public co-owns “private business” lock, stock and barrel, not only by virtue of our patronage, but through our tax dollars and our collective economic organizing. We have every right to demand and enforce our standards of ethical and moral behavior in return. “Blurring the division” between public and private ownership? It’s the way we do business.
Ray Abernathy has been a political, labor and public relations consultant for more than 40 years, working exclusively for labor unions and nonprofits. His blog, From the Left Bank of the Potomac, is at www.rayabernathy.com. He is co-author of The Inside Game: Winning With Worksite Strategies and author of A Practical Press Guide for Local Labor Unions.