I have a confession to make. I didn't read his 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative until just a few years ago. How humbling it was to find all these views that I'd had rattling around in my brain for so long already addressed, cogently and succinctly, in a book written while my parents were in high school. Watching the documentary tonight brought back some of the tension I felt when reading part of the book--Goldwater's objection to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Long time readers of this blog will note that I have often written favorably about that law, noting how, since it was passed before I was even born, its provisions are all I've ever lived under; I've never seen a "coloreds only" drinking fountain, for example, except in pictures. The law's principles are some I'd never questioned--until I read Conscience of a Conservative.
In Chapter 4, the subject of which is civil rights, Goldwater has this to say about Brown v. Board of Education:
If we condone the practice of substituting our own intentions for those of the Constitution's framers, we reject, in effect, the principle of Constitutional Government: we endorse a rule of men, not of laws.
I have great respect for the Supreme Court as an institution, but I cannot believe that I display that respect by submitting abjectly to abuses of power by the Court, and by condoning its unconstitutional trespass into the legislative sphere of government...
It so happens that I am in agreement with the objectives of the Supreme Court as stated in the Brown decision. I believe that it is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny them this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority. I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina, or to tell them what methods should be adopted and what pace should be kept in striving toward that goal. That is their business, not mine. I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned.
That passage, much of which I'd highlighted in my book, was brought back to mind while watching the documentary. The documentary at one point focused on his objections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his arguments against it are just like those I quoted above.
Specifically talking about the "public accommodations clause", Goldwater said, it's "morally wrong to practice discrimination, and it's also economically bad". Referring to persuading businesses not to discriminate, he said, "This type of approach, while I know it's time-consuming, it's having its effect, and I think it will achieve what we want". Roy Wilkins, Executive Director for the NAACP, said, "This is the basic disagreement between the Negro community and Senator Goldwater. They don't think he's prejudiced, they don't think he's a racist, I don't think he's a racist. But they can't go along with a man who says we outta let what's going on in Mississippi be settled by Mississippi and the federal government ought to knit or do something else. This we can't take." Julian Bond later said that he took Goldwater at his word that his opposition was merely a philosophical disagreement and not racist, but that Goldwater was wrong.
Having written that, let's take the "racist" canard off the table now and discuss the issues. Under the Constitution, the federal government should have no role in education. And since "public accommodations", such as restaurants or buses or hotels, don't necessarily involve interstate commerce (except under a stretched definition that makes any commerce automatically interstate commerce), a valid argument can be made that the federal government should not be involved in such issues--that Brown was an unlawful usurpation of powers and that the public accommodations clause was as well, despite the beneficial outcomes.
Being a strong constitutionalist myself, but also believing strongly in justice, I'm torn about how to reconcile the opposing values that inhabit this situation. I won't argue that the feds shouldn't enforce the 14th Amendment or otherwise "secure the blessings of liberty" to black Americans, but that isn't the case regarding public schools--clearly a state function--and public accommodations. I see a strong argument in Goldwater's belief that requiring business to treat the races equally, even though it's probably in their best economic interests to do so, violates rights related to assembly, speech, religion, and property.
So now comes the big question--when and how does one choose between two opposing values? If we go against Constitutional guarantees, or stretch the language of the Constitution to allow it to mean whatever we think it should mean, or just impose whatever it is we think it "right", what's the value of having a Constitution at all? Are we not then, as I quoted Goldwater above, a nation of men and not laws?
The role and influence of the federal government is an important topic that, it seems to me, is not much considered by the general public anymore, or even, sadly, by our lawmakers; people just assume "the government" needs to do something, or "there outta be a law". I'm told that perhaps the Constitution is outdated, that today's problems and issues are too complicated for us to rely on the philosophy of a few dozen men from an agrarian hodgepodge of towns and villages a couple hundred years ago.
Goldwater called such an argument "poppycock", and I agree. It's undeniable that a government's growing power and influence makes it more likely to interfere in the lives and affairs of its citizens; the Founders tried to limit that, is it now outdated? The Founders thought that jurisdictions closer to the people, that is, the states, are better suited to solving problems--is that now outdated? The Founders established a Republic, is that now outdated? The Founders respected the concept of property and created a government that respected the property of individuals, is that now outdated? The Founders created a government of limited, enumerated powers--is that now outdated?
These are the concerns that animate conservatives. They deserve a more thoughtful hearing than they often receive.