April 18th, 2005


The Unregulated Offensive

[Maybe Bush will do some good after all.]


April 17, 2005
The Unregulated Offensive

I. Justice Thomas's Other Controversy

If you think back to Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, what most likely comes to mind are the explosive allegations of sexual harassment made by the law professor Anita Hill. Years from now, however, when observers of the court look back on the hearings, they may well focus on a clash that preceded Hill's accusations -- an acrimonious exchange that few remember today.

Early in the hearings, Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voiced a concern about Thomas's judicial philosophy. In particular, he singled out a speech that Thomas gave in 1987 in which he expressed an affinity for the ideas of legal scholars like Richard A. Epstein. A law professor at the University of Chicago, Epstein was notorious in legal circles for his thesis that many of the laws underpinning the modern welfare state are unconstitutional. Thomas tried to assure Biden that he was interested in ideas like Epstein's only as a matter of ''political theory'' and that he would not actually implement them as a Supreme Court justice. Biden, apparently unpersuaded, picked up a copy of Epstein's 1985 book, ''Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain,'' and theatrically waved it in the air. Anyone who embraced the book's extreme thesis, he seemed to be suggesting, was unfit to sit on the court.

At the time, it was impossible to know whether Biden was right to worry. He was surely right, though, that Epstein was promot

ing a legal philosophy far more radical in its implications than anything entertained by Antonin Scalia, then, as now, the court's most irascible conservative. As Epstein sees it, all individuals have certain inherent rights and liberties, including ''economic'' liberties, like the right to property and, more crucially, the right to part with it only voluntarily. These rights are violated any time an individual is deprived of his property without compensation -- when it is stolen, for example, but also when it is subjected to governmental regulation that reduces its value or when a government fails to provide greater security in exchange for the property it seizes. In Epstein's view, these libertarian freedoms are not only defensible as a matter of political philosophy but are also protected by the United States Constitution. Any government that violates them is, by his lights, repressive. One such government, in Epstein's worldview, is our government. When Epstein gazes across America, he sees a nation in the chains of minimum-wage laws and zoning regulations. His theory calls for the country to be deregulated in a manner not seen since before Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Collapse )