Like Mark Pulliam, I think a lot about Robert Bork: anyone who teaches either antitrust law or constitutional law should, and I teach both. He was great scholar. In particular, he powerfully challenged the conventional views of living constitutionalism that dominated his time and begin to make the intellectual case for originalism. But it was only the beginning of the case and does not mark the best understanding of originalism today.
Readers of Law and Liberty may have noticed that I am a fan of Justice Antonin Scalia (for example, here and here). I am also an admirer of Robert H. Bork, whom my colleague John McGinnis has described as “the most important legal scholar on the right in the last 50 years.” Bork was a pioneer in both the field of antitrust law (with his influential 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox) and constitutional law, as the father of what we now call “originalism.” In his seminal 1971 article in the Indiana Law Journal, entitled “Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems,” and in his later best-selling books, The Tempting of America (1990) and Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1996), Bork eviscerated the “noninterpretive” theories of constitutional law that dominated the legal academy in the 1960s and 1970s.
What prompts a man to change his mind on a serious matter after 35 years, and should the reversal be met with pride (for eventually getting it right), or chagrin (for taking so long)? For reasons of vanity, I’m going to take a positive tack and choose the former.
“Wisdom,” Felix Frankfurter once remarked, “too often never comes, so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Allow me to explain.
The particular danger of conservatives’ turning to the courts to pursue preferred outcomes, even constitutional ones, is that doing so legitimizes the same strategy by constitutional liberals, who will—it bears repetition—sooner or later reassume control of the levers of judicial power. The time for warnings may soon give way to a season of regret: The liberal judicial ascendance is begun.
Seeing the star of Vice President Biden finally begin to fade with his decision to not seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination reminded me of the rather sad spectacle that occurred during his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987. When my friend, the late Bernard H. Siegan, was nominated by President Reagan for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that February, he faced a firestorm of opposition due to his seminal advocacy of property rights and economic liberties.
In the past, I have noted that there are three main arguments for originalism: 1. Originalism as an interpretive theory (the most accurate meaning of the original document); 2. Originalism as a normative theory (the most normatively desirable interpretation of the Constitution); and 3. Originalism as positivism (the original meaning is the law).
Here I want to explore a type of theory that intersects between the second and third categories: a theory that views the original meaning as the law, not based on positivism, but based on a normative or idealized conception of the law.
If one looks back at some of the old originalist theories, I think it is possible to read them as adopting an idealized conception of the law. The law is not what the rule of recognition requires, as in the positivist theory. Nor is the law what would lead to the best results in general, as some versions of the normative theory hold. Instead, the law is determined through an idealized conception of the law.
It is something of a rite of passage for the libertarian-minded to go through a flirtation with Ayn Rand. Her work is popular and accessible enough to lure students in at a young age and provide their first introduction to ideas on liberty. I went through a similar flirtation with Robert Bork.
I had the good fortune to be asked recently to contribute to a memorial symposium on Judge Robert Bork’s work in the University of Chicago Law Review’s online forum. My essay (link no longer available) showed that he was a prime catalyst for both originalism and law and economics—two movements that push law back toward being once again an instrument of social well being. These dual, dynamic contributions made him the most important figure of the intellectual legal right in the latter half of the twentieth century. And his ideas could not be defeated by the Senate vote that denied him a seat on the Supreme Court.
Two giants of the intellectual right died last year, Robert Bork and James Buchanan. The first will be forever identified with originalism and the second with public choice. The Law & Economics Center of George Mason Law School invited me and other scholars to commemorate their work and that of Armen Alchian, a fine economist and price theorist who also died in 2013.
Thinking about the contributions of Judge Bork and Professor Buchanan together helped me understand the strong relationship between the rise of public choice and rise of originalism. The public choice view provided support for a constitution with features that constrain ordinary politics, protecting key social institutions like rights, federalism and the separation of powers. Originalism provided a theory of interpretation that supports these constraints on democratic politics, preventing them from being eroded by the forces that would favor their erosion, according to the predictions of public choice itself. I thus decided to write about the relation in essay called: Public Choice Originalism: Bork, Buchanan and the Escape from the Progressive Paradigm.
Here is a bit from the introduction of the paper: