Posted: July 16, 2014
A review of Changing Course: Civil Rights at the Crossroads, by Clint Bolick
or a young attorney, Clint Bolick has great political ambitions, namely to revive the civil rights revolution on libertarian and conservative terms. His project involves: first, a faithful summary of the history of civil rights in America, so that its meaning becomes dear; and second, proposals for a new civil rights strategy that would liberate blacks, along with other Americans, by guaranteeing economic liberty. Against the prevalent collectivist and race-conscious mentalities, Bolick contends that "the essence of civil rights is that every individual possesses the authority to control his or her own destiny."
Bolick, formerly a civil rights attorney in the Reagan administration, does enormous political service by establishing both a theory and practice for a libertarian, conservative civil rights agenda. The arguments contained in this short work become essential reading for anyone interested in civil rights, for they go to the heart of the issues fiercely debated today.
Bolick argues that the civil rights revolution of the 1960s succeeded in establishing legally the ideals of equal opportunity demanded by America's founding documents and natural rights political philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, who inspired the Founders. America's history-not just black history-is the unfolding of the ideal of individual freedom for all Americans. Bolick succinctly describes freedom's friends and enemies. But he errs in praising the abolitionists, who were no friends of the Constitution, and he thereby denigrates their enemy, Abraham Lincoln. This major error follows from Bolick's Hayekian "negative concept" of freedom-that freedom consists in the lack of compulsion.
In Bolick's view, the civil rights movement, including the 1954 school desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education,strove to establish a color-blind society. But, Bolick to the contrary, Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion in Brown did not decisively overturn the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson affirming the constitutionality of segregation. For Warren based his opinion on the swamp of social science, not the bedrock of natural rights. Thus later justices could write opinions defending governmental classification by race (such as the Bakke case, which Bolick subsequently overpraises, and Johnson v. Transportation Agency in 1987). Bolick correctly blames an acceptance of collectivism, the replacement of equality of opportunity with equality of result, and an increase in black race consciousness for the trend toward racial preference policies, but he exaggerates the shift in legal principle from the days of segregation.
Unfortunately, Bolick maintains, these legal advances have not yet produced concomitant economic or social benefits. In the second part of his book he blames recent education, welfare, and racial preference policies, for setting blacks back. He challenges civil rights leaders to consider an array of reforms, many of which are adopted from scholars such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. Bolick would reenergize the civil rights movement by making economic liberty a principal tenet. Thus he adds a new dimension to diverse recommendations such as education vouchers, enterprise zones, and abolition of licensing and minimum wage laws. His perspective would reestablish civil rights as individual natural rights.
One would think that such a sensible program could gain support in the elected branches of governments. Yet Bolick apparently places greater faith in an activist judiciary, which would strike down as unconstitutional the barriers to black progress in laws restricting economic activity. Here his libertarianism (visible earlier as well as in his strictures against "victimless crimes," such as drug usage) makes conservatives part company from him. Like his fellow libertarians who hold to a negative concept of freedom and share with Karl Marx the notion that political power can be abolished, Bolick claims that "the judiciary is the only branch of government capable of safeguarding individual rights." Thus he underestimates the dangers of giving more power to the non-democratic branches and displays a Hobbesian skepticism about self-government. (It is interesting to note in this connection that he never mentions the 1965 Voting Rights Act.) But even this major disagreement can hardly diminish the gratitude friends of civil rights across the political spectrum ought to display for Bolick's work.