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Professor Conspirator

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By Jack Feuer, Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:00 AM


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UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh '83, J.D. '92, founder of the influential Weblog "The Volokh Conspiracy" and one of the foremost legal commentators in the U.S., is a man of many parts. Born in Kiev, Volokh immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of 7. By age 12, he was a computer programmer. By 15, a college graduate. Libertarian-leaning with a conservative bent but unbound by doctrine, this brilliant Bruin is guaranteed to make you think.

Q: You were a tech wunderkind before you were a law professor. Did you have a "Eureka" moment when you decided to switch fields?

A: There wasn't one moment, it was a process. The legal system's rule-oriented focus, while not the same as the rules and mathematics in computers, appeals to a similar problem-solving mindset that I have ... I found myself also quite interested in leading what I call a semi-public life, participating in public debates but without the intense public life of an elected or other government official. I wanted to write op-eds, to testify before the legislature, to file briefs. And I got exactly what I wanted.

Q: You were a child prodigy who was an acclaimed scholar and public figure by your 20s. Would you say you have a special sense of mission?

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What subjects interest, intrigue or provoke you about our country or our government? Whatever it is, join the debate with Eugene Volokh and his fellow bloggers at The Volokh Conspiracy. Visit www.volokh.com.

A: Not in the broad sense. I've always had kind of an academic mission [to] find novel, useful observations about the world. Some scholars spend decades to find the answer to one very big question. But a lot of professors' view is, "We're going to run across interesting questions, and we're going to try to push back the frontiers of knowledge in a relatively modest sense in this or that area. And we're going to put it together with all the other people doing this kind of work, and the result will be a steady growth in people's understanding of the world."

Q: What did you like best about studying at UCLA?

A: I loved UCLA Law School. The professors here are really, really excellent. I think legal training helps professors be articulate and relatively clear in class. I was politically quite out of step with my teachers and most of my classmates, but I found that the teachers were actually quite eager to have [another] voice. Law is very much about learning how to make the best arguments on both sides. If all you hear is one kind of argument, you're going to be a very poor advocate.

Q: If the Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence today, would they write them differently?

A: At the very least, they would see how their words have been interpreted, and they would agree with some interpretations and disagree with others. I'll give you an example. The establishment clause has been read as prohibiting the government from endorsing religion. It has been read to, among other things, bar displays of the Ten Commandments and religious symbols in city seals and the like. That might be a good thing, but it seems pretty clear that the framers viewed government invocations of religion as perfectly permissible. They were opposed to religious tests for office, they might oppose religious discrimination in hiring employees, but the idea there was something unconstitutional about talking about God in government speech — I think they would say that doesn't make much sense to us. So they would probably rewrite the establishment clause.

Q: Any others?

A: They would probably rewrite the free speech clause to tolerate a good deal more libel law — one of the few things that seems pretty clear to me about the original meaning of the First Amendment is that the framers envisioned freedom of speech and the press as co-existing with an amount of protection for private reputation and protection that was considerably broader than what the Supreme Court now allows. And they were writing at a time when there were no professional police forces. It may very well be that they might write criminal procedure amendments differently. Likewise, they didn't anticipate the growth of [political] parties. And they also would have to confront the fact that states are very different today than they were then. Back then, a lot of people were Virginians first and Americans second. So they might set up a different role for the states. For example, a Senate that is apportioned on population and not on states.

Q: What is a libertarian?

A: Libertarians take the view that the government should be limited chiefly, though not entirely, to protecting against physical force and fraud. Pure libertarians don't think the government should provide welfare payments or run schools or interfere with private contractual agreements on the grounds that people supposedly have unequal bargaining power or are being oppressed, so long as there's no force involved. I'm kind of a conservative-ish libertarian with a little bit of liberal thrown in at times. I think government funding for K-12 education is probably a good idea. At the same time, it's not clear to me that the government should run the schools. The government funds food for the poor, for example, but we don't tell the poor to go to a government-run food store. If we did, we'd be pretty sure it would be a lousy food store.

Q: What's wrong with our country?

A: Our [K-12] education system fails a very substantial minority of the public and under-serves a majority of the public. My guess is this is largely so because it is a government-run monopoly, and we know that monopolies in virtually all fields are not as effective as competitive systems. It's no coincidence that our college and university system, which is generally much more highly regarded, is characterized by a great deal of competition. The other area is crime. Fortunately, it's been falling dramatically, but from a level to which it had risen dramatically. The government's main job should be to protect the rights of everyone, not just the poor, but the failures of the educational system and the high crime rate disproportionately affect the poor because they're the ones stuck in the worst schools in the worst neighborhoods.

Q: What's right about this country?

A: Our approach to free speech is sounder than in Europe and Canada, where they restrict certain viewpoints because they think it's too harmful, offensive or valueless. It's a lot easier to start a small business and grow it without excessive regulation here. America is still among the countries where it's easiest for people to go to college. It's a country where immigrants, if they come in legally, can build a good life for themselves and their children, just like my parents did. And it's easier than it's ever been for people to change their life track. We see a lot of those in law school — people who have had an interesting career and decided they want to become lawyers, and nobody says, "Oh, no, we only let 20-year-olds into law school."

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