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The Volokh Conspiracy Is Out To Get You—And Everyone in America

Run by a Soviet Jewish legal scholar, the blog took on the ACA and is now hosted by the ‘Washington Post’

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Professor Eugene Volokh. (Collage Tablet Magazine; photo courtesy of UCLA School of Law.)
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But though the blog was unabashedly of the right, its politics were—and are—not so much partisan as ideologically committed to a general philosophy of libertarianism, which emphasizes individual rights and a profound skepticism of state power. Thus, posts supporting limited government and gun rights mingle with those supporting gay rights and drug legalization. An atheist, Volokh advocates a robust, if not unrestricted, conception of religious liberty. Underlying all these stances is a consistent preference for personal freedom, wherever it leads. “I think I’ve always had a ‘presumption of liberty,’” said Volokh. “Generally speaking, people should be free to do what they like, unless there’s a really good reason to stop them.”

Some of this worldview stems from Volokh’s academic research. For instance, despite growing up in a home without a gun culture, he became an advocate for gun rights after examining the data on the efficacy of gun control laws, and concluding that many did not substantially curb crime. But a significant influence on Volokh’s outlook—and that of several other contributors to the blog—has been the Soviet Jewish refugee experience. Having grown up in families that experienced firsthand the oppressive potential of untrammeled state power, these individuals naturally gravitated toward libertarianism, with its deep-rooted suspicion of government overreach. “Those of us who share that story share the same reason for why we became libertarian,” explained Sasha Volokh, now an associate professor at Emory Law School.

“If I had been born in the United States and I had the same kind of personality and interests that I do, I think there’s a good likelihood I would have become a liberal or even more left-wing than that,” said Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University who has written about his family’s encounter with Soviet repression and anti-Semitism, and who joined the blog in 2006. “But the experience of coming from the Soviet Union made that a lot less likely, and therefore made me more open to becoming a libertarian.”

One way the Russian Jewish experience manifests itself on the blog is in the realm of foreign policy, where many of the “conspirators” tend to be more open to American intervention abroad than others in the libertarian community. As Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and former Conspirator, puts it, Soviet immigrant writers at the blog are more inclined to back such action “because they understand what it’s like to live under tyranny.” Most notably, when many libertarians—like isolationist former Texas Congressman Ron Paul—opposed the Iraq war, seeking to avoid overseas entanglements, others at The Volokh Conspiracy supported it.

“I do leave more room for intervention than some libertarians,” Somin explained, “because I know that the alternative to many interventions is not free markets or individual freedom, but rather much more oppressive regimes than anything that would likely be put in place by an intervention by the U.S. or its allies.”

Similarly, The Volokh Conspiracy is also generally sympathetic in its outlook toward Israel, a topic that frequently divides the libertarian community. “Since many of the Western enemies of Israel are so conspicuously un-libertarian, I think many libertarians sort of have the sense that if the Noam Chomskys of the world are against Israel, we should be for it,” Volokh told me. “But at the same time, there’s also a very substantial isolationist, non-foreign-interventionist wing of the libertarian movement that says ‘Why are we involved in Israel?’ ” Writers at The Volokh Conspiracy who discuss Israel fall decidedly into the former camp, even as they are often critical of its policies. Somin’s George Mason colleague David Bernstein makes the libertarian case for Israel quite succinctly. “Would it be a more libertarian world if there was a Palestine in place of Israel?” Bernstein asked when we spoke. “That’s pretty hard to imagine.”

But without question, the blog’s primary impact has been on the American domestic front, from disputes surrounding eminent domain to the case against the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Obamacare challenge exemplified how The Volokh Conspiracy has radically transformed the legal landscape. In the past, the academy often looked askance at blogging as a distraction from more serious legal writing, to the extent that some professors initially joined the Conspiracy under pseudonyms to conceal their involvement. Today, however, blogs have become the driver of the discourse. “The way law professoring used to work was that you would spend a year writing a law review article, you would workshop it among other professors, and maybe in 18 months, it would come out in a printed book that no one would ever read,” explained Blackman, the South Texas professor. “Now a case is decided and within a few minutes you can post a few hundred words on a blog, which becomes now the narrative shaper —and I think you can credit that to Eugene Volokh and the other conspirators.”

***

Political scientist James Q. Wilson once said that the trick to being a successful conservative in the overwhelmingly liberal realm of academia was to “be twice as productive and four times as nice as your colleagues.” It’s a dictum that perfectly encapsulates Volokh, who despite his manifold achievements—“He’s somehow managed to find more than 24 hours in the day for all the things he does,” said co-blogger Jonathan Adler of Case Western University—is unfailingly gracious, both in writing and in person, toward ideological friends and foes alike.

“Tolerance,” he has written, “means acknowledging that even if people may be wrong in one thing that means a lot to you, it doesn’t follow that they’re wrong in all things. It means (among other things) being willing to see the merits, if there are merits, in people who believe things that you think are wrong, foolish, or even evil.” It’s a generous philosophy that will be put to the test now that the Conspiracy has joined the Post, where many readers—judging by initial comments—are less inclined to be generous back after reading Volokh and his fellow bloggers’ arguments in favor of conservative causes like gun rights.

Volokh, for his part, seems to relish the challenge of preaching to the unconverted. “I hope the payoff will be a broader reach for our ideas,” he recently wrote, “which is why we blog in the first place.”

***

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The Volokh Conspiracy Is Out To Get You—And Everyone in America

Run by a Soviet Jewish legal scholar, the blog took on the ACA and is now hosted by the ‘Washington Post’

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