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Book Review: Unfinished Business

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Unfinished Business: A Civil Rights Strategy for America’s Third Century
by Clint Bolick (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1990) 159 PP; $19.95.

At a time in world history when the demand for human rights has become almost universal, little or no attention has been paid to the importance of economic liberty. If a man is to have a right to life, he must have a right to freely contract and exchange with his fellow men for the maintenance of that life. If a man is to have a right to liberty, he must have a right to acquire and possess property which has been honestly come by. If a man is to have a right to the pursuit of happiness, he must have a right to use his life and property in any peaceful manner he chooses.

Yet, a full appreciation of economic liberty is precisely what has been lacking in practically all public policy discussions concerning human rights. This has been particularly true in debates over civil rights for members of ethnic and racial minorities in the United States.

The main cause for this situation has been the failure to remember who it is that has human or civil rights. In a century imbued with the spirit of collectivism, we have forgotten that only individuals can have rights. Instead, we talk of “minority rights,” for example, and forget that the smallest minority is the individual. No group of men can have any rights that do not already reside in the individuals comprising the group. And no individual can have a particular set of rights merely because he belongs to a specific group.

In his new book, Unfinished Business: A Civil Rights Strategy for America’s Third Century, Clint Bolick reminds us that rights reside only in individuals; if all men, including members of minority racial groups, are to fully have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they must have economic liberty. And it is the importance of economic liberty to which the civil rights movement in America is blind.

If the present leadership of the civil rights movement has its way in the future, what rights, opportunities and freedoms each member of the black community will possess win be determined by his group status and the political power which his group has in the arena of politics. The individual will be submerged; and he will be a captive of the racial accident of birth.

Mr. Bolick, who is also director of the Landmark Legal Foundation Center in Washington, D.C., argues clearly and persuasively that the civil rights legislation passed after the Civil War, including the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to establish and protect not only the political rights of blacks in the United States, but their rights to economic liberty in the marketplace as well.

But in the late nineteenth century and then throughout the twentieth century, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have slowly and persistently eaten away at those economic freedoms. The Supreme Court has given legal sanction to both state and federal regulations that have hampered and, in some cases, closed markets.

The burden of these court decisions, Mr. Bolick argues, has fallen particularly hard on black Americans, who have been denied free-market avenues to self-improvement for themselves and their children. And until these Supreme Court decisions are reversed and economic liberty is again enshrined in constitutional interpretation, the crusade for civil rights in America will remain an unfulfilled dream.

Mr. Bolick’s strategy for winning the battle for economic freedom under the Constitution is primarily a battle through the courts. He believes that the misinterpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment can be reversed through the overwhelming of precedent. And this is, in fact, the avenue he has chosen to follow in his own efforts with his legal foundation in Washington.

But the interpretation that he cogently develops concerning the guarantees for economic liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment has not been without its detractors. Indeed, it is precisely because the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment has not been cut and dry that many of our problems regarding a lack of economic liberty in America exist today.

As a result many who are as concerned with questions of economic liberty as Mr. Bolick, who feel as strongly as he doesthat denial of economic liberty has fallen hardest on the poor and ethnic minorities — believe that another path is required. That path is for a constitutional amendment which would secure a separation of the state from the economy.

Such an amendment, it is argued, should clearly and precisely say that government shall pass no laws abridging the individual’s right to produce, trade and freely contract with whomever he desires on any terms found mutually beneficial to the transacters, as long as the activities do not involve the use of force or fraud. An amendment of this type, its proponents claim, would eliminate the types of ambiguities that presently exist in the Constitution concerning economic freedom, and it would not have the difficulty of winning the argument in the courts for an overturning of long-established precedent under existing laws.

But regardless of the avenues considered most fruitful for winning the battle for economic liberty, what is most important is making the case that only through such freedom can all Americans possess all the civil rights to which they are entitled. And toward that end, Mr. Bolick’s book is an important contribution.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).