Richard Epstein pushes back against high praise. Legal Affairs magazine called Epstein one of the top legal thinkers of our times, but the Oxford and Yale grad, author of 22 legal publications and professor of law at New York University has little time or patience for such kudos.
"I find it hard to take that very seriously," Epstein told Boise Weekly.
The constitutional scholar was an Oct. 14 guest of Boise State University, where his lecture, Putting the Limits Back in Limited Government, took direct aim at what's wrong in our nation's capital, particularly with the recent U.S. government shutdown.
BW spent some time with Epstein to talk about the shutdown and his reputation for being one of the nation's most formidable contrarians.
Where does your contrary nature come from?
I was always a very good but unconventional student, in the sense that I marched to my own intellectual drummer. I won this fancy scholarship to study at Oxford where, for the most part, I studied alone. That's what put it all together for me: my intellectual revolution. Nobody was stopping me from reading what I wanted to read and I was very much a self-starter. And from the time I was 9 years old, I wanted to be a law professor, something very odd for a 9-year-old.
How did your experience as a student inform how you teach today?
My students tell me, "You're a freak of nature. Don't expect us to be like you." When I teach, I never use notes; I just keep going, keep pushing. I try to tell my students that you can never get on track until you get the simplest of legal concepts understood. It's like football. If you don't know how to stand on the line of scrimmage, you'll never know how to run.
So do you spend a fair amount of your time in your classes on fundamentals?
The only students worth training are those who want to be trained. If they don't come to you, there's no point in going to them.
Do you see that willingness in today's students?
In about 1 percent.
Your advocacy for limited government is at the heart of the current congressional stalemate.
It's clear that Democrats are trying to maximize the inconvenience of the shutdown, indicating that government is indispensable. The Republicans got killed when they shut things down in 1995 and they don't really understand what they're doing now. And if you talk to Tea Party types, they never address fundamentals. All they say is, "Whatever that guy is for, I'm against."
Where do you find any rationality in that debate?
There's very little. The only difference between Republicans and Democrats is who manages to get to the trough first.
You knew President Barack Obama when you were a law professor at the University of Chicago.
The man is no intellect; he has no intellectual ability. He's a great speaker, especially the first time you hear him. And he has very clear political beliefs; it's not as though he's rudderless. But he doesn't have a deep understanding of anything.
I've read that you're a particular fan of Calvin Coolidge.
I think he was a serious political thinker, in the way John Adams was.
But there has to be someone since the time of Coolidge that you admire.
The closest you get to any of that is Ronald Reagan, who did some very good things in his regime. The ultimate effect of Regan is that he slowed down the rate of government growth. I don't know if that's even possible today.
Who's out there now on the political landscape that might make a decent U.S. president?
Two Republican names that come to mind are [Rep. Eric] Cantor and [Rep. Paul] Ryan. They actually think about the issues and they're way ahead of the crowd. But I have to tell you that I don't specialize on people. I specialize on principles.
You may have heard that a good many Idaho politicians advocate for limited government, but it's also said that for a state that says it likes limited government, Idaho sure has plenty of it.
Politicians always make exceptions for their friends. In my view, the first principle of being a good politician is to have no friends. And the second principle is that those who have no friends never get elected.