The Libertarian Quartet

The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law, by Randy E. Barnett, New York: Clarendon Press, 347 pages, $29.95

Randy Barnett's new book, The Structure of Liberty, weaves together the two main strands of its distinguished author's career. In the realm of the practical, Barnett has drawn on his extensive experience as a state's prosecutor in Cook County, Illinois. As a legal theorist, Barnett (now a law professor at Boston University) builds on the great writers of the liberal tradition--Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Hayek, and Nozick--for his own theoretical defense of the rights and duties that all individuals owe each other as a matter of natural law. He then uses his judgments on rights and duties to define the province of a properly limited government's activities. Barnett's instincts should be more widespread today, when lawyers, philosophers, and policy makers automatically posit a government solution for any perceived social failure. His interest in basic theory as it relates to the uses and abuses of political power makes his views on a wide range of state policy issues, from taxation to criminal law, worthy of careful attention.

In natural law tradition, the purpose of government is to address the downside of human nature, which in Barnett's view requires a proper response to the problems of knowledge, interest, and power. The problem of knowledge is the difficulty of understanding other people's subjective preferences and predicting the complex forms of behavior to which those preferences will lead. The problem of interest is the natural partiality that persons give to their own concerns relative to those of others. Finally, the problem of power concerns the dangers of excessive or inadequate enforcement of legal norms.

Answering these three challenges defines the three major parts of this book. The solution requires the rule of law: coherent, fixed, intelligible, predictable, prospective, public, and stable rules of conduct with which rational human beings can comply. Only a system that embraces the rule of law can allow individuals to plan and organize their lives in an intelligent fashion.

Once these concerns are identified, Barnett outlines the basic rules of proper conduct to facilitate the flourishing of human beings in a society where scarcity of resources requires the limitation of individual freedom. To his critics on the left, much of what he has to say will seem to come from another century, or perhaps from another planet. I shall not tarry over their objections. But I too have major disagreements with Barnett's theory, because I also think that he tries to get along with a state that is too small, one which cannot discharge the essential functions needed to advance human flourishing or social welfare. The challenge is to point out the weaknesses in Barnett's theory without throwing us into the deadly, all-consuming embrace of the welfare state.

The dispute here goes to the heart of the question of what it means to be a libertarian. Like all great terms, libertarian evokes powerful emotions because it contains deep-seated ambiguities. It could refer to a philosophical system, or it could be identified with a political party whose views are imperfectly aligned with that system. But even if we put politics to one side, the term should be understood in opposition not only to socialism and welfare state liberalism but also to social conservatism of all stripes. Viewed in that context, Barnett and I are as one.

My disagreement with Barnett is not over the primacy of individual liberty as the end which government serves. Rather, it is over the seeming paradox of whether liberty must be limited so that it may be preserved. Barnett sees little place for any such limitations within a system of liberty, and by implication in a system of libertarian thought. My view is that, however indispensable liberty is for the advancement of human welfare, it must, like all great principles, be hedged in by other principles that flesh out a more complete legal system. I see a limited but irreducible function of government in responding to the problems of monopoly and public goods, while Barnett thinks these concerns require no concessions toward a larger state.

Barnett begins by explaining why his view of human nature makes him a natural lawyer. Unlike many of his ilk, he is quite relaxed about this characterization, using homey examples (for which he has a real gift) to illustrate his position. Natural law has gotten something of a bad name in instrumentalist and policy-oriented quarters. It is condemned for appealing to (take your pick) deductive, immanent, necessary, or self-evident truth (or worse, Truth) that retains its plausibility only at a high level of abstraction. Such a charge can be lodged against the abstruse writings of such political theorists as the late Leo Strauss and such modern jurists as Ernest Weinrib and Lloyd Weinreb. Barnett, commendably, has less lofty goals in mind. For him, the phrase natural law helps remind us that salient features of human nature are not easily manipulable. He rightly cautions against the oft-heard claim that human nature is "socially constructed" (it is never quite said by whom) and therefore can be reconstructed in ways that fit contemporary ideals of human (read, gender or racial) equality.

Yet Barnett does not press the point on his skeptical readers as hard as he might, for his main goal is to persuade us that natural law should be understood in a conditional "if-then" sense. Thus, if you want to achieve human flourishing, then these are the rules of conduct that you have to obey. His asserted parallel is to engineering principles, which say that if you want your building to stand, then you had better put your center of gravity over your base; if you want your building to fall down, then by all means have a lopsided overhang. The parallel is instructive, but not in the sense that Barnett intends. There are no laws of engineering; there are only laws of physics that indicate the relationships between distance, mass, time, force, and so on. Those laws cannot be couched as "if-then" instructions; they are the constraints that must be respected for any human project, whether noble or nefarious, to go forward.

The moment, therefore, that we couch human laws in these terms, we are not working parallel to natural (i.e., scientific) laws. Rather, we are asking how we can maximize certain outputs, such as human flourishing, given the constraints that we face. Many of these constraints are imposed by physical laws; others are biological imperatives that have to do with caloric intake, heat retention, and reproduction. But no matter what their source, Barnett's version of natural law, like that of the most successful of the classical liberal writers, becomes in practice nothing more or less than a sensible, constrained form of utilitarianism which measures the success of rules of conduct by the way in which they allow individuals to order their own lives, and groups to order their collective existence.

In this framework, the distinction between the language of human flourishing and that of social welfare becomes important. The former talks about the individual in relative isolation and treats self-realization as the highest goal. But that approach tends to miss the question of conflicts between individuals, which are more squarely addressed under theories of social welfare. These theories compare social states--claiming, for example, that social state A should be preferred to social state B if one person is better off in state A than in state B, and everyone else is at least as well off. Such calculations are not easy. But Barnett does not explain why the individualistic account provides us with better traction for social problems than the more comprehensive accounts, such as the test of Pareto superiority just mentioned, which is commonly used in economic theory.

By stressing the personal account of human flourishing, Barnett fails to discuss with sufficient fullness the key question of which rules of conduct should be individually chosen and which should be legally imposed--that is, backed with the coercive power of the state. Eating three square meals a day, avoiding smoking, and getting enough sleep sound like fine rules of conduct, but only a dangerously authoritarian state (such as ours is now becoming, on the first two points at least) would make adherence to such dietary, tobacco, and sleeping laws subject to collective control.

What, then, should the objects of public force be? Here Barnett draws on the work of the philosopher Hillel Steiner to insist that state power should be directed toward the articulation and formation of "compossible rights." These are the rights which it is possible for individuals whose personal interests sometimes diverge to assert for themselves and to recognize in others in ways that maximize their respective spheres of freedom. At this point in the book, the discussion of natural law recedes into the background, for Barnett is rightly concerned with getting people to buy into his substantive regime, even if they reject his legal metaphysics. He adheres (as do I) to the classical liberal tradition that starts with four simple rules as the keys to organizing social behavior.

The first of these is the principle of individual liberty, which gives to each individual a sphere of control over those matters closest to him. Liberty allows individuals to pick courses of action that advance their own flourishing. Since individuals live not in a void but as physical entities bound in time and space, the rule of first possession allows each person to choose and defend some part of the earth's surface on which he can carry out his own plans.

As social beings, humans understand the mutual benefit that comes from cooperation and exchange; therefore they must have a law of contract that permits them to deploy and redeploy their labor and property in ways that work to their own advantage. The freedom to contract, moreover, covers the right to determine with whom one will contract; rightly understood, therefore, it embraces a freedom from contract as well. And to make sure that liberty, property, and contractual interests are respected, a law of tort (or crime) has to be invoked to punish those who seek to gain advantage by deviating from the accepted rules--that is, who violate the fundamental liberal prohibition against force and fraud.

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