In Conformity, Cass Sunstein takes common sense about how decisions are informed, and distorted, by social pressure and makes it both better and worse. Better, because he shows why common sense is confirmed by logic and experiment. Worse, because he makes it feel pedantic. But if you reflect on the discussions in this book, and apply them to current events and your own thinking, you can get some interest and excitement back into your brain, and maybe benefit yourself and society as well.
Glenn Reynolds, the famous “Instapundit” and a law professor at the University of Tennessee, offers a short book about social media and the problems it brings. He frames his analysis and argument as a parallel to James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, which valorizes Mesopotamian hunter-gatherers. Reynolds’s point is that just as when hunter-gatherers became city dwellers they also became more susceptible to disease, so when we submitted ourselves to living on social media, we also became more susceptible to disease. That is, to diseases of the mind, and he offers some possible cures and vaccines.
Conservatives have long complained about the administrative state, the monster that swallowed America. Many complaints focus on the end result: how the administrative state is a tool of the Left, that accomplishes innumerable Left goals, all destructive. Other complaints, more technical, focus on how crucial elements of the American constitutional system, such as separation and enumeration of powers, have vanished, destroyed by the Blob-like growth and flailing tentacles of the administrative state. John Marini steps back even further, to show how the administrative state is utterly incompatible with the philosophical vision of America’s founding, and is rather the fruit of poisonous modern philosophies, deadly to any society based on natural right and reason.
It has long been an article of faith on the Right, including for me, that the Left has undemocratically imposed its views on the country for decades by using the Supreme Court as a super-legislature. I had a discussion with a friend of mine this past weekend, an actual centrist (bizarre, I know), who suggested this view is wrong, or rather exaggerated. He challenged me to demonstrate my position, stipulating that it is obviously true with respect to abortion. For the most part, I failed his challenge, but today we will explore to what degree and why it matters.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who has a tendency to drift between British and American spellings, but who has recently been trying to standardise (ha ha) on the former.] One of the most interesting topics to me, a total neophyte in the field of law, is the comparison between civil law (i.e., law decreed by a sovereign), and common law (i.e., law constructed by judges in the Anglo-American tradition). The topic is deep and weighty, and one in which it’s hard to cleanly resolve a question along the lines of which might be “better.” Everything is subtlety and nuance, comparison of principles and implementation, and a noting of the successes and failures of each in history.
While pretty much everyone in this book who is rich and powerful comes off looking bad, it is less a tale of typical fraud, like a Ponzi scheme, and more a tale of human foibles. These were expertly played on by Elizabeth Holmes, a very young woman of little productive talent and no particular evident intelligence, but with a natural gift for sales and embodying the icy manipulative abilities of the sociopath. Fascinating stuff, all of it, and worth reading just to make sure that you don’t fall into a similar trap in your life. And, more broadly, the arc of Theranos has much to say about supposedly imminent advances in technology, from artificial intelligence to flying autonomous cars.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who only recently realised it’s “servandus,” not “servadus.”] The Corpus Juris Civilis was a monumental achievement. Justinian I of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire set out to collect and condense the disparate laws that had evolved in Rome, and then set them down in a coherent, authoritative text. He didn’t literally do it himself—he was the project’s executive (having imperium, at that), with the low-level work being delegated to an army of lawyers and legal scholars and clerks or what have you. The result was actually three texts: the Codex Justinianus, the Institutiones, and the Digesta, or the Digest. The Digest is, I believe, the largest—essentially an encyclopedia of Roman law, organized by topic and consisting of edited excerpts from renowned archaic jurists: Gaius, Ulpian, Julianus, Paulus, and so on.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who is most definitely not a lawyer, nor a historian.] Henry Sumner Maine was an Englishman of the High Victorian era, i.e., the late 19th century. His Popular Government, a book discussing the properties and deficiencies of broad-suffrage democracy, is often recommended by reactionaries in the vein of Mencius Moldbug. He included Popular Government in a list of three books constituting the canon of his so-called “Froude Society” (of which I am apparently a deacon). But while Maine’s work has reactionary implications, it is never polemic. Maine was a sober-minded jurist and historian. The present book, his Ancient Law, is probably his best-known work, and the one most representative of his broader oeuvre. Maine tends to be a bit of a dry writer, but he never fails to deliver on the subject matter, and the book is a pleasure to read.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, a Canadian and grudging dilettante with too much time on his hands.] As I continue to re-evaluate my take on the economics of the 20th century, Coase’s work stands out as well as or better than it ever did. Ronald Coase is probably my favourite economist of all time; his work is arguably as foundational as Smith’s or Ricardo’s and was developed over just a handful of influential and easily-digestible papers. The Firm, the Market, and the Law is more or less a summary of Coase’s most important work, containing his famous The Nature of the Firm and The Problem of Social Cost, but also several other papers, plus ample commentary from Coase himself circa 1990. Coase died in 2013 at the ripe old age of 102.
In this brief book, or rather pamphlet in the old political, Tom Paine-ish use of that term, law professor and well-known blogger Glenn Reynolds offers some thoughts on how the class structure of the judiciary affects judicial decisions. Rather than focus on the general class divide in American society, Reynolds focuses on that divide in the judiciary, which he shows is deeper than that in America as a whole. He believes the judicial divide is especially pernicious to our political system, and he offers some constructive solutions to the problem, although I think that those solutions both would be ineffective in practice and that the problems are deeper than Reynolds believes.