Subversive Thoughts on Freedom and the Common Good

Richard Epstein is a rare and forceful voice against the conventional academic wisdom of our time. Legal scholarship of the past few decades overwhelmingly supports more government regulation and more power for the courts, partly in order to control businesses for environmental and other reasons, but more broadly in hopes of achieving egalitarian outcomes along the famous lines of race, gender, and class. Epstein is deeply skeptical that any of this is the shining path to a better world. Epstein’s moral criterion for evaluating social policy is to look at how fully it allows individual human beings to satisfy their preferences in life, and he argues that the best policy is individual liberty and a large degree of laissez faire. More and bigger government, as Epstein relentlessly illustrates, often leads to unintended and unwanted consequences. In Principles for a Free Society, the argument is cogent and specific, drawing on Epstein’s enormous economic, philosophical, and legal erudition. Although skeptical of many of the trends of recent decades, Principles for a Free Society is an optimistic book. Epstein’s optimistic view is that utility (the common good), natural law (principles of liberty), and the Anglo-American common law tradition all agree on fundamental laissez-faire ideas. The theme of the book is that, far from confronting tragic choices, citizens can enjoy both liberty and the common good; the two are really one, and apparently conflicting philosophical outlooks like utilitarianism and natural law ultimately converge on laissez-faire principles.