Richard EpsteinA November 30 gathering in the faculty library of Vanderbilt hall marked the publication of Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law Richard Epstein’s latest book, Design for Liberty: Private Property, Public Administration, and the Rule of Law. The book advocates for a dramatically smaller federal government, arguing that our overregulated state allows too much discretion for regulators. This results in arbitrary, unfair decisions, rent seeking, and other abuses. Epstein offers an alternative model, grounded in classical liberalism and resting on the twin pillars of the rule of law and of private contract and property rights.

In introductory remarks, University Professor Jeremy Waldron – who is far from being one of Epstein’s libertarian bedfellows – called the book “terrific” and “beautifully written.” He also noted, with a humorous reference to Epstein’s more “absolutist” works, that “it’s a surprisingly moderate book.” In the introduction to Design for Liberty, Epstein writes, “Over the years in which I’ve elaborated this agenda, my own views have evolved in ways that turn out to be more sympathetic to government administration than I had once supposed.” When reading this, Waldron said, he wondered, “Is this really Epstein?” Perhaps Epstein’s move from the University of Chicago to NYU Law had something to do with this change, Waldron quipped.

“I am by training a Roman lawyer as much as I am an Anglo-American lawyer,” said Epstein (who has taught Roman law) at the opening of his remarks, noting that "this has had a great deal of influence on my thinking.” From there – and with no notes – he delivered an oration, punctuated by the occasional Latin phrase, that flowed seamlessly over the themes in his book and points made just moments earlier by Waldron. He ranged from Lockean political theory to latent defects in drugs and automobiles and from “government arbitrage” to the differing nature of property rights generally found in “long and skinny” features of the landscape (e.g., rivers, beaches) versus those that are “short and squat” (e.g., housing lots). And while he acknowledged that, as he aged, he has moderated his views somewhat, he hastened to point out that he still vigorously opposes Social Security, the federal healthcare law, and the minimum wage.

Posted December 6, 2011