The difficulty of defining “freedom”: Bruno Leoni

Abraham Lincoln, in a speech at Baltimore in 1864, recognized both the difficulty of defining “freedom” and the fact that the Civil War between the North and the South was based, in a way, on a misunderstanding related to that word. “The world,” he said, “has never had a good definition of the word “liberty.” . . . In using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.”

In fact, it is not easy to define “freedom” or to be aware completely of what we are doing when we define it. If we want to define “freedom,” we must first decide the purpose of our definition. A “realistic” approach removes the preliminary problem: “freedom” is something that is simply “there,” and the only question is to find the proper words to describe it.

An example of a “realistic” definition of freedom is that given by Lord Acton at the beginning of his History of Freedom: “By liberty I mean assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.” Many critics would say that there is no reason to call “freedom” only the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty, and not, for example, his right or his pleasure; nor is there any reason to say that this protection ought to be assured only against majorities or authority, and not against minorities and individual citizens.

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The Application of Law:Roscoe Pound

The Application of Law

THREE steps are involved in the adjudication of a controversy according to law: (1) Finding the law, ascertaining which of the many rules in the legal system is to be applied, or, if none is applicable, reaching a rule for the cause (which may or may not stand as a rule for subsequent cases) on the basis of given materials in some way which the legal system points out; (2) interpreting the rule so chosen or ascertained, that is, determining its meaning as it was framed and with respect to its intended scope; (3) applying to the cause in hand the rule so found and interpreted. In the past these have been confused under the name of interpretation. It was assumed that the function of the judge consisted simply in interpreting an authoritatively given rule of wholly extra-judicial origin by an exact process of deducing its logically implied content and in mechanically applying the rule so given and interpreted. This assumption has its origin in the stage of the strict law in the attempt to escape from the overdetail on the one hand, and the vague sententiousness on the other hand, which are characteristic of primitive law. For the most part primitive law is made up of simple, precise, detailed rules for definite narrowly defined situations. It has no general principles. The first step toward a science of law is the making of distinctions between what comes within and what does not come within the legal meaning of a rule. But a body of primitive law also often contains a certain number of sententious legal proverbs, put in striking form so as to stick in the memory, but vague in their content. The strict law by means of a conception of results obtained inevitably from fixed rules and undeviating remedial proceedings seeks relief from the uncertainty inherent in the finding of a larger content for overdetailed special rules through differentiation of cases and the application of legal proverbial sayings through the “equity of the tribunal.” It conceives of application of law as involving nothing but a mechanical fitting of the case with the strait-jacket of rule or remedy. The inevitable adjustments and extendings and limitations, which an attempt to administer justice in this way must involve, are covered up by a fiction of interpretation in order to maintain the general security.

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The End of Law: Roscoe Pound 1930

MAKING or finding law, call it which you will, presupposes a mental picture of what one is doing and of why he is doing it. Hence the nature of law has been the chief battleground of jurisprudence since the Greek philosophers began to argue as to the basis of the law’s authority. But the end of law has been debated more in politics than in jurisprudence. In the stage of equity and natural law the prevailing theory of the nature of law seemed to answer the question as to its end. In the maturity of law the law was thought of as something self-sufficient, to be judged by an ideal form of itself, and as something which could not be made, or, if it could be made, was to be made sparingly. The idea of natural rights seemed to explain incidentally what law was for and to show that there ought to be as little of it as possible, since it was a restraint upon liberty and even the least of such restraint demanded affirmative justification. Thus, apart from mere systematic and formal improvement, the theory of lawmaking in the maturity of law was negative. It told us chiefly how we should not legislate and upon what subjects we should refrain from lawmaking. Having no positive theory of creative lawmaking, the last century was little conscious of requiring or holding a theory as to the end of law. But in fact it held such a theory and held it strongly.

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The Generation of “Public Bad”

Drinking camel urine

The position of the individual under law, whether this be formal or informal, is comparable to that present in any “publicness” interaction so long as law itself qualifies under this rubric. In the absence of effective enforcement, external or internal, persons are always motivated to violate the standards laid down. This is true quite independently of a person’s preferences with respect to the appropriateness or the inappropriateness of the standards themselves, considered as rational collective institutions generally applied or as viable and widely shared ethical norms. Even the person who places the highest benefit-cost ratio, in total or at the margin, on the extension of behavioral constraints through law may be motivated, in his private, personal capacity, to violate these constraints. He is, as noted several times, in a position akin to that of the potential free rider with ordinary public goods. Economists have adduced the free-rider dilemma to explain the failure of voluntaristic, market-like institutions to supply jointly consumed goods efficiently. A more directly relevant application explains the necessity of coercion in the instruments of taxation. Individuals may not voluntarily pay taxes even if their private-personal benefits from public spending exceed their nominal tax liabilities. Consider the person who has explicitly been party to the putative public-goods contract in which his assigned share of tax is matched against expected public-goods benefits. Suppose that he succeeds in evading his assigned tax obligation; this has the effect of reducing the total revenues available for providing-purchasing the jointly consumed good, the benefits from which are shared by other members of the collectivity.11 In evading his tax obligation, which is economically rational for the individual, he creates a “public bad.” The person in question imposes an external diseconomy on all others in the sharing group, all potential beneficiaries of the jointly consumed good or service financed from tax revenues.

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THE SPIRIT OF LAWS: Baron de Montesquieu 1748


IF, amidst the infinite number of subjects contained in this book, there is any thing which, contrary to my expectation, may possibly offend, I can at least assure the public that it was not inserted with an ill intention, for I am not naturally of a captious temper. Plato thanked Heaven that he was born in the same age with Socrates; and, for my part, I give thanks to God that I was born a subject of that government under which I live, and that it is his pleasure I should obey those whom he has made me love.
I beg one favour of my readers, which I fear will not be granted me; this is, that they will not judge by a few hours reading of the labour of twenty years; that they will approve or condemn the book entire, and not a few particular phrases. If they would search into the design of the author, they can do it no other way so completely as by searching into the design of the work.
I have first of all considered mankind; and the result of my thoughts has been, that, amidst such an infinite diversity of laws and manners, they were not solely conducted by the caprice of fancy.

I have laid down the first principles, and have found that the particular cases apply naturally to them; that the histories of all nations are only consequences of them; and that every particular law is connected with another law, or depends on some other of a more general extent.

When I have been obliged to look back into antiquity, I have endeavoured to assume the spirit of the ancients, lest I should consider those things as alike which are really different, and lest I should miss the difference of those which appear to be like.
I have not drawn my principles from my prejudices, but from the nature of things.
Here a great many truths will not appear till we have seen the chain which connects them with others. The more we enter into particulars, the more we shall perceive the certainty of the principles on which they are founded. I have not even given all these particulars; for who could mention them all without a most insupportable fatigue!

The reader will not here meet with any of those bold flights which seem to characterise the works of the present age. When things are examined with ever so small a degree of extent, the sallies of imagination must vanish; these generally arise from the mind’s collecting all its powers to view only one side of the subject, while it leaves the other unobserved.

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What is the Law of Nature


  1. Armstrong, David M., What is a Law of Nature? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1983.
  2. Beauchamp, Tom L. and Alexander Rosenberg, Hume and the Problem of Causation, (New York: Oxford University Press), 1981.
  3. Berofsky, Bernard, Freedom from Necessity: The Metaphysical Basis of Responsibility, (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul), 1987.
  4. Carroll, John W., Laws of Nature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1994.
  5. Clarke, Randolph, “Recent Work on Freedom and Determinism”, in Philosophical Books, vol. 36, no. 1 (Jan. 1995), pp. 9-18.
  6. Dretske, Fred, “Laws of Nature,” in Philosophy of Science, vol. 44, no. 2 (June 1977), pp. 248-268.
  7. Harrison, George R., “Diffraction grating,” in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Physics, edited by Sybil P. Parker, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.), 1983, pp. 245-247.
  8. Hume, David A., A Treatise of Human Nature [1739], edited by L.A. Selby-Bigge, (London: Oxford University Press), 1888, reprinted 1960.
  9. Kneale, William, “Natural Laws and Contrary-to-Fact Conditionals,” in Analysis, vol. 10, no. 6 (June 1950), pp. 121-125. Reprinted in Beauchamp (1974) [see above], pp. 46-49.
  10. Maxwell, Nicholas, “Can there be necessary connections between successive events?”, in British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 19 (1968), pp. 1-25.
  11. Molnar, George, “Kneale’s Argument Revisited,” in The Philosophical Review, vol.78, no. 1 (Jan. 1969) pp. 79-89. Reprinted in Beauchamp (1974) [see above], pp. 106-113.
  12. Montesquieu, Baron de, The Spirit of the Laws, [1st edition 1748; last edition (posth.) 1757], translated and edited by Abbe M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1988.
  13. Popper, Sir Karl, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, (New York: Basic Books), 1959.
  14. Popper, Sir Karl, “The Propensity interpretation of the calculus of probability, and the quantum theory”, in Observation and Interpretation in the Philosophy of Physics, [1957] edited by Stephen Korner, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.) 1962, pp. 65-70.
  15. Popper, Sir Karl, “The Propensity Interpretation of Probability,” in British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 10 (1959), pp. 25-42.
  16. Popper, Sir Karl, “Suppes’s Criticism of the Propensity Interpretation of Probability and Quantum Mechanics,” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, (La Salle, IL: Open Court), 1974, pp. 1125-1140.
  17. Scriven, Michael, “An Essential Unpredictability in Human Behavior,” in Scientific Psychology: Principles and Approaches, edited by Ernest Nagel and Benjamin Wolman, (New York: Basic Books), 1965, pp. 411-25.
  18. Scriven, Michael, “The Key Property of Physical Laws – Inaccuracy,” in Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science – Proceedings of Section L of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, 1959, edited by H. Feigl and G. Maxwell, (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston), 1961, pp. 91-104.
  19. Swartz, Norman, The Concept of Physical Law, (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1985.
  20. Weinert, Friedel, editor, Laws of Nature: Essays on the Philosophical, Scientific and Historical Dimensions, (Berlin: de Gruyter), 1995.
  21. Wright, Georg Henrik von, Causality and Determinism, (New York: Columbia University Press), 1974.