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Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

Free Not to Vote

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, Politics on October 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

The 2014 U.S. midterm elections are coming up, and I don’t intend to vote. A vote is like virginity: you don’t give it away to the first flower-bearing suitor. I haven’t been given a good reason, let alone flowers, to vote for any candidate, so I will stay home, as well I should.

This month, my wife, a Brazilian citizen, drove from Auburn, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia, on a Sunday morning to cast her vote for the presidential election in Brazil. She arrived at the Brazilian consulate and waited in a long line of expatriates only to be faced with a cruel choice: vote for the incumbent socialist Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, for the socialist Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party who is billed as a center-right politician, for the environmentalist socialist Marina Silva of the Socialist Party, or for any of the other socialist candidates who were polling so low that they had no chance of victory. Brazil maintains a system of compulsory voting in addition to other compulsory schemes such as conscription for all males aged 18.

Logan Albright recently wrote about the folly of compulsory voting, support for which is apparently growing in Canada. He criticized the hypocrisy of an allegedly democratic society mandating a vote and then fining or jailing those who do not follow the mandate. He also pointed out the dangers of forcing uneducated and uninformed citizens to vote against their will. This problem is particularly revealing in Brazil, where illiterate candidates have exploited election laws to run absurd commercials and to assume the persona of silly characters such as a clown, Wonder Woman, Rambo, Crazy Dick, and Hamburger Face, each of which is worth googling for a chuckle. The incumbent clown, by the way, was just reelected on the campaign slogan “it can’t get any worse.” Multiple Barack Obamas and Osama bin Ladens were also running for office, as was, apparently, Jesus. The ballot in Brazil has become goofier than a middle-school election for class president.

Even in the United States, as the election of Barack Obama demonstrates, voting has become more about identity politics, fads, and personalities than about principle or platform. Just over a decade ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Governor of California amid a field of second-rate celebrities while a former professional wrestler (the fake and not the Olympian kind of wrestling) Jesse “the Body” Ventura was winding up his term as the Governor of Minnesota. Today comedian Al Franken holds a seat in the United States Senate. It turns out that Brazil isn’t the only country that can boast having a clown in office.

No serious thinker believes that a Republican or Democratic politician has what it takes to boost the economy, facilitate peace, or generate liberty. The very function of a career politician is antithetical to market freedom; no foolish professional vote-getter ought to have the power he or she enjoys under the current managerial state system, but voting legitimates that power.

It is often said, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” The counterpoint is that voting ensures your complicity with the policies that elected politicians will enact. If you don’t vote, you lack complicity. You are not morally blameworthy for resisting the system that infringes basic rights or that offends your sense of justice and reason. You have not bestowed credibility on the government with your formal participation in its most sacred ritual. The higher the number of voters who participate in an election, the more legitimacy there is for the favored projects of the elected politicians, and the more likely those politicians are to impose their will on the populace by way of legislation or other legal means.

Refusing to vote can send a message: get your act together or we won’t turn out at the polling stations. Low voter turnout undermines the validity of the entire political system. Abstention also demonstrates your power: just watch how the politicians grovel and scramble for your vote, promise you more than they can deliver, beg for your support. This is how it ought to be: Politicians need to work for your vote and to earn it. They need to prove that they are who they purport to be and that they stand for that which they purport to stand. If they can’t do this, they don’t deserve your vote.

Abstention is not apathy; it is the exercise of free expression, a voluntary act of legitimate and peaceful defiance, the realization of a right.

There are reasonable alternatives to absolute abstention: one is to vote for the rare candidate who does, in fact, seek out liberty, true liberty; another is to cast a protest vote for a candidate outside the mainstream. Regardless, your vote is a representation of your person, the indicia of your moral and ethical beliefs. It should not be dispensed with lightly.

If you have the freedom not to vote, congratulations: you still live in a society with a modicum of liberty. Your decision to exercise your liberty is yours alone. Choose wisely.

2011 in Review

In America, Arts & Letters, Communication, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Television, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 1, 2012 at 9:54 am
By Slade Mendenhall and Brian Underwood
 
 
Slade Mendenhall is a founding editor of themendenhall.com. He is a student at the University of Georgia majoring in Economics and Mass Communications. His writing interests include screenwriting, fiction and essays on the subjects of philosophy, capitalism, political thought, and aesthetics. His New Years resolution is to progress in the completion of an as-yet-untitled novel (his second).
 
Brian Underwood is a second-year student at the University of Georgia where he studies history and political science as majors and philosophy as a minor. Originally a strong supporter of the Republican Party, Brian moved away from allying himself with the Republicans in politics towards a more “policy over party” position following the 2008 election. As a result, he became an avid reader of historical, philosophical, and other academic works. Moving ever further towards the “libertarian” end of the Nolan Chart, he eventually joined the Objectivist Club and the Young Americans for Liberty after arriving at UGA. Now, he simply defines himself as a “Capitalist.” His main writing interests include philosophy, politics, history, and economics.
 
The following post originally appeared over at themendenhall.
 
An endeavor to measure the shifts and turns of a nation’s ideology can only be compared to an attempt at sensing the turning of the Earth beneath one’s feet. It is at once ubiquitous and elusive, all-encompassing and indistinguishable. Yet, there are, on occasion, times at which one is struck by sudden jolts of rapid motion and change so disruptive that it forbids all attempts at understanding what course or direction it is taking. Swept up, we must at once answer the questions of where we are, to where we are going, and how we are to get there. We must either repair our faulted ideologies or face the consequences of our own contradictions. It may well be that 2011 is to be remembered as such a year. True, it lacked the singular purposefulness of 2010’s drive to repudiate the health care legislation, rid Congress of its unrestrained desire for ever greater government controls, and nullify the Obama administration’s oppressive regulatory policies wherever possible. Different times, however, call for different spirits. 2011 was the time for the promises of the 2010 congressional elections to be put into act, the time to put that ideology to work. The result was often well-intended but imperfect, hindered by the lingering Democratic control of the Senate and complicated by a perpetual series of compromises that left no one satisfied and sent congressional approval ratings to all-time lows of 12.7% at year’s end. As the unemployment rate stagnated, Americans were given a grim look into the engine room of partisan politics where principle is so often held subordinate to considerations of loyalty and appearance.Though it has yet to reflect in our economic condition, things are, politically, better than they were twelve months ago. For the first time in generations, there is a growing sector of average Americans who believe, both practically and ethically, in the merits of political and economic freedom. The challenge now will be carrying the enthusiasm they have cultivated since 2010 forward, through the brutish struggles in Washington’s backrooms and the uncertainty of Iowa’s ballot boxes, toward the elections of 2012 and, with hope, an era of ever-greater victories for the principles upon which our nation was founded. As always, winning our future means understanding our past. It is with that consideration that we look back on the events of the last year as we say goodbye to 2011.
 
A year of trouble and turmoil, 2011 has been as much affected by conflicts abroad as it has by the struggle between the changing tides of American ideologies and the onerous traditions of politics past. Scarcely had the year begun when it was upended by a sudden explosion of conflicts in the Middle East, beginning with the public suicide of a young man in protest of the Tunisian government which transpired to an international wave of political uprisings now known as the Arab Spring. That movement would incite conflicts in nations from North Africa to Syria and bring about the fall of such corrupt dictators as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi. Though the movement wages on in the bloodied streets of Syria, where rebels come to blows daily with a brutal and oppressive regime, its ultimate results and effects on American interests are as yet undecided. Much will depend on the current and future political struggles within those now shaken nations, and history could as easily come to see these events as a vacuum from which emerged a newly energized and vindicated rise of Islamic Totalitarianism as it could the pure and heroic struggle for freedom that the Western media so actively portrayed it to be.
 
  One consideration in particular must be made in regard to that circumstance, however: the nature of those revolutions, the violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians, the presence of Al Qaeda factions among the ranks of Libyan rebels, and the recent political victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt portend a dark future for those nations. If popular revolutions can be divided among those most akin to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, that which has transpired in the Middle East this year is definitively the latter. They are not movements based primarily on principles of individual rights. Were they, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would have been ousted along with Mubarak. Instead, they are less a push for freedom than they are a push against an oppressor, complicated by the fact that this is a part of the world which has never been exposed to true political freedom or come to accept the philosophical principles which are prerequisite to its realization. Tragically, the American media proved in its coverage of these events its dire inability to make that distinction.
 
In this publication’s view, the Leftist elements of the media were motivated by a desire to vindicate their long-expressed views on America’s Middle East policy since the beginning of the Iraq war. Doubtless, there are a myriad of arguments against our having gone to war in Iraq — most reputably that which states that Iraq was not the greatest or most immediate threat to American security, that the very costly armed welfare mission into which that conflict devolved was in no way carried out in the best interests of American soldiers or citizens, that our efforts would have been better served elsewhere. However, this is not the logic or sentiment which is most fervently held by these advocates. Since the beginning of that war, there has been a considerable segment of the Left which has argued against it on the grounds that the principle of self-determination grants nations the right to practice any form of oppression and denial of individual rights they please, so long as they hold majority support; that political freedom is a Western product that we happen to have chosen, but that any other nation’s choice of tyranny is equally valid because they chose it. Fast-forwarding to this year’s Arab Spring, these same advocates are some of the movement’s most ardent supporters, on the grounds that it shows that, left to their own devices, the peoples of such nations will eventually throw off their own shackles and choose freedom without Western support or guidance. Were this the case, the nations of the Middle East which have undergone revolutions this year deserve our commendations. However, we remain dubious that this is the case. Those who believe that freedom and prosperity are the predestined results of these revolutions will, we fear, be demonstrably proven wrong by whatever variant of oppressive control emerges in these very fragile regions in the coming years. What future instability or, worse, stability under dangerous conditions will mean for America’s interests in the region remain to be seen, but it is a problem that should be carefully observed to maintain our security and best interests.Ironically, in their advocacy of these revolutions, the Left has inherited a trademark intellectual error from the Bush administration: the belief that popular elections and a system of democracy are the source and cause of freedom. This is a grievous inversion that leads man to the conclusion that institutions and their organization can effectively supplant the role of ideas in the guidance of his actions. Though popular elections are an integral part of a free political system, they are its product, not its cause. Only a rational political philosophy of individual rights can ever be the cause of true and lasting freedom. Returning to our previous comparison, in the case of America, its revolutionaries had inherited roughly a century of Enlightenment thought in which they were well-versed and whose principles they explicitly understood. That knowledge of the Enlightenment values of reason and individualism led those men to the design of a government meant to acknowledge and secure them. France’s exposure to Enlightenment thought was quite equal to England’s, but its revolution was driven less by intellectuals and more by a mob, inspired less by a circumspect outlook upon what could be than by the violent, angry rejection of what was. In short: less talk of ideas, more guillotines. To which do the current uprisings in the Middle East better compare and what does that suggest about the political future to be expected there? It is significant that those here in America, the nation of the Enlightenment, are today so unaware of the role of philosophy in its beginnings… and its future.Despite the rather grim prospects of revolutionaries in the Middle East to establish any long-term system of freedom and prosperity, the ideological struggles waged in America this year have proven that its intellectual foundations are alive and well here in the States. What’s more, there are signs that they could be experiencing a popular– and lasting– resurgence. The Tea Party candidates around the country were inaugurated to their congressional seats in January after having run their campaigns on the principles of a free market, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government. Joining them were welcomed conservative state officials throughout the nation in such volumes as had not been seen since before the Great Depression.  Their rallying cry: to oppose the unyielding growth of government and its power over the lives of private citizens. Their victories were numerous and significant (if as much for what they prevented as what they created), though it seemed, at times, that every victory had its casualties and every two steps forward saw one step back. Democratic power in the Senate made for unproductive compromises and grand-scale debates that evinced more in theatrics than tangible results.This was never more clearly displayed than in the summer debt and budgetary crises, with the tantalizing threat of government shut-down looming over our heads. Americans bore witness to the paltry efforts of Congressto wean itself from excessive outlays, where merely promising to increase spending at a decreasing rate was portrayed as “budget cuts” and an unwillingness to abolish or defund a single government bureaucracy left the fundamental problems of America’s  leviathan state firmly intact. Unsurprisingly, though shut-downs were averted and compromises reached, the political instability over so crucial an issue led to the first downgrade of America’s debt to below AAA. In ensuing months, as compensation, we were offered  another grand spectacle in the form of a “Super-Committee” convened to tackle the problem of America’s mounting foreign debt. Tragically, it was stacked with the most diametrically opposite representatives from Left and Right and, predictably, politics yet again trumped the interests of American citizens’ well-being. Read the rest of this entry »
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