When surveying the vast wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis, many classical liberals worry that the most profound damage done was to the rule of law in America. Though it is difficult to pin down the concept with great precision, the core of the rule of law is simple: we have a government of laws, not men. Our officials must follow rules that have been publicly and clearly set forth in advance rather than acting on their own caprice, and they are not welcome to simply make up rules as they go along and declare their conduct lawful in retrospect. Without adherence to this precept, government’s actions can have no basis for legitimacy.
If we closely scrutinize what the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, and other agencies of the federal government did in response to the recent financial crisis, there is no avoiding that they made a mockery of the rule of law. Indeed, as Lawrence H. White puts it, “The approach of Federal Reserve and Treasury officials during this crisis, unfortunately, has been to consider every possible remedy but applying the rule of law.”
Dreams are surreal, of course, and often you wonder where in the world some dream could have come from. In this instance, though, I think I know: I suspect that my dream was prompted by a post on this very blog. In any case, it was a dream about Griswold v. Connecticut— the old, seminal (albeit anti-seminal) contraception decision.
In my dream, the case and the result were the same, but the reasoning was completely different. I forget who wrote the majority opinion. Harlan, maybe. Or White. Definitely not Douglas. There was nothing in the opinion about “emanations” and “penumbras.” No effusive (and, given Douglas’s authorship, ironic) paeans to the nobility and sanctity of marriage. It was a due process decision–but real due process. Procedural due process, not substantive.
One of the peculiarities of the divide between the Anglo American world and that of Continental Europe is that positivism has taken two different forms. In the Anglo-American world, H.L.A. Hart is the key figure and the Concept of Law has taken on an extraordinary importance. On the Continent, however, Hans Kelsen is the most important positivist.
One important question is why there should be this divide. At first glance, it seems like an example of prejudice or chauvinism – each area prefers its own. Of course, people on each side might argue that their champion really is better – but that begs the question why each side so strongly prefers its own figure.
While I have read Hart, I have only read small portions of Kelsen. But reading this much of Kelsen reveals that his writing is in the style of much continental philosophy, which makes it quite hard for Anglo-Americans to understand (apart from translation problems). Continental writing, especially from the German speaking countries, is often filled with abstract language that is hard to understand, and to people from the Anglo-American world, often comes across as vacuous.
I have often wondered about this aspect of Continental writing when reading Friedrich Hayek, whose works I know quite well. For example, his discussion of a spontaneous order is an important advance, but it is often vague and unclear. It has taken many subsequent articles, by Anglo-American types and economists, to clarify it. I can’t tell you how many times I have been reading Hayek and have thought, “an example would really help here,” but rarely is one provided.