Law and Property: The Best Hope for Liberty?

By Barry, Norman | Ideas on Liberty, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Law and Property: The Best Hope for Liberty?

Barry, Norman, Ideas on Liberty

There is little left of the conventional protections for individualism in the modern world. Whatever theoretical virtues there may be in democracy (and there aren't many1), in practice it has disintegrated into a struggle among self-regarding interest groups, mediated by government, over wealth that is exclusively created by private individuals. The Constitution has proved to be little more than a parchment protection against legislative predators. Federalism, which once offered the possibility of exit from more burdensome states, has ceased to be an escape route because the U.S. Supreme Court, in upholding virtually every act of centralization since Franklin Roosevelt, has turned the states into mere agents of Washington, D.C.

The law itself seems to offer little solace. The common law, which is a product of judges' proceeding case by case, for example, in tort and contract, has ceased to be as predictable as it once was. Judges have now become creative: they don't preserve an ongoing legal order; they shift it in politically fashionable directions.

Because of this change in the common law, I began to look for the security of a written legal code (or civil law) against the arrogance of lawyers with a social mission. I was the first to admit that neither the common law nor a written code had been able to resist the intrusion of statute into the order of general (end-independent) rules in the twentieth century. But surely a code system had a slightly better chance of preserving liberty? Historically, code writers had been less influenced by interest groups. After all, the codes were not originally the product of mass democracy. There is indeed a logical difference between a code and a statute, and this is another instance of F. A. Hayek's famous distinction between "law" and "legislation." Furthermore, a code system, in principle, does not suffer from the vagaries of judge-made law. In a difficult case, the judges go back to the code rather than use their own discretion; and is that not better than having a judiciary pretending that it is "discovering the law" when it is really advancing a social agenda? Hayek himself had respect for the nineteenth-century German code.

But I soon realized that something was going wrong with my thinking. I had not understood that the common law was, in principle, acceptable if politicians left it alone. There was a close historical connection between the common law and the market economy. Contract, which was entirely judge-made law, had been an essential servant of the private property, capitalist order, and tort, which protected individuals from possible harms, had emerged independently of statute.

Ironically, the problem in America came from the fact that it has always had a kind of code, the Constitution, superimposed on the spontaneous order of common law. This code, because it has been subject to creative interpretation, has licensed an attenuation of rights and property, which would not have occurred under pure common law. The latter had always recognized equality (it was an eighteenth-century court decision that disallowed slavery in England), so did we really need the Fourteenth Amendment, which, among other divisive things, brought us affirmative action?

Even now there is still a feature of the common law that works reasonably well precisely because it is more or less unaffected by the code (the Constitution). If we look at the common law we don't find any ringing declaration of property, yet it has quietly protected one person's possessions against damage by another. It was celebrated by Sir William Blackstone: "The . . . absolute right, inherent in every Englishman, is that of property: which consists in a free use, enjoyment and disposal of his acquisition, without any control or diminution, save only by the laws of the land."2 By that "control," Blackstone meant the law that had emerged from judicial decision-making. The major depredations of property came later from statutes emanating from a sovereign parliament, which he acknowledged with regret. …

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