The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law

By Benson, Bruce L. | Freeman, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law


Benson, Bruce L., Freeman


The Structure of Liberty:

Justice and the Rule of Law

by Randy E. Barnett

Oxford University Press 1998 . 368 pages

* $29.95

Reviewed by Bruce L. Benson

In The Structure of Liberty, Boston University law professor Randy Barnett identifies the fundamental problems that must be recognized in order to create a proper foundation for society: the problems of knowledge, interest, and power. Those problems arise because both physical resources and human abilities are scarce, because altruism is limited, and because humans are vulnerable. They mean that individual conduct must be constrained in some ways or else society will collapse. But just as "good" buildings require different floor plans depending on their purpose, the structure of a "good" society also depends on the objectives of the society's occupants. Barnett attempts to describe the structure of a society that will allow "each person to pursue [his subjectively determined perception of] happiness, peace, and prosperity while acting in close proximity to others." Such a society requires justice and the rule of law, as the subtitle of the book suggests, so Barnett focuses on the necessary components of the structure of liberty in the face of the problems of knowledge, interest, and power. The result is an insightful, often brilliant presentation that deserves serious attention from those of us who share this vision of the good society.

Barnett is not attempting here to convince modern liberals or modern conservatives to become classical liberals or libertarians. Instead, he is writing to classical liberals and libertarians who already share his vision in an effort to show them what the structure of liberty requires. Convincing people that particular laws or policies are undesirable will have little long-term benefit if we do not have institutions of governance that sustain better rules and policies. Barnett argues that those institutions must be structured to handle the problems of knowledge, interest, and power.

Other political philosophers, of course, have wrestled with the problem of structuring liberty, but most who have preceded Barnett have not focused adequately on power. By bringing all three problems into the analysis Barnett is able to offer new insights regarding the kinds of institutions that are likely to produce justice and the rule of law in support of liberty. …

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