In Simple Rules for a Complex World, Cato adjunct scholar Richard A. Epstein contends that society asks too much of the law. The resulting complexity, writes Epstein, "tends to place the power of decision in hands of other people who lack necessary information and whose own self-interest leads them to use information they do have in socially destructive ways."
The book, published by Harvard University Press and the Institute, proposes instead a short list of simple rules. "Simplicity," Epstein writes, "is yet another argument in favor of strong private rights and limited government."
Epstein prescribes six rules:
Individual are self-owners;
Individuals may acquire unappropriated property;
Individuals may make contracts with other people;
The law of tort shall redress violations of individuals such as murder, rape, theft, robbery, and fraud;
Private property may be violated only when there is overwhelming necessity;
Whenever government violates private property, whether by regulation or outright taking, it must compensate the owner.
For Epstein, those "simple rules" subsume most conflicts. He shows how they apply to the environment, labor relations, product liability, employment discrimination, and redistribution of wealth. Observance of Epstein's rules would invalidate most of the programs of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.
Epstein notes that the job of law is not to promote virtue but rather to redress force and breaches of contract. The underlying principle, writes Epstein, is that "government works best when it establishes rules of the road, not when it seeks to determine composition of traffic."
Too many laws, too many lawyers -- that's the necessary consequence of a complex society, or so conventional wisdom has it. Countless pundits insist that any call for legal simplification smacks of nostalgia, sentimentality, or naivete. However, the conventional view, the noted legal scholar Richard Epstein tells us, has it exactly backward. The richer texture of modern society allows for more individual freedom and choice. It allows us to organize a comprehensive legal order capable of meeting technological and social challenges of today on the basis of just six core principles. In this book, Epstein demonstrates how.
The first four rules, which regulate human interactions in ordinary social life, concern the autonomy of the individual, property, contract, and tort. Taken together, these rules establish and protect consistent entitlements over all resources, both human and natural. These rules are backstopped by two more rules that permit forced exchanges on payment of just compensation when private or public necessity so dictates. Epstein then uses these six building blocks to clarify many intractable problems in the modern legal landscape. His discussion of employment contracts explains the hidden virtues of contracts at will and exposes the crippling weaknesses of laws regarding collective bargaining, unjust dismissal, employer discrimination, and comparable worth. His analysis shows how laws governing liability for products and professional services, corporate transactions, and environmental protection have generated unnecessary social strife and economic dislocation by violating these basic principles.
Simple Rules for a Complex World offers a sophisticated agenda for comprehensive social reform that undoes much of the mischief of the modern regulatory state. At a time when most Americans have come to distrust and fear government at all levels, Epstein shows how a consistent application of economic and political theory allows us to steer a middle path between too much and too little. Hardback, 361 pages. List price $32.00; our price, $21.95.