April 29, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 15

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    Epstein argues classical liberalism is best guide to human behavior

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Richard Epstein

    Richard Epstein has always loved a good argument, and his latest book, Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism, is no exception. It is a passionate statement of belief and a robust and rigorous defense of classical liberalism.

    The political philosophy “rests on the twin pillars of strong property rights and limited government that is organized in ways to protect and support the property rights so created,” Epstein said. His book is a tightly reasoned rebuttal to the proponents of what he calls “the modern, interventionist welfare state.”

    Epstein is the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, where he has served on the faculty since 1972. He also has been the Peter and Kirstin Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution since 2000.

    This hard-nosed political philosophy—first formulated by John Locke in response to Thomas Hobbes, and later Adam Smith; used by Jefferson and Madison to inform the U.S. Constitution; and embracing aspects of libertarian theory and laissez faire economics—continues to offer “the best guide to human behavior” and social organization, said Epstein. “Classical liberalism requires us to maintain the distinction between liberty and coercion: to advance the former while constraining the latter,” he said.

    “If we start with a clear vision of human motivation and cognitive limitations,” Epstein said, “we shall gravitate in all matters great and small to a classical liberal position that protects autonomy, property, and exchange of labor and possessions within the framework of limited government. A government,” he emphasized, “that directs its power against coercion and monopoly and calls it a day.”

    In Epstein’s view, skepticism is an essential component in maintaining freedom. “We are rightly cautious about making any new concessions to government power that rests on the claim that governments are better able to make choices for individuals than they are able to for themselves,” he said.

    Epstein, however, is not doctrinaire and realizes that human beings and their behavior do not always fit neatly into a philosophical construct. “Variations in individual character and temperament guarantee that self-interest will manifest itself differently in different people,” he explained. “Commonsense observation tells us that variation is what we should come to expect. Some find it part of their human nature to help others in need, just as some take perverse glee in the misfortunes of others.”

    He cautions that he did not write a manual for the application of classical liberalism to government policy. “The book is concerned with the climate of intellectual opinion that leads to the erosion of beliefs necessary to support the creation and preservation of free institutions,” he said. Epstein said he believes it is critical for each new generation to understand “the uses and limits of government” and the rationale for “traditional institutions and understanding.”

    In the book’s introduction, Epstein describes his personal evolution over 25 years “from a staunch libertarian who distrusted consequentialist explanations to a classical liberal who embraces these explanations.”

    Epstein, however, is a realist and added, “Legal and political institutions can take us only so far.” Aware of what he calls “the numerous political failures around the world,” he said, “All that we can hope to do is improve the odds.”