Dec. 7, 2006
Vol. 26 No. 6

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: Richard Epstein

    Richard Epstein

    This week, Richard Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, is of the opinion . . .

    What book should every person read and why?

    Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations because it shows how the system of natural liberty so familiar to lawyers has positive social consequences.

    If you could meet any scholar, author, composer, musician or entrepreneur—dead or alive—who would it be?

    No great imagination here. W.A. Mozart. The shortness of life and the profundity of creation are hard to beat.

    Among the complex moral and political issues that affect humanity, which do you believe will never be resolved and why?

    The terms and conditions for the proper use of public force. The stakes are so high, and the available set of principles—immediacy, probability, severity and provocation —are so hard to quantify that a large measure of political judgment is required even with the best set of rules imaginable.

    If politicians had to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve in a public office, what question would you add to the test?

    Do you understand the meaning of the question: “How do you balance two kinds of error?” Unless they understand this concept, they cannot deal with the uncertainties that plague all aspects of public life.

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    I would choose something mid-level, but hard and important. What would be the proper regime to handle the development, patenting, licensing and marketing of new drug treatments? Not sure which particular persons I would pick, but it would be an interdisciplinary team of the sort for which this University is most famous. Basic scientists, medical personnel, management types, economists, and, even at least one lonely lawyer.

    The University has many traditions, some academic, such as the Humanities Open House and the Aims of Education Address, and some more recreational, such as the Latke Hammentash debate and the annual student Scavenger Hunt. If you were asked to create a new University tradition, what would it be?

    I would like to see an annual set of debates raise some of the major intellectual and political issues of our time. They should deal with topics that are timely and accessible on the one hand, but which call into question fundamental principles of social organization on the other.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past, now dead, who added great value to your area of study. Who is this person, and what do you believe he/she would think of the advances that recently have been made in this area?

    One such person is Friedrich Hayek, who was the most articulate defender of free markets in the 20th century. His great contribution was to debunk the pretensions of those who thought that they knew enough about human preferences and needs to design a planned economy. He would be pleased to see that many modern scholars continue to question the wisdom of social planning, but would, I think, be somewhat unhappy that they now tend to rely on models of rational behavior to defend their results-models, which he greeted with great suspicion. But even though the uncoordinated evolution of norms helps explain many forms of commercial behavior, it can’t answer the key questions of constitutionalism: how to best design overall systems of social governance.