Thursday, August 19, 2010

What is Common Law?

Common Law is a term I use as an umbrella concept, shorthand for a comprehensive world-view of limited sovereignty, restricted government, private law (property and contract), the self-reliant citizen, the market order not only of goods and services but of credit and debt and goodwill, of coordination of equals rather than command by superiors of inferiors. Another term for this is the rule of law. But because that latter term is fuzzy and not often filled in with concrete content, I resort to common law, which is the better term for that reality anyway.

But the term common law does generate some confusion. Usually when one hears it, one thinks of the historically determined Anglo-Saxon and cognate legal systems, with all of their peculiarities and practices, which only the practicing lawyer has occasion to master.

Indeed, this is a valid viewpoint. For one salient characteristic of true common law is that it develops practically through the process of adjudication, in the courtroom, through the dialectic of adversarial thesis and antithesis. Here, of course, lawyers rule the roost. But that does not mean that common law is not also something more than mere practitioners' fodder.

Hence, it cannot be that the practicing lawyer "owns" this system, and views any incursion by "laymen" to be illegitimate. But alas it is more often so than not. Yes, the guild mentality reigns here as everywhere else, despite the fact that in a democracy, the law ought to be a domain open to the citizen, accessible to his inquiry, amenable to his uses. Ah, for a return to the days of a truly liberal conception of citizenship, where the professional saw his task as aiding the gentleman citizen rather than lording it over the unclean and untutored! But that is a subject for another day.

We need the historically grown positive law, even for legal and political philosopy, even for economics, because without it we are all at sea. Which means that the practitioners of that law cannot withhold it as their own private domain. The law is of and for us all. And, to properly understand common law, one must understand the philosophy behind the very notion of a common law.

Very simply, common law is law which applies across the board in a given jurisdiction, applies to all equally. It is the uniform law of a sovereign polity. And, beyond this, it is the general equity behind all positive law. So it is both basic principles, and practical application thereof in a universal way. Opposed to this regime is the regime of privilege, where the rulers exercise their wills to impose commands or orders or distributions, rather than allowing matters to be arranged by free and equal individuals in the give-and-take of bargaining owners. The regime of privilege ruled the roost in pre-modern Europe, and has since taken up its positions in modern government, with its war against the rule of law in favor of favoritism, privilege, and interest-group-based politics.

To combat privilege we need to recover the concept of the common law. I hope to set up a web site soon dedicated specifically to exploring the common law paradigm. This will integrate the various books I've written, and will write, on the subject, as well as other work in the fields of law, politics, and economics, so as to see them in the light of this same paradigm.

Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Interesting information:

Scott Pryor said...

"[C]ommon law is law which applies across the board in a given jurisdiction, applies to all equally." How does this understanding of common law fit with states that have "personal law" (e.g., Israel and India)?