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Category: Legal Theory


Adam Thierer on Classical Liberalism on the Net

As the political season is in full swing and folks claim to understand SOPA, PIPA, etc., I thought I should point people to Adam Theirer’s post Mueller’s Networks and States = Classical Liberalism for the Information Age. I knew Adam a little before my stint at Google. I came to know him more while there. I do not agree with everything Adam says. Rather, he reminds me of folks I knew in law school. I disagreed with many people there, but respected the way they argued. Their points made me rethink mine and perhaps improve them. The distinction between cyber-libertarianism and Internet exceptionalism that Berin Szoka and Adam try to make is important. I am not sure it succeeds but as Adam says

They are not identical. Rather, as Berin and I argued, they are close cousins. Properly defined, cyber-libertarianism is essentially the application of traditional libertarian thinking — which is more properly defined as classically “liberal” — to Internet policy issues. Berin and I define “cyber-libertarianism” as “the belief that individuals — acting in whatever capacity they choose (as citizens, consumers, companies, or collectives) — should be at liberty to pursue their own tastes and interests online.” Internet exceptionalism, by contrast, is the belief that the Internet has changed culture and history profoundly and is deserving of special care before governments intervene. But that does not necessarily tell us what sort of philosophy or core tenants ultimately animate exceptionalism going forward. (emphasis added by me)

This last point is the reason I call out the piece. So far I have not seen anything that addresses the point in a satisfactory way. Adam and Berin face this gap and try to fill it. Agree. Disagree. That is your choice. But read the whole thing and see where you end up. One final note, I think classical liberalism as Adam defines it may be more empty than it seems. For now I cannot explain why. For that I apologize to those of that camp, but I am working on that. Oh which reminds me, Julie Cohen’s book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice, takes on this issue.


Swindling/Selling, Bribing/Contributing, Extorting/Taxing

At the recent Security and Human Behavior conference, I got into a conversation that highlighted perhaps my favorite legal book ever, Arthur Leff’s “Swindling and Selling.”  Although it is out of print, one measure of its wonderfulness is that used copies sell now for $125.  Then, in my class this week on The Ethics of Washington Lawyering (yes, it’s a fun title), I realized that a key insight from Leff’s book applies to two other areas – what is allowed in campaign finance and what counts as extortion in political office.

Swindling/selling.  The insight I always remember from Leff is to look at the definition of swindling: “Alice sells something to Bob that Bob thinks has value.”  Here is the definition of selling: “Alice sells something to Bob that Bob thinks has value.”  See?  The exchange is identical – Bob hands Alice money.  The difference is sociological (what society values) and economic (can Bob resell the item).  But the structure of the transaction is the same.

Bribing/contributing.  So here is a bribe: “Alice gives Senator Bob $10,000 and Bob later does things that benefit Alice, such as a tax break.”  Here is a campaign contribution: “Alice gives Senator Bob $10,000 and Bob later does things that benefit Alice, such as a tax break.”  Again, the structure of the transaction is identical.  There are two likely differences: (1) to prove the bribe, the prosecutor has to show that Bob did the later action because of the $10,000; and (2) Alice is probably careful enough to give the money to Bob’s campaign, and not to him personally.

 Extorting/taxing.  Here is the classic political extortion: “Alice hires Bob, and Bob has to hand back ten percent of his salary to Alice each year.”  Here is how it works when a federal or state government hires someone: “Alice hires Bob, and Bob has to hand back ten percent of his salary to Alice each year.”  The structure of the transaction is the same – Bob keeps 90% of the salary and gives 10% to Alice.  The difference here?  Like the previous example, the existence of bureaucracy turns the bad thing (bribing or extorting) into the acceptable thing (contributing/taxing).  In the modern government, Alice hires Bob, and Bob sends the payment to the IRS.  The 10% does not go to Alice’s personal use, but the payment on Bob’s side may feel much the same.

For each of these, drawing the legal distinction will be really hard because the structure of the transaction is identical for the lawful thing (selling, contributing, taxing) and for the criminal thing (swindling, bribing, extorting).  Skeptics can see every transaction as the latter, and there is no objective way to prove that the transaction is actually legitimate.

I am wondering, did people know this already?  Are there citations to previous works that explain all of this?  Or, perhaps, is this a simple framework for describing things that sheds some light and merits further discussion?


Introduction: Symposium on Infrastructure: the Social Value of Shared Resources

I am incredibly grateful to Danielle, Deven, and Frank for putting this symposium together, to Concurring Opinions for hosting, and to all of the participants for their time and engagement. It is an incredible honor to have my book discussed by such an esteemed group of experts. 

The book is described here (OUP site) and here (Amazon). The Introduction and Table of Contents are available here.


Shared infrastructures shape our lives, our relationships with each other, the opportunities we enjoy, and the environment we share. Think for a moment about the basic supporting infrastructures that you rely on daily. Some obvious examples are roads, the Internet, water systems, and the electric power grid, to name just a few. In fact, there are many less obvious examples, such as our shared languages, legal institutions, ideas, and even the atmosphere. We depend heavily on shared infrastructures, yet it is difficult to appreciate how much these resources contribute to our lives because infrastructures are complex and the benefits provided are typically indirect.

The book devotes much-needed attention to understanding how society benefits from infrastructure resources and how management decisions affect a wide variety of private and public interests. It links infrastructure, a particular set of resources defined in terms of the manner in which they create value, with commons, a resource management principle by which a resource is shared within a community.

Infrastructure commons are ubiquitous and essential to our social and economic systems. Yet we take them for granted, and frankly, we are paying the price for our lack of vision and understanding. Our shared infrastructures—the lifeblood of our economy and modern society—are crumbling. We need a more systematic, long-term vision that better accounts for how infrastructure commons contribute to social welfare.

In this book, I try to provide such a vision. The first half of the book is general and not focused on any particular infrastructure resource. It cuts across different resource systems and develops a framework for understanding societal demand for infrastructure resources and the advantages and disadvantages of commons management (by which I mean, managing the infrastructure resource in manner that does not discriminate based on the identity of the user or use). The second half of the book applies the theoretical framework to different types of infrastructure—e.g., transportation, communications, environmental, and intellectual resources—and examines different institutional regimes that implement commons management. It then wades deeply into the contentious “network neutrality” debate and ends with a brief discussion of some other modern debates.

Throughout, I raise a host of ideas and arguments that probably deserve/require more sustained attention, but at 436 pages, I had to exercise some restraint, right? Many of the book’s ideas and arguments are bound to be controversial, and I hope some will inspire others. I look forward to your comments, criticisms, and questions.


Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.


Book Review: James’s Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy

David James, Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) is the third most important thinker in the tradition of German idealism (Kant and Hegel vying for most important) which later morphed into Marxism and finally into Frankfurt School critical theory as well as into Rawls’ Kantian constructivism. Though idealism is a central strand in contemporary ethics, it has not has as strong an impact in political and legal philosophy where it has been eclipsed by the social contract tradition of which Kant and, to some extent, Fichte are part. However, it is James’ contention that Fichte’s idealism is indeed relevant to his theory of the state and hence to the idea of a social contract and the further vexing question of the relation between morality and right.

In the interest of clarifying what is at stake in a properly idealist understanding of Fichte’s theory of right, let me say some general things about how idealism plays into the debate. The first thing to say, perhaps is that idealism takes as its main opponent realism, the— perhaps more familiar— idea that the world is a certain way and that we, as subject must both discover and then conform our behavior to the way the world actually is. This is captured in empirical social science or socio-biology by the thought that there is an ideal, or maximally efficient, form social organization can take and it is our task to figure out what that is so that we can model actual social organization on this ideal social organization, stripping away the sorts of things which are extraneous to this efficiency. (The case of property, discussed below, shows that this is no idle comparison.)

Idealism, for methodological as well as ethical reasons, takes the opposite approach, insisting by contrast that we, as social and moral beings, construct the world we live in. That is, the social world is not a function of the arrangements of bodies (to which minds must accommodate themselves) but rather of the attitudes of mind in the sense that the social world is the result of our varying attitudes toward each other. This is captured by the familiar claim to rational autonomy which social contract theorists from Hobbes to Rawls all take as axiomatic, to some extent. The basic point is simply that it is the will itself which constructs the world in its own image. The will of others, not their bodies, is likewise the relevant entity of ethical consideration.

This idealist perspective is usually understood as a moral perspective and is to varying degrees understood as at odds with political philosophy which deals with rights, that is with how bodies are arranged. Liberalism, in the Lockean and at least some of the Rawlsian versions, is concerned to maintain a balance between morality and political organization in the sense that it takes itself to be able to abstract from contentful moral commitment in the service of universalizable commitments about how bodies should be treated. That is, its fundamental commitment is to value neutrality with regard to people’s actions which are outside the purview of security and basic necessity.

It is this sort of liberalism which James believes Fichte challenges. Though James does not put this in terms of idealism, I think it is easy enough to put the argument together from James’ book. On the Lockean view, property is something that belongs to us because we invest it with value. This means that I am free to buy and trade it, once I have made it mine. Fichte’s fundamental argument, which actually fits quite well with the neglected third part of A Theory of Justice, is to say that it is rather property which makes subjectivity possible. Putting it this way makes room for the need for a certain kind of redistribution which is meant to facilitate the adequate development of subjectivity in the first place.

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LTAAA Symposium: Complexity, Intentionality, and Artificial Agents

I would like to respond to a series of related posts made by Ken Anderson, Giovanni Sartor, Lawrence Solum, and James Grimmelmann during the LTAAA symposium. In doing so, I will touch on topics that occurred many times in the debate here: the intentional stance, complexity, legal fictions (even zombies!) and the law. My remarks here will also respond to the very substantive, engaged comments made by Patrick O’Donnell and AJ Sutter to my responses over the weekend. (I have made some responses to Patrick   and AJ in the comments spaces where their remarks were originally made).

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LTAAA Symposium: Response to Pagallo on Legal Personhood

Ugo Pagallo, with whom I had a very useful email exchange a few months ago, has written a very useful response to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents.  I find it useful because I think in each of his four allegedly critical points, we are in greater agreement than Ugo imagines.
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LTAAA Symposium: Response to Surden on Artificial Agents’ Cognitive Capacities

I want to thank Harry Surden for his rich, technically-informed response  to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, and importantly, for seizing on an important distinction we make early in the book when we say:

There are two views of the goals of artificial intelligence. From an engineering perspective, as Marvin Minsky noted, it is the “science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men” (Minsky 1969, v). From a cognitive science perspective, it is to design and build systems that work the way the human mind does (Shanahan 1997, xix). In the former perspective, artificial intelligence is deemed successful along a performative dimension; in the latter, along a theoretical one. The latter embodies Giambattista Vico’s perspective of verum et factum convertuntur, “the true and the made are…convertible” (Vico 2000); in such a view, artificial intelligence would be reckoned the laboratory that validates our best science of the human mind. This perspective sometimes shades into the claim artificial intelligence’s success lies in the replication of human capacities such as emotions, the sensations of taste and self-consciousness. Here, artificial intelligence is conceived of as building artificial persons, not just designing systems that are “intelligent.”

The latter conception of AI as being committed to building ‘artificial persons’ is what, it is pretty clear, causes much of the angst that LTAAA’s claims seem to occasion. And even though I have sought to separate the notion of ‘person’ from ‘legal persons’ it seems that some conflation has continued to occur in our discussions thus far.

I’ve personally never understood why artificial intelligence was taken to be, or ever took itself to be, dedicated to the task of replicating human capacities, faithfully attempting to build “artificial persons” or “artificial humans”. This always seemed such like a boring, pointlessly limited task. Sure, the pursuit of cognitive science is entirely justified; the greater the understanding we have of our own minds, the better we will be able to understand our place in nature. But as for replicating and mimicking them faithfully: Why bother with the ersatz when we have the real? We already have a perfectly good way to make humans or persons and it is way more fun than doing mechanical engineering or writing code. The real action, it seems to me, lay in the business of seeing how we could replicate our so-called intellectual capacities without particular regard for the method of implementation; if the best method of implementation happened to be one that mapped on well to what seemed like the human mind’s way of doing it, then that would be an added bonus. The multiple-realizability of our supposedly unique cognitive abilities would do wonders to displace our sense of uniqueness, acknowledge the possibility of other modes of existence, and re-invoke the sense of wonder about the elaborate tales we tell ourselves about our intentionality, consciousness, autonomy or freedom of will.

Having said this, I can now turn to responding to Harry’s excellent post.
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LTAA Symposium: Response to Matwyshyn on Artificial Agents and Contracting

Andrea Matwyshyn’s reading of the agency analysis of contracting  (offered in A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents and also available at SSRN) is very rigorous and raises some very interesting questions. I thank her for her careful and attentive reading of the analysis and will try and do my best to respond to her concerns here. The doctrinal challenges that Andrea raises are serious and substantive for the extension and viability of our doctrine. As I note below, accommodating some of her concerns is the perfect next step.

At the outset, I should state what some of our motivations were for adopting agency doctrine for artificial agents in contracting scenarios (these helped inform the economic incentivizing argument for maintaining some separation between artificial agents and their creators or their deployers.


[A]pplying agency doctrine to artificial agents would permit the legal system to distinguish clearly between the operator of the agent i.e., the person making the technical arrangements for the agent’s operations, and the user of the agent, i.e., the principal on whose behalf the agent is operating in relation to a particular transaction.


Embracing agency doctrine would also allow a clear distinction to be drawn between the authority of the agent to bind the principal and the instructions given to the agent by its operator.

Third, an implicit, unstated economic incentive.

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LTAAA Symposium: Artificial Agents and the Law of Agency

I am gratified that Deborah DeMott, whose work on agency doctrines was so influential in our writing has written such an engaged (and if I may so, positive)  response to our attempt, in A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, to co-opt the common law agency doctrine for use with artificial agents. We did so, knowing the fit would be neither exact, nor precise, and certainly would not mesh with all established intuitions.
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