The Brilliance of Bruno Leoni – Misconceptions

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The lawyer and classical liberal Bruno Leoni is, unfortunately, a lesser-known and undervalued thinker. Even among classical liberals and libertarians, there are very few who know his name or his work. In fact, this article only exists because I discovered him in a footnote of a source used for an earlier article.

When taking a moment to research him, one will find a tremendous list of accomplishments. Leoni was, as described in the foreword to the Liberty Fund edition of his Freedom and the Law, as “a scholar, lawyer, merchant, amateur architect, musician, art connoisseur, linguist, and … a defender of the principles of individual freedom.” He was the founding editor of the journal Il Politico, which ran from 1951 to 2014, and former President of the Mont Pelerin Society.

Of significance are his speeches and essays, several of which are contained in Freedom and the Law. In the first essay, “Which Freedom?”, he takes a much-needed and thorough look at what exactly is meant by “freedom.” Nearly everyone would gladly declare themselves in support of freedom and liberty, and yet there are always merciless and unending attacks on freedom.

But “freedom” has more than one definition. As Leoni points out, freedom is an abstract term, and therefore cannot be translated or conveyed as easily as terms describing physical objects. When talking about a table, most everyone shares a common understanding of what is and isn’t a table. Even with a language barrier, one need only point to a table and say “table,” and now the term table is understood to refer to the same thing as mesa.

But translating freedom is much more difficult. There is nothing to point to. Instead, freedom must be described, and this is often done with examples of what does and what doesn’t count as a violation of freedom.

In a later essay, “Freedom and Constraint”, he points out how, regardless of specific definition, freedom is always used in a positive manner. Many talk about the freedom to choose, to speak, to express, to practice one’s religion, etc. Those are all good things. And they all imply freedom from constraint. But, as Leoni points out, to be poor is to be “free from money” and to be sick is to be “free from good health.” But these phrases are never used. In fact, they sound quite awkward. Though both these states exist, they are never described in such a way.

In “Voting Versus the Market”, Leoni contrasts the incentives of democracy and the incentives of market transactions. In the market, transactions are typically complementary. Supply and demand are not antagonists. Most decisions being made (outside of investments and gambling) have known results. There typically aren’t any losers in a transaction.

In democracy, it is voter will against voter will. The end result of a vote is uncertain, with clear winners and clear losers. The majority is satisfied, but up to 49% of voters are unsatisfied.

As the title of his book suggests, a significant portion of it is devoted to the relationship between freedom and the rule of law. His writing will challenge those who would take the simplistic view that law is the opposite of freedom. Like he did with freedom, he devotes time to analyze what exactly is meant by the rule of law.

Leoni’s work will make his readers stop and consider where he or she is standing. When aligning oneself in defense of an abstract concept, it is vital to firmly define the limits and boundaries of the concept. Bruno Leoni has put an incredible effort into doing this for freedom, and freedom in relation to the law.

All self-described defenders of freedom will benefit from reading Leoni, and will no doubt wonder why his name is not better-known among libertarians.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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