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Simple Rules for a Complex World

About the Book

In Simple Rules for a Complex World, Cato adjunct scholar Richard A. Epstein contends that society asks too much of the law. The resulting complexity, writes Epstein, “tends to place the power of decision in the hands of other people who lack the necessary information and whose own self‐​interest leads them to use the information that they do have in socially destructive ways.”

The book, published by Harvard University Press and the Institute, proposes instead a short list of simple rules. “Simplicity,” Epstein writes, “is yet another argument in favor of strong private rights and limited government.”

Epstein prescribes six rules:

  1. Individuals are self‐​owners;
  2. Individuals may acquire unappropriated property;
  3. Individuals may make contracts with other people;
  4. The law of tort shall redress violations of individuals such as murder, rape, theft, robbery, and fraud;
  5. Private property may be violated only when there is overwhelming necessity;
  6. Whenever government violates private property, whether by regulation or outright taking, it must compensate the owner.

For Epstein, those “simple rules” subsume most conflicts. He shows how they apply to the environment, labor relations, product liability, employment discrimination, and redistribution of wealth. Observance of Epstein’s rules would invalidate most of the programs of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.

Epstein notes that the job of law is not to promote virtue but rather to redress force and breaches of contract. The underlying principle, writes Epstein, is that “government works best when it establishes the rules of the road, not when it seeks to determine the composition of the traffic.”

About the Author

Richard A. Epstein is an adjunct scholar of Cato Institute and James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago.