Summer reading list—for PLF’s law clerks


Author: Timothy Sandefur

Law students looking to help defend individual rights and limited government often work with the Pacific Legal Foundation for the summer, through our annual summer law clerk program. In addition to preparing research, helping draft documents, review potential cases, and other tasks, our clerks participate in a weekly discussion group covering a variety of political, economic, and philosophical subjects. And we also give them books!

Here are the four books that PLF’s summer law clerks receive:

1) America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar

I consider this the best single volume on the Constitution with the sole exception of The Federalist Papers. There are several places where I disagree with Amar’s views—for instance, he takes an improperly broad view of Congress’ power under the commerce clause, and completely ignores Prof. Randy Barnett’s outstanding scholarship on that issue—but these are minor flaws in a penetrating book that is at the same time committed to understanding the original intentions of the framers, and saying something original about how the Constitution works. The best thing about Amar is the way he interprets the Constitution as a complete whole, explaining how provisions that lawyers often just consider in isolation are part of the overall constitutional system. And although it’s a work of profound learning, it’s also so well written that it can be understood by lay readers. Particularly excellent is his explanation of the nature of sovereignty in the Constitution—the crucial differences between the Constitution and its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, and what that meant in America’s greatest constitutional crisis, the Civil War. Very highly recommended (as is his other book, The Bill of Rights).

2) Restoring The Lost Constitution by Randy Barnett

Barnett’s book is a fantastic explanation of the individual rights perspective on the Constitution, and an excellent introduction to the interpretation of such crucial provisions as the commerce clause, the due process clause, and the Ninth Amendment. Barnett begins by asking what it is that makes constitutions legitimate, and proceeds to explain what he calls “the presumption of liberty”—the common sense proposition that individual freedom comes first, and government authority only second, and only if it can be justified in terms of some general principle. I reviewed this excellent book for The Independent Review some years ago.

3) Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

This classic short work actually does teach you economics in one lesson. H.L. Mencken once said that Hazlitt was the only economist he knew who could really write, and in fact Hazlitt does a fantastic job of showing that the major economic fallacies come from disregarding the unseen costs of public policies: the wealth that never gets created because government restrictions stifle creativity; the productivity that never gets increased because taxes penalize progress; the jobs that are never created because government has taken away from businesses the money that might have been turned into wages. This is a simple, straightforward, refreshing book for anyone who wants to grasp the fundamentals.

4) The Law by Frederic Bastiat

This short classic can be read easily in a single day, but it explains, elegantly and simply, the interaction between government and the economy. “The state,” writes Bastiat, “is that great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” By taking wealth and economic opportunities away from some people and giving it to others, bureaucrats gain power over our choices—and the private interests that control them enrich themselves at the expense of the consumer. An outstanding book (that you can read online here).