Order Without Law

Order Without Law is a fantastic book by Robert Ellickson published in 1991. In a way, the book is an in-depth case study of the irrelevance of law. Subtitled, "how neighbors settle disputes," Ellickson shows how people solve complicated problems in an archetypal area of liability law without knowledge of the law. Ellickson shows that even when people know exactly what the law says, they often ignore it in favor of community norms and, in his examples, models of "neighborliness."

Specifically, the book is about how neighbors in northern California settle disputes related to damage caused by roaming cattle, how neighbors construct and share costs of fences, and how, although the law is frequently debated in relation to classifying land as either open or closed to free grazing, the law tends to take a back seat to unwritten norms in the way that problems are actually solved. There is order and a shared understanding of rules in Ellickson’s account; it just has very little to do with the law.

As part of his description, Ellickson goes into some detail about the types of damage that cattle cause. For example, Ellickson describes how bulls, will often break down barbed wire fences and go on rampages impregnating heifers, eating vast amounts of food, and destroying crops and equipment.

When I was on a long bike trip through northern California a few weeks ago, I was sitting under a tree waiting for my cyling partner to catch up. A giant black bull nearby noticed me. Shorting, mooing, and shaking ribbons of slobber from its mouth, it lumbered toward me. Only a rather weak-looking barbed wire fence separated us. All I could think about was Order Without Law.

2 Replies to “Order Without Law”

  1. Irrelevance of law? Blasphemy, Mr. Hill.

    While I’m generally favorably inclined toward anarchism, I’m also deeply skeptical of overextending arguments like the one Ellickson seems to be making (I haven’t read the book). For instance, extralegal dispute resolution has an ugly history in America between parties of unequal social status (e.g. rich/poor, white/black) — even uglier, I’d argue, than the (admittedly quite ugly) history of /legal/ dispute resolution between the same.

    But, like I said, I haven’t read the book, and I have no doubt that it includes all necessary disclaimers and qualifications.

  2. Ellickson is a legal scholar. His argument is about the limitations of laws — i.e., about the ways in which is irrelevant — rather than an argument that is has no use or relevance in any context.

    It’s a good book that is important in that it challenges some important things.

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