The book is a tour de force covering the law and its importance, the courts, the constitution, Parliament, the police, the judiciary, human rights, discrimination, the legal profession, the work of the courts and various historical, practical and ancillary subjects. At 370 pages, it is a considerable read but a triumph of brevity and wit in view of its scope. I enjoyed it.
However, I find myself for the first time, though inevitably not the last, in some disagreement with a judge. On page 334, by prefacing his remarks with “There seems to be no limit to man’s greed”, Rivlin appears to criticise the application of property rights to natural resources: he seems to separate property rights and responsible stewardship. I believe this is a mistake: sensible people take care of what they own, so property rights promote stewardship. Perhaps this is merely a weary aside but neither “property” nor “private property” appear in the index.
Happily, the fundamental importance of the right to own and enjoy property is explained in the first few pages of the book, but I lament the absence of either a chapter or an index entry on the subject. The essential weakness of property rights in contemporary society is set out in some detail by Shaffer in Boundaries of Order, so I was disappointed if not surprised to find this weakness present in Rivlin’s book by omission. As Mises explained, if classical liberalism were to be condensed to a single word, it would be “property”: we should not be astonished to find in these statist days a lack of emphasis on this fundamental concept.
Nevertheless, Understanding the Law is an excellent introduction to the English legal system and its practice today. I recommend it but perhaps consider reading Shaffer too.