There are, I submit, good grounds to argue that Richard Allen Posner, judge of the United States court of appeals for the seventh circuit, is the most infuriating man on the surface of the planet, but they are not the ones you'd expect. He is not, for example, a horrible human being: on the contrary, people whose judgment I respect describe him in unequivocally admiring tones. Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School, for example, calls Posner "probably America's greatest living jurist". And my friend Larry Lessig of Harvard once wrote of him that "there isn't a federal judge I respect more, both as a judge and person".
So the problem with Posner is not his awfulness, but the reverse: his astonishing intelligence, energy and provocative creativity. For in addition to being a very senior judge, he is also a distinguished legal academic at the University of Chicago Law School (the Journal of Legal Studies describes him as the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century). With Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, he maintains an extraordinary blog in which the two men exchange thoughtful, essay-length arguments on an almost daily basis. He is the author of more than 40 books, many of them on legal matters, but also ranging over much wider topics: a study of public intellectuals, for example; a treatise on ageing; and works on terrorism, law and literature and democracy. And – here's the really annoying bit – none of them are crap. So to those of us who struggle to produce a book a decade, or even a column a week, Posner stands there as a permanent, reproachful reminder of our inadequacies and indolence.
What makes him such a stimulating thinker is that he has little time for conventional wisdom or political correctness. He's not enamoured of animal rights, for example, and is famous for his belief that economics provides a useful perspective for thinking about law. Thus in a recent argument with Becker about New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of large sugary drinks, Posner writes: "I am not particularly interested in saving the obese from themselves. I am concerned about the negative externalities of obesity‚ the costs that the obese impose on others. Obesity kills, but slowly, and en route to dying the obese run up heavy bills that, to a great extent, others pay."
What brings Posner to mind this Sunday morning, however, is not his views on obesity but on intellectual property.
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