America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation, by George W. Liebmann (New York: I.B. Tauris; 272 pp., £64.00). George Liebmann, an attorney and historian, argues that Friedrich Hayek’s definition of the rule of law (“uniform rules laid down in advance”) has not been observed recently by federal and state governments. Learned Hand said that the meaning of a law should be understood by the citizens, that it should reflect their values, and (in the case of the United States) the traditions of limited government. Further, it should be written so as not to depend on the competence of administrators, given America’s historical absence of a professional civil service. Lieb-mann offers, as one example of more recent lawmaking, George W. Bush’s education law, “which proceeded . . . by directing vague mandates to state and local governments that benefit from modest amounts of federal aid.” Citing historical and contemporary critics, including Tocqueville, Theodore Lowi, and Robert Wiebe, Liebmann condemns pluralistic government by interest groups in which (in Lowi’s words) “there is no formal specification of means and ends . . . and therefore, no substance . . . only process.” In place of this, Liebmann urges “devolution, reciprocity of obligations, institution building, and predictability” as substitutes for mandates issued by central government. As examples of what is needed, he recalls in this book “some laws of an earlier type” framed by men like John Locke, John Winthrop, Jefferson, Justin Morrill, John Wesley Powell, Joseph Pulitzer, and others.
The Politics of Opera: A History From Monteverdi to Mozart, by Mitchell Cohen (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 512 pp., $39.95). The first thing one notices about this book is that the author leaves off close to that point at which opera and politics become explicitly and powerfully involved with each other—notably with the arrival of Giuseppe Verdi, an Italian nationalist and supporter of the Risorgimento who briefly held political office while writing many explicitly political operas, and Richard Wagner, a socialist German nationalist who spent years in political exile and whose Der Ring des Nibelungen embodies the German mythology that underlay German nationalism of the period (and later). Instead, Cohen begins with Dafne, a sort of proto-opera created by Florentine humanists for Carnival in 1597-98, and concludes with Mozart, whose Nozze di Figaro, based on the play by Beaumarchais, has ever since been associated with the French Revolution. He explains his choice by noting that “I am a student of political thought and not a musicologist,” and that, “For the sake of manageability, I limited the geography of this book to Italy, France, and the Hapsburg Empire,” though this explanation fails to account for the self-imposed chronological limitation, which may perhaps have to do with the author’s appreciation, even preference, for subtleties of interpretation. Cohen claims to have found “ideology” below the surface of various operatic works, “defiance” in “words or music or both,”
elucidating reflections of or revealing questions posed to the political times, and not always consciously. . . . Politics . . . appeared in opera in a variety of ways: ideological claims, applause, subversive suggestions, embedded worldviews and categories, elucidating reflections, revealing or combative probes.
Too subtle by half, perhaps, The Politics of Opera was created from, and exists in, a hyper-rarified intellectual atmosphere that many readers will find too thin to breathe.
Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, by Robert Irwin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 272 pp., $29.95). Robert Irwin, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, belongs to a long line of British Arabists that includes Charles Doughty, Sir Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and Wilfred Thesiger. “It is,” he writes, “precisely Ibn Khaldun’s irrelevance to the modern world that makes him so interesting and important. When I read the Muqaddima, I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet—and that is exciting.” This sense of excitement, and this manner of appreciation, distinguish Irwin from historians from the 19th century onward, who have viewed Khaldun as having anticipated the ideas of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Irwin himself thinks Khaldun has more in common with the world of the Koran and The Thousand and One Nights than with theirs. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) has for centuries enjoyed a reputation as the most powerful of Arab intellectuals. His masterpiece, the Muqaddima, is the three-volume (in English) prolegomenon to his history of the Berber and Arab tribes of northern Africa and their dynasties, a theoretical treatise on historical laws and a survey of the Islamic culture of his day. The societies Khaldun describes are, by modern standards, irredeemably “theocratic.” Causation is determined by the will of God, and the central social purpose is salvation (in this respect, very like that of France, say, in the time of Louis IX). Irwin concedes that a book that claims to have discovered historical law in the histories of a few premodern North African tribes has its obvious limitations for modern (and now postmodern) men. Yet here he aptly quotes his fellow scholar Patricia Crone, who wrote,
The civilized societies of the past resemble those of modern times, but in some way the similarity is deceptive. One cannot come to grips with them without thinking away modernity and working out the consequences of its absence.