Please go away and Leave us Alone: Legal Systems Very Different from Ours pt 1

51ta-us7crlI am about a third of the way through Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, so I thought it was about time I got this discussion rolling. If you haven’t started the book yet, don’t worry–you still have plenty of time to pick it up before next week.

How have you liked the book?

While we are at it, here is a similarly interesting piece: War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, by Charles Tilly:

What distinguished the violence produced by states from the violence delivered by anyone else? In the long; run, enough to make the division between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” force credible. Eventually, the personnel of states purveyed violence on a larger scale, more effectively, more efficiently, with wider assent from their subject populations, and with readier collaboration from neighboring authorities than did the personnel of other organizations. But it took a long time for that series of distinctions to become established. Early in the state-making process, many parties shared the right to use violence, the practice of using it routinely to accomplish their ends, or both at once. The continuum ran from bandits and pirates to kings via tax collectors, regional power holders, and professional soldiers.

The uncertain, elastic line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence appeared in the upper reaches of power. Early in the state-making process, many parties shared the right to use violence, its actual employment, or both at once. The long love-hate affair between aspiring state makers and pirates or bandits illustrates the division. “Behind piracy or the seas acted cities and city-states,” writes Fernand Braudel of the sixteenth century. “Behind banditry, that terrestrial piracy, appeared the continual aid of lords.” In times of war, indeed, the managers of full-fledged states often commissioned privateers, hired sometime bandits to raid them enemies, and encouraged their regular troops to take booty. In royal service, soldiers and sailors were often expected to provide for themselves by preying on the civilian population: commandeering, raping, looting, taking prizes. When demobilized, they commonly continued the same practices, but without the same royal protection; demobilized ships became pirate vessels, demobilized troops bandits.

But back to Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.

This book takes a quick look at many different legal systems–13 or 14, depending on how we count the chapter on feuds. This makes for a lot of interesting material, but it means each system is treated very quickly. Some I have enough knowledge of to say a few things independently about them; others I must just trust the authors entirely. I would be interested in an expanded version of this book that goes into some of the legal systems in a big more depth.

The first chapter is on the Imperial Chinese legal system, which is a bit less useful than a chapter on the modern Chinese legal system, but I am sure there are many books out there on the modern system if I wish to learn about it.

My overall impression of the Imperial Chinese legal system is “Please go away and leave us alone.”

The logic appears to be that people who are good and virtuous have no need of a legal system, so the goal is to encourage people to be good and virtuous so they will not bring lawsuits. If that doesn’t work, using the legal system should be unpleasant enough to discourage people from using it. This probably cuts down on the number of frivolous suits, but has certain drawbacks.

In practice, the system tended to delegate authority for keeping people in line (not committing crime, not breaking contracts) to extra-legal authorities like family heads and merchant partnerships.

Here are some of the passages I highlighted:

The Chinese legal system originated over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, Legalist and Confucian. The Legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, were accused by later writers of advocating harsh penalties to drive the crime rate to near zero. …

Confucianists argued for modifying behavior not by reward and punishment but by teaching virtue. They supported unequal treatment based both on the unequal status of those to whom the law applied and on their differing relationships.

China, being an ancient civilization, managed to keep much of its legal code across the centuries:

Laws originated as statues proclaimed by Emperors and passed down from dynasty to dynasty; one source estimates that forty percent of the Qing code came from the Tang code, created about a thousand years earlier.

I wonder if any of this is still around.

The legal code was not so much an account of what was forbidden as an attempt to specify, for every possible offense, the proper punishment. … Where the offense could not be fitted into any category in the code, the court could find the defendant guilty of doing what ought not to be done or of violating an Imperial decree–not an actual degree, but one that the Emperor would have made had the matter been brought to his attention.

I find this very amusing. It definitely has some potential drawbacks, but I can also understand the exasperation of an official going “Of course you shouldn’t have done that! Everyone knows you shouldn’t do that, you imbecile!”

On the difficulty of preventing local magistrates from acquiring too much power for themselves and threatening the chain of command, the authors note a parallel with the Ottoman situation:

The Ottoman Empire had a somewhat similar approach to the problem of maintaining central control. After conquering territory, the usual pattern was to appoint the surviving members of the defeated dynasty as local rulers in some distant part of the empire. The knowledge that defeat would not deprive the losers of life, wealth, or elites status reduced the incentive to resist conquest, and a governor with no local ties was dependent on the Sultan for his authority, hence likely to be loyal.

On to the famous Chinese Examination System:

Officials, including magistrates, were largely but not entirely selected from those who had successfully passed through a series of ferociously competitive exams.

Level one accords the rank of licentiate. Passing level two meant a good chance of official employment, and level three meant nearly guaranteed office.

Our system has all of the exams and none of the guarantees.

Competition was stiff:

In the early part of the final dynasty, there were about half a million licentiates out of a population of several hundred million, only about 18,000 people who had reached the next level. The provincial exam that separated the two groups had a pass rate of about one percent. … The [third level] exam produced 200 to 300 degrees from as many as 8000 candidates each time it was given.

People have speculated on the Chinese exam system/the official appointments made based on the system having a role in boosting the average Chinese IQ (which is quite high) by allowing the brightest Chinese more wealth and security for bringing more children into the world, but at such a small percent relative to the population as a whole, we’d need to do some real demographic number crunching before concluding that the system had any overall effect.


The exams did not test administrative ability, knowledge of the law, expertise in solving crimes or other skills with any obvious connection to the job of district magistrate or most of the other jobs for which the exams provided a qualification.

The authors quote:

The content of the provincial examination presented an exacting challenge, especially to the novitiate. Its syllabus called for compositions on themes from the four core texts of the Ne-Confucian canon and a further five or more classics, extended dissertations on the classics, history, and contemporary subjects, verse composition, and at various times the ability to write formal administrative statements and dispatches. To be at all hopeful of success,t he candidate should have read widely in the extensive historical literature, thoroughly digested the classics, developed a fluent calligraphy, and mastered several poetic styles. …

As the authors ask, Why?

Perhaps the Chinese just wanted well-rounded, intelligent administrators rather than grinders who just “studied for the test,” and figured that testing on such wide variety of qualitative topics would do the job.

Of course in practice this probably just meant that people shifted what they were studying from one subject (say, proper punishments for various crimes) to other subjects (eg, poetry), but it’s hard to make a perfect system and we might as well ask why some systems require men to be ritually circumcised before they can assume leadership positions.

(Still better than being a Chinese eunuch.)

The authors have their own theories:

A more interesting explanation focuses on the content of what they were studying–Confucian literature and philosophy. There are two characteristics one would like officials to have. One is the ability to do a good job. The other is the desire to do a good job. … One might interpret the examination system as a massive exercise in indoctrination, training people in a set of beliefs that implied the job of government officials was to take good care of the people they were set over while being suitably obedient to the people set over them. …

The ideal Confucian Emperor would never punish anyone for anything, merely set an example of virtuous behavior so perfect that it would inspire all below him.

?? This sounds like an improbable ideal, unless espoused by the most truly ivory tower of academics.

I suppose even Imperial China had its bad ideas.

Seen from that standpoint, it made some sense to set up a system designed to produce good men, put them in power and then leave them alone.

I think Socrates would like this idea, but of course:

In the system as it actually existed, crime was prevented not by moral example but by an elaborate penal system.

The authors propose a further idea, that the purpose of the system wasn’t so much to chose officials–after all, so few officials actually got chosen that this is almost just a rare side effect of the system–but to get as many people as possible to study for the exam. If we think of studying for the exam as like going to college, and actually getting a job as like the very rare case of someone becoming an astronaut, we would certainly say that the purpose of college is not to become an astronaut, but “to produce well-educated people who are good at their jobs.”

(If we are not being cynical and going down the “college is mostly signaling” route:

The problem with this theory is that there should be much less expensive ways of generating the same evidence. So far as intelligence is concerned, a few days of testing should do it…

Well, there really ought to be a way to figure out who should be considered a tribal authority without ritual circumcision, but there you are.)

This is an interesting and really quite clever idea.

The authors’ final theory is indoctrination in the justification for the legitimacy of the Chinese state, which ties neatly into the previous idea.

On to the legal system itself:

The State and the Family: Subcontracting Enforcement

In Qing law, as in the law of earlier dynasties, legal consequences depended in part on the status of the parties, both absolute status–the rules for government officials and Manchus were different than the rules for ordinary commoners and those in turn different than the rules for groups of especially low status–and relative position within the extended family. All relatives were classified as senior or junior to each other. … Relative status in turn affected penalties…

It is common to include among the offenses of oppressive polities forcing children to inform on their parents. Imperial China had precisely the opposite approach. It was a criminal offense for a child to accuse his parent of a crime even if the parent was guilty…

My understanding is that this system can also be oppressive, especially if you are the person your parent has committed a crime against.

The system relied heavily on parents and grandparents to enforce the law against the younger members of their families (even allowing them, under certain circumstances, to carry out capital punishment).

This reliance on elder enforcement appears to be due to the relative paucity of official bureaucrats available to enforce the law, due to the dearth of people who had actually managed to pass the third exam–or perhaps the Empire did not bother increasing the number of officials because families were already doing an adequate job of policing their own.

The existence of essentially two different sets of authorities–one’s family and the state–sometimes lead to conflicts. It was illegal to disobey one’s parents, even if those parents ordered an illegal act. At the same time, the act itself remained illegal.

Another way system dealt with the paucity of legal officials was by simply discouraging people from using it by making court cases as unpleasant as possible:

One way of doing so was to treat most private practice of law as criminal. Practitioners, “litigation sticks,” were viewed as troublemakers out to stir up unnecessary conflict. … It was legal to torture witnesses in the process of extracting information from them.

The authors quote:

Shouted at and reviled by the magistrate, growled at and beaten by the constables, the position of the accused was a most unfavorable one indeed. Small wonder that having to appear in court was considered by the people at large as a terrible misfortune… In general people tried to settle their differences as much as possible out of court…

Law was a headache for any magistrate sitting as a judge. Among the public it was generally ruinous for all concerned. The fees paid to [criminal catchers] might bankrupt plaintiff as well as defendant. …

Imperial edicts even urged the populace to avoid the courts rather than crowd into them.

This is why I characterize this system as “Please go away and leave us alone.”

But what about contract law?

The authors discuss the Japanese acquire of Taiwan in 1895, prompting them to try to determine what its legal system was–creating useful records for us today:

One feature of that system was the combination of elaborate contractual practice with an almost total absence of contract law, at least at the Imperial level.

Taiwanese merchants didn’t limit their trade to far-flung family ties, as developed in some uncertain legal system. Nor did they develop private courts run by merchants, like those of medieval Europe.

The authors don’t have much of an explanation for how these merchants managed to do business, other than developing a system of contracts that minimized the chance of either party defaulting on the other. It is a pity that it has been so long since this system has been (I presume) active; it would be nice to hear how it worked from someone who knew and understood it well.

Nevertheless, it stands in sharp contrast with our own system, in which businesses are engaged in such constant legal battles with each other that lawsuits are considered simply “part of the price of doing business.” We are a deeply litigious people; where a problem arises, we are loathe to even consider working out a non-law-based solution.

It is typically assumed that businesses cannot operate without some degree of this help (even I propose a mere 90% reduction in regulatory burden; even libertarians propose that the government should concern itself with enforcing contracts,) but what if we’re all wrong? Would the Imperial Chinese system have worked better with a more user-friendly, more involved legal system? Did its very unpleasantness inspire everyone involved to behave? Or was the formal legal system largely irrelevant, and Chinese business practices shaped by other factors, like local governments, traditions, or just the cleverness and foresight of everyone involved?



3 thoughts on “Please go away and Leave us Alone: Legal Systems Very Different from Ours pt 1

  1. I think the Confucian ideal represents not a legal ideal, but the ideal of the high trust society.

    From my point of view, the lawsuits found in business are not the result of businessmen genuinely trying to come to agreement, since much of that is done informally through quid pro quo dealing and understandings, but as a means of punishment and aggression. Removing the laws does not remove the conflict, but changes it to something more like the conflicts of the Fu-rong lords, where rivals attempted to sabotage each other not with lawfare, but warfare. Bang, bang, shooty, now blow up the pipeline.

    The United States was not any less of a nation of laws in the 18th and 19th century, but there was vastly less regulation. More regulation becomes necessary because people no longer trust each other to do the right thing. It’s the transition from a high trust to a low trust society.

    Liked by 1 person

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