Thoughts on Steven M. Teles, "The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement":
I recently finished Steven M. Teles's new book, "The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement," and I thought the VC audience might be interested in hearing about it. The book is a work of political science that looks at the major institutions within the conservative legal movement and tries to explain what makes them successful — or, in some cases, why they are not as successful as planned. You can read the introduction here, and see the Table of Contents here.

  The book's starting premise is that 30 years ago, when all of the major legal institutions were left/liberal, conservative and libertarian activists set about trying to create conservative/libertarian institutions to counter them. The book focuses heavily on what Teles sees as the leading institutions that have resulted, such as The Federalist Society, the Institute for Justice, the Center for Individual Rights, law school centers of law & economics (many funded by Olin), and George Mason University Law School. Teles' interest is in how these organizations got off the ground, what makes them successful, and what role they play. Much of the book is drawn from interviews with the founders and directors of these various institutions; Teles also draws a great deal from access he was given to their historical files.

  I found several parts of the book quite interesting, but the most interesting to me were the parts on the Federalist Society (p135-180) and George Mason University Law School (p207-219). On the Federalist Society, Teles argues persuasively that the key to its influence is in hosting a "big tent" that is open to a wide range of conservative and libertarian ideas. As Teles tells it, the Federalist Society is influential because provides a way for dispersed conservative and libertarian law students and lawyers to identify each other, get to know each other, and to establish an intellectual identity apart from the left/liberal views that tend to dominate the law schools. Teles also argues that the key to the Society's role is that it hosts debates rather than takes positions; this enables a wide range of different views to feel at home, while also focusing attention on the long-term development of ideas.

  The coverage of George Mason University Law School was fascinating in part because I knew little of the school's unusual history. Teles explains that the new George Mason University in Virginia had started a law school (in 1979) by picking up a low-ranked local law school in DC. In an effort to create a stronger law school, the University later hired law and economics scholar Henry Manne to be the new Dean of the school and gave him unusual powers to create the law school he wanted. As Teles tells it, the law school became Henry Manne's project to build a law school entirely around a libertarian vision based heavily on law and economics:
Henry Manne's project of building George Mason University law School (GMUSL) represented a very different approach to influencing the legal academy — building an alternative institution from the bottom up rather than influencing the legal academy from the top down. While the Olin programs [of law and economics at elite schools] represented a "Fabian" strategy of slowly burrowing into mainstream institutions, GMUSL followed a "Gramscian" approach of creating a parallel institution where more libertarian professors could hone their ideas without the compromises associated with elite institutions. [p.207]
  Teles contends that this experiment is moderately successful so far, although to some extent the jury is still out. On one hand, the law school has stayed largely true to its original vision, and it has made "impressive achievements" with its faculty and the U.S. News Rankings. On the the other hand, Teles contends that it's too early to say if Mason will establish itself fully as a counter to liberal institutions (and especially, more elite ones). I gather three of my co-bloggers will have some thoughts on that.

  I don't expect this book to become a best-seller; it's a serious work of political science, not a pop history. And of course the arguments Teles makes are certainly open to debate -- I'd be particularly interested in hearing from my Mason-based co-bloggers on whether they thought the coverage of Mason was accurate and/or fair. But on the whole I think this is a pretty interesting read for those who either are a part of or are just generally interested in the particular institutions that Teles is describing.