Among the philosopers of law in the 20th century, Bruno Leoni is the one that most rigorously and consistently held fast to the beliefs of classical liberalism. For this reason, his insights have been uncommonly original and stimulating, challenging the academic conventional wisdom and the most consolidated tenets.
Born in Ancona on April 26th 1913, he spent most of his life in Turin (the city where he settled and practised law), Pavia (where he held the Chair in Philosophy of Law between 1945 and 1967, the year of his tragic disappearance) and Sardinia (with which he had strong familial and affective ties).
Leoni studied under Gioele Solari and in 1942 he was appointed temporary Professor in Theory of the State at the University of Pavia, but for a few years the war kept him away from his studies and teaching. In fact, during the war, he was a member of the A-Force, a secret Allied outfit charged with the mission of assisting the escape of POWS and the rescue of Allied soldiers behind enemy lines.
In 1945, at the end of the war, he was able of restarting his academic career, which would lead him to occupying the Chair in Philosophy of Law and—later, between 1948 and 1960—the office of Dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences.
Leoni was a founder of the journal Il Politico and was a prolific writer, not only in academic venues, but also as the author of several op-eds published on the economic daily Il Sole 24 Ore. Leoni was a member of the Mont Pélerin Society—and, later, he held the office of Secretary and President. He was likewise deeply involved in the efforts of the Centro di Studi Metodologici (“Center for Methodological Studies”) in Turin and with the Centro di Ricerca e Documentazione “Luigi Einaudi” in the same city.
Leoni was an eclectic thinker: a scholar of law and philosophy, but likewise enthusiastically interested in political science and in theoretical economics, as well as in the history of political thought. In the ’50s and ’60s he gave a significant contribution to the promotion of liberal ideas in the Italian cultural milieu: he made the issues and the scholars of contemporary liberalism known to the academic public, but also—most importantly—he offered a thoroughly unconventional outlook based on the notion of a society centered on the protection of private property and on a free market. To realize the significance of his contribution to the propagation of novel ideas and perspectives, it is sufficient to browse the index of Il Politico—the journal of which he was editor-in-chief for many years—in which he gave space to thinkers often unheard of in Italy, that were later to put their important stamp in the field of social and human sciences.
With his studies, Leoni was a trailblazer for a number of schools of social sciences, from Public Choice to Economic Analysis of Law (lines of inquiry investigating politics and law through the tools of economics), to the cross-disciplinary study of those institutions—such as law—whose development is informed less by top-down decisions than an inherent capability of self-generation and evolution.
After his death, Leoni was almost forgotten for a long time, particularly in Italy. For instance, his most important work (Freedom and the Law, based on a series of lectures held in California in 1958 and published in the U.S. in 1961) only appeared in an Italian translation more than thirty years later. In fact, for a few decades, Leoni’s insights were appreciated more across the Atlantic than in his home country.
This neglect cannot be surprising if one takes into account the fact that the utter individualist perspective of the thought of Bruno Leoni is completely out of step with the European culture of his times, whereas it seems to be in tune with the intellectual traditions of America, particularly with the more libertarian strains. The liberalism of the author of Freedom and the Law is permeated by that Anglo-saxon culture that he thoroughly internalized, thanks to his close acquaintance with more than a few of the major figures of that intellectual constellation.
Leoni, moreover, was consistently interested by the ideas of the most prominent Austrian scholars (Hayek and Mises, in particular) who, notwithstanding their European heritage, found in America the stage for their major theoretical contributions and where they gathered a host of followers and disciples, among which the names of Murray N. Rothbard and Israel M. Kirzner do emerge.
Under this respect, it is worth noting that the intellectual journey of Bruno Leoni was dramatically influenced by his membership into the Mont Pélerin Society. In the occasion of the numerous meetings organized by the Society he was able to make his acquaintance with figures and schools of thought utterly alien to the dominant intellectual climate of the Italy of his times. For many decades, in fact, the organization founded by Friedrich Hayek offered an indispensable occasion for exchanges and discussion rooted in the classical liberalism tradition. Had he kept himself within the bounds of the prevailing Italian discourse (at the time largely dominated by Marxist, Neo-positivist, Crucianist and Catholic-solidarist currents), Leoni would have been unable of developing his most original insights and theories, which still today make reading his essays a fruitful and beneficial exercise.
Although almost forgotten in his home country, at least for a few decades, Leoni’s thought still lived outside Italy’s borders thanks to the efforts, the books and the essays of his American friends, as well as to the interest that his works elicited in the new generations of liberal scholars.
Beginning with the Nineties, however, this dismal situation has changed. Particularly after the publication in Italy of Freedom and the Law (whose merit is mainly to be ascribed to the generous efforts of Raimondo Cubeddu, who has likewise authored several essays and articles on the theories of Bruno Leoni), several scholars of diverse outlooks have turned their gaze on the insights of the Turinese philosopher, springing a veritable renaissance of studies that has already yielded a fruitful crop of works and thanks to which Bruno Leoni is finally acknowledged as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.
Interestingly, even scholars entertaining a perspective far from the liberal and libertarian outlook of Leoni have come to recognize the innovative character of his thought, that—in the field of the philosophy of law—can offer an alternative perspective to the Kelsenian model prevailing in the dominant normativist paradigm, as well as to the social-democratic that still permeates the several social sciences.
Most notably, whereas in the last couple of centuries law was repeatedly identified with the naked will of those in positions of power, among the major insights of Leoni is the novel way he developed to look at legal norms, in the effort of grasping what goes beyond the will of the rulers, as well that legislation often fated to remain a barren exercise in rule-making.
Leoni’s insights on law thus help us to grasp the enormous potential of the Austrian tradition of social sciences, originating in Carl Menger and finding its most complete expression in Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek and Murray N. Rothbard. By applying to the investigation of law the methodological individualist perspective, the analysis of the evolutionary origin of institutions and the subjective value theory, Leoni emphasized how the study not only of economics, but of the whole society can enormously benefit from the basic insights of the Austrian School.
Still today, moreover, the theory expounded by Bruno Leoni, is so original and genuinely liberal that more than a scholar deems Freedom and the Law to be a classic expression of the purest libertarian tradition, whose ideas and insights are still far from being thoroughly and completely appraised and developed.