Karen Tani —
As a historian working in a law school, I think often about what history adds to the study of law and the training of future lawyers. Rarely does history provide an obvious road map to solving new legal problems, but it does at least two other things well: (1) it helps explain why the legal landscape looks the way it does; and (2) it illuminates the consequences of particular legal choices. This makes all the more valuable recent historical work that engages with political economy. We gain from this work a better sense of the political economies that produced our current configuration of laws. We also gain insights into how law constructs the political economy of the future—by sending signals about who will be insulated from the vicissitudes of “the market” and who will be exposed, whose rights can be bargained away and whose are too sacred, whose lives have value and whose do not.
An excellent example of this work is historian Gabriel Winant’s recent article in the Journal of American History, “A Place to Die: Nursing Home Abuse and the Political Economy of the 1970s.” Winant does not frame the piece as legal history, but law is all over the history he tells, in complex and sometimes unintuitive ways.