Roberto Unger: The Role of Law in the Knowledge Economy

On January 22, 2020 the BYU Law community was privileged to hear from Roberto Mangabeira Unger at the Legal Theory and Social Change Forum. A philosopher and social and legal theorist, Unger is the former Minister of Strategic Affairs of Brazil and the present Roscoe Pound Professor of Law at Harvard University. Unger shared his theory on the knowledge economy, the merits of “radical experimentalism” in societal institutions, and the special place of legal thought in American Progressivism.

“The knowledge economy is dependent on the quantity, quality, and accessibility of available information,” Unger said. “Dense in ideas, dedicated to perpetual innovation, and emergent in every sector of the market, it has replaced conventional manufacturing as the most advanced practice of production in the world.” Despite this, Unger believes that the majority of the labor force is denied access to the advanced practices of the knowledge economy which is “confined to insular vanguards” resulting in economic stagnation.  

Wide dissemination of the knowledge economy is critical for economic progress according to Unger, and this will require institutional reimagination and reconstruction. “No institutional order deserves our reverence,” Unger said, “the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.” 

Unger believes that such transformation depends on radical experimentalism in societal institutions. His vision includes an educational system that is analytic and dialectic and a high-energy democracy that is not dependent on crisis in order to change. The role of legal thought in the knowledge economy is to “inform the public conversation about possible systems of structural change.”  This higher purpose of law, Unger stated, transcends courts, judges and litigation and has the “prophetic task of marshalling the contradictions manifest in the law toward the creation of a higher form of life.”

According to Unger, the United States is uniquely positioned to disrupt global economic stagnation and inequality.  “There is no country in the world with greater vitality and energy, where the majority of ordinary men and women continue to believe that anything is possible, that we can become more human by becoming more godlike. The object of democracy is to divinize humanity–we can and should become bigger together.” 


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