MEXICO CITY -- In the precincts of Coyoacán near to where Leon Trotsky caught the business end of an ice pick sprawls a monument to Big Government and the delirium of National Greatness if not to any certifiable species of conservatism. This is the "Behemoth U." of Russell Kirk's nightmares, an endless vulgar-Marxist bull session 200,000 voices strong in a jumble of boxy buildings consecrated by and to "The Big Three" -- not Detroit carmakers but extravagant muralists of high-church Stalinism and neo-pagan chic -- Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco. Here Lillian Hellman's heart could have been at home. Certainly not the City College of New York, this is UNAM, Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México.
Depending on the audience, UNAM's publicity machine presents alternative founding dates. For those (especially those with fat checkbooks) who might cherish the Permanent Things, UNAM says it is the second-oldest university in the Western Hemisphere, founded in 1551 -- when Madrid sent over the charter for the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico. For those who consider the Spanish and Catholic heritage a yoke of oppression, the university traces its origin to 1910 and the ignition of the Mexican Revolution. The latter account is more accurate, since President Benito Juárez and his anti-clerical Reforma in 1867 had shuttered forever the old Pontifical National University. The true UNAM opened in 1910 during the dying light of the Díaz dictatorship's "positivism" and the dawning rays of Mexican-style Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism, and other radical intellectual fads hanging onto the tumbrels of the Revolution.
Behemoth universities allow, like exotic hothouse plants, occasional exceptions to radical and socialist conformity. Milton Friedman and Saul Bellow were tolerated for a while at Wisconsin-Madison, while California-Berkeley permitted the conservative scholar George Lenczowski to thrive. William F. Buckley, Jr., and Octavio Paz studied at UNAM but did not graduate. In more characteristic fashion, José López Portillo and a succession of other big-government Mexican presidents and party bosses graduated and launched their careers from the UNAM law school.
In UNAM's center for juridical research toils a youthful, gentle, but animated scholar of classical and Spanish literature, philology, economics, and Roman law, Juan Javier del Granado. He is circumspect about his work. "If they" -- the university establishment -- "knew what I was up to, they might hang me from a lamppost."
What Del Granado is up to is an attempt to rehabilitate, after centuries in the intellectual demimonde, Latin American jurisprudence. Del Granado is a political refugee from Bolivia, where his family for centuries has been prominent in literary circles and the Church. He cannot bear to live under the regime of Evo Morales, and so for the time being, he is plotting a sort of counter-subversion in the shadow of the masterpiece murals of Social Realism.
He speaks with the enthusiasm of a detoured pilgrim dizzy from the trek to what he mistook for Compostela, or maybe of a Christian missionary to Borneo, or of St. Paul on the Areopagus. "Everything wrong with law in Latin America," he says, surveying the Ciudad Universitaria with a believer's gleam in his eye, "began here."
Whatever seeds he plants in Mexico he will have to return from the United States to cultivate. In the fall he will begin an appointment in the genial setting of George Mason University in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. He explains that Washington offers an indispensable base for Latin American legal studies because the Library of Congress houses by far the best collection of his region's legal books, exceeding anything available in Mexico or South America.
Del Granado is trained in both the Hispano-Catholic humanist/natural law tradition and the University of Chicago law-and-economics school. He maintains that they are compatible, even meant for one another. In terms that lawyers probably will understand better than this writer and other members of the laity, he says that Latin America suffers from an emphasis on "public law" with government as the central player, to the near exclusion of "private law" mediating between private parties.
"The private sector," he writes, "cannot exist in a vacuum. Private law enables the private sector to be the main driver of the economy. Understanding how a system of private law works is relevant for economic liberalization. Unfortunately, Latin American countries liberalized and privatized their economies in the 1990s, forgetting that their legal systems had been socialized and constitutionalized during much of the 20th century. Arguing for a return to Roman law is the best way to introduce law and economics into the civil law tradition and to reprivatize Latin America's ailing legal system."
The Bolivian scholar is quick to say "Yanqui go home" when it comes to United States regulatory law. "Latin Americans look at U.S. regulatory law as the most significant legal advance that can be imported from the North. Even Richard Posner now says we need a little more regulation. Nothing could be further from the truth! Regulatory law is an aberration of United States history. The solution to the market problems we are facing (even in the U.S.) is to improve private legal institutions, not introduce new regulation. Financial and securities markets, as well as the corporate sector, may have suffered from an undue degree of opacity. This is what Henry Manne has been saying for years, and no one listened to him."
Del Granado has many comrades in his school of thought, organized in the Latin American and Caribbean Law and Economics Association, known by its Spanish acronym, ALACDE. Those who want to delve deeper into the work of this organization and its members may find a wealth of information in English at this website.
Roger Fontaine, who directed Latin American policy for Ronald Reagan in the National Security Council, now teaches at the Institute of World Politics. Every semester he begins his regional studies course with the world-weary observation: "Latin America is not a place. It's a pathology."
Juan Javier del Granado dreams of transforming Latin America into a place -- a place where foundations of law as understood by Cicero and Aquinas can foster prosperity and ordered liberty.
(Mr. Duggan is a visiting professor in the Estado de México campus of Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of the participating institutions in ALACDE.)