To say that Peter Huber had an illustrious career is an understatement. The Manhattan Institute senior fellow, who died this month at 68, was an expert on a number of complex issues, and leaves behind an enormous body of important work.
Huber earned his J.D. from Harvard and his Ph.D. (in mechanical engineering) from MIT. He clerked on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and on the U.S. Supreme Court for Sandra Day O’Connor.
He wrote brilliantly about science, technology, medicine, and the law. He earned praise from a number of luminaries, including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Wolfe, and William F. Buckley, Jr. Along the way, he taught at MIT, was a partner at a law firm specializing in complex litigation, and popularized the term “junk science.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Peter Huber’s wonkiness is that it obscured his equal brilliance as a social philosopher. As a political thinker, Huber offered unique insight to the importance of free markets, individual liberty, and the defense of tradition. Like all of his work, Huber’s political philosophy is fearless, inventive, and forward-thinking. It is an ideal philosophy for our chaotic present.
Two books in particular offer a glimpse into Huber’s philosophical ideas. Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists, and The Cure in the Code: How 20th Century Law Is Undermining 21st Century Medicine. In these books, which explore the world around us and the genes within us, Huber sheds light on the human condition.
Both books demonstrate the centrality of the individual to Huber’s thought. In The Cure in the Code, Huber notes that “ordinary people will never stop craving more and better, because there is no limit to human hunger for vigor, beauty, [and] intelligence.” In Hard Green, he observes that socialism always fails precisely because “central planners disdain, and so never engage, the vast reservoir of initiative and intelligence in ordinary people.”
The importance of mining that “vast reservoir,” according to Huber, is why we need so vigorously to defend free markets. Because they give every individual, no matter how ordinary, the opportunity to create and act, markets are the most efficient way to disseminate wealth, knowledge, and freedom. Individuals operating within a free and open market can spread “wealth faster than autocrats spread poverty, and . . . can spread life faster than germs can spread death.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in humanity’s constant struggle against death and disease. In The Cure in the Code, Huber wryly comments that “germs . . . don’t have to be smarter than our scientists anymore, just faster than our lawyers.” The Covid-19 pandemic has proven this point, brutally and repeatedly. Over and over again, heavy-handed government intervention and outdated regulations caused problems at testing sites and nursing homes across the United States.
On the other hand, when markets create incentives and government steps out of the way, the scientific possibilities are limitless. Thanks to markets, “we can churn out monoclonal antibodies faster than all the cancerous breasts on earth could spawn cancer cells.” Perhaps we can even churn out mRNA vaccines faster than coronaviruses can mutate.
As a growing number of Americans denounce capitalism as cruel and embrace its statist alternatives, Huber offers a defense of markets rooted in the greater good, not just the pursuit of profit. Markets are not just good because of what they can do for us—they’re also good for what they’ll guarantee our children. “We owe posterity freedom: free markets, fertile minds, and plain old wealth,” Huber writes in Hard Green. Free markets allow us to conserve what is good in our world while driving us toward a brighter, better future.
This is the idea that connects Huber’s diverse body of work. In illumining the best ways for us to preserve forests, conquer disease, and more, Huber really shows us how to “take risks and invest patiently in the future,” and preserve what he called “a culture that welcomes the fact that its adherents share an insatiable hunger for life.”
Though Huber’s writing often seems, and certainly can be, quite libertarian in nature, it is ultimately grounded in traditional conservativism. In Hard Green, Huber writes that “conservation is the political heritage of the conservative,” and that “it is our capacity for awe, our instinct for reverence, our affinity for beauty, that makes conservation worthwhile and that makes some things worth conserving and others not.”
Huber maintained this reverence for nature and nature’s God to the very end of his career. Consider the final line of The Cure in the Code, his last book: “We now have the capacity to understand the art of dying well enough to transform our reverence for life into temporal power that will deliver us from much evil and reaffirm our faith in the ultimate goodness and mercy of creation.”
Peter Huber’s work will live on. His books are as lively as the markets he defended and as vibrant as the ordinary people whose praises he sung. Through his writing, we can hope to learn the intuitive, reverential conservatism that he espoused—and begin to shape the brilliant future that he envisioned and defended.