Politics & Policy

Peter Huber, R.I.P.

Peter Huber (Screenshot via FORA.tv/Youtube)
A beautiful mind was taken from the world, but his ideas through the legacy of his words will continue to help illuminate our future.

Peter Huber, a longtime senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute; a founding partner in a successful Washington, D.C., law firm; a polymath and prolific author of a dozen consequential books and hundreds of essays and op-eds; influential analyst, intellectual powerhouse, and seer in matters from the role of science in the courts to telecom competition and environmental regulation, as well as energy and health-care policy — all issues of as central importance now as when he first wrote about them — died on January 8 in Hanover, N.H. He was 68.

Because of a long illness, his death was no surprise. So I should have written this months ago. But I was his friend. I couldn’t accept the reality.

Peter’s legacy was epic: his books, his many essays, including a number in City Journal, make up a canon of north of 1 million words. That canon, directly and indirectly, changed legal and regulatory practices, changed businesses, and changed how people thought about many of the challenges we face.

Peter W. Huber was a lawyer of consequence who clerked for both Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the latter while she was a judge on the D.C. circuit court). In our time of so much political acrimony, it is a testament to Peter and the justices, and a lesson for us all, that he remained a close friend of both those towering figures, regardless of the respective ideological differences.

Peter was a pioneer in tort reform, focusing on what he called “junk science,” a phrase we cooked up in one of our earliest brainstorm sessions. (I’ll credit him with that locution, though if he were still with us, his memory of that discussion would be far clearer and, well, we’d argue about it and the debate would zig and zag, and lead to other interesting insights, and new locutions.) He wrote four books on tort reform: Liability (1988), The Liability Maze (1991), Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom (1993), and Judging Science (1999). Then there were his pivotal insights into the technical and legal domains to unleash telecom competition: The Geodesic Network (1987), The Geodesic Network II (1993), Federal Telecommunications Law (1992), Federal Broadband Law (1995), and Law and Disorder in Cyberspace: Abolish the FCC and Let Common Law Rule the Telecoms (1997).

Peter’s writing about environmental issues started back in his clerkship days. (That was the subject of an essay that sparked our first meeting some four decades ago.) His book and manifesto on that topic, Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (2000), was a scalpel-like dissection of the business of environmentalism while simultaneously, vigorously supporting the movement’s true goals. The book Peter and I co-authored, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (2005), has stood the test of time, published as it was contemporaneously with peak hype over peak oil.

It was in these City Journal pages some 14 years ago that Peter wrote “Germs and the City,” about the historical, regulatory, and scientific architecture of pandemics. In that essay he warned that “one way or another, germs will contrive to horrify us again, in some very nasty way. A society’s only real defense is to stay horrified, well ahead of the curve.” And he correctly predicted that a cure, a vaccine, would come much faster using the “codes” in both genetic and computational machines, hence the title of the last book in his canon, The Cure in the Code: How 20th-Century Law Is Undermining 21st Century Medicine (2013).

In addition to being a writer and lawyer, he was also an engineer, professor, and mentor, as well as an entrepreneur. He co-founded an investment newsletter, a venture fund, and a tech company that went public. But so much of what he did in all those capacities, and how he advanced ideas and infected others with those ideas, centered on writing.

We’ve all met brilliant people. But among the many brilliant minds I’ve met over the decades, including Nobelists and notables, Peter’s was unique. I had the pleasure of co-authoring some quarter-million words with him, from our book and many op-eds to our investment newsletter (The Huber-Mills Digital Power Report). Co-authoring — as distinct from co-signing — provides a window into the thought process of the other party. Peter’s imaginative and analytic capacities were daunting, and fun.

That Peter chose to pursue the law instead of engineering was a benefit to the profession of the former and a loss to the latter. It says much about Peter’s polymathic capacities and sheer doggedness to recall that he obtained his Harvard law degree and served as editor of the Harvard Law Review after receiving his engineering Ph.D., and while he was teaching thermodynamics at MIT.

Like other brilliant minds, he enjoyed the arts and entertainment, too, from the silly to Shakespeare. And he was an optimist — not a Pollyanna, but a reasoned optimist keenly aware of the capacity for people to do stupid or evil things. (He was a lawyer, after all). Nor was his interest only in the “clouds” or in legal briefs. For the better part of a decade, when we traveled a lot together, I noticed his lavish tips to waitstaff, done surreptitiously, not ostentatiously. He liked to reward people who worked with good grace at difficult service jobs; such small acts, he believed, served as a kind of catalyst for a broader social benefit. That conviction led to one of our numerous discussions about matters philosophical and even theological. At a Christmas party some years ago, Peter spent most of it chatting with an elderly woman who had self-isolated, having been recently widowed.

The last time Peter and I talked happened to be the day before he died. We talked weekly on Skype — at least, I talked, since his cruel disease had robbed him of speech and so much else — fittingly using precisely the “geodesic” network that he described four decades ago. We touched on the subject of the viruses that preoccupies everyone else in the world today. I got him to smile, a feat that was increasingly difficult in recent months as his disease progressed. (Sadly, science has yet to find the cure for what stole his mind and life.) I told him that I was still writing my next book and was currently finishing a chapter on the technology of health care, wherein I borrowed some ideas from his Cure in the Code. But, I emphasized, I was of course giving him full credit. Thus, the smile.

A beautiful mind was taken from the world, but his ideas through the legacy of his words will continue to help illuminate our future.

The last chapter of our book, The Bottomless Well, was titled “The Power of Life.” There we wrote: “The white heat of the sun pours out into the black cold of deep space to propel life on a tiny jewel of a planet that spins on its axis at just the right point between the inferno and oblivion.” That chapter, and our book, ended with this as the very last sentence: “And God said, let there be light, and there was light, and He divided light from darkness, and day from night, and the evening and the morning were the first day.”

My brilliant friend, we’ll miss your presence on this tiny jewel.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally ran in City Journal, and is reprinted above. 

Mark P. Mills — Mr. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Digital Cathedrals: The Information Infrastructure Era.