Does Law and Economics Destroy Law Students’ Sense of Justice?

By Dave Hoffman
Concurring Opinions

draft paper by Raymond Fisman (Columbia Business),  Shachar Kariv (Berkeley Economics) and Daniel Markovits (Yale Law) has gotten surprisingly little attention given its potentially radical implications.  Maybe it’s the title: Exposure to Ideology and Distributional Preferences. I would have gone with something different.  Perhaps “Law and Economics Eats Law Students’ Hearts.”

The authors looked at first-year students at Yale Law School taking contracts and torts.  They labeled the students’ professors by their purported tendency to emphasize economic and “humanist” rhetoric in class.*  They then used the natural experiment of law school sorting to determine the effect that exposure to economic ideology had on law students’ distributional preferences in the dictator game. That is, did students taught by economically-minded professors behave differently than those taught by professors disposed toward humanism or critical-legal studies?

Richard Posner. Founder of Law and Economics. Latter-Day Apostate?

Richard Posner. Founder of Law and Economics. Latter-Day Apostate?

The bottom line: students taught by economically-minded professors were both more selfish and more likely to see fairness as a form of kaldor-hicks efficiency.  By contrast, students taught by humanists were more generous and also  likely to see fairness as a matter of equity.

These are important results for those interested in legal education.

  • First, and most obviously, it suggests that our preferences for altruism and the content of fairness are highly manipulable — one semester of teaching by a professor – at Yale, no less – can affect them.  I admit to being a bit surprised by the size of the effect, given the mixed results from earlier work on the relationship between economics and altruism.  It’s also surprising that Yalies are so impressionable!  I wonder whether the effect persists past a semester, and whether better coding of actual classroom discussion would have changed the results.
  • Second, it suggests yet more reasons for researchers to think hard about the effect that law school teaching has on the content of legal doctrine.  As I’ve argued, it’s quite likely that some law school professors who never published a lick have had more effect on substantive legal doctrine than those who’ve written reams, simply by influencing how their students (who went on to be lawyers and judges) thought about the content of rules and the byways of arguments.  We should do more work like this!
  • Third, and most personally, this makes me nervous.  I’m a highly socratic teacher who places lots (and lots) of emphasis in the first-year on efficiency-arguments and on the need to look beyond questions about distributional equality in the present case.  I thought that by doing so I was helping students to think critically about the dynamic nature of contract law – the relationship between contract rules and market price; the usefulness of an intelligent system of defaults; the importance of getting beyond gut intuitions.  But maybe I’m also indoctrinating the students to grab more of the pie for themselves.  Nuts.

*The method they used to code economic preferences was, to be frank, a little mystifying.  They gave points for PhD’s in economics, but had to make exceptions for Alan Schwartz, PhDless but L&E to the bone, Guido, for obvious reasons, and both Robert Gordon and Carol Rose, who are similarly off-set.  Why not simply ask the professors themselves how much they emphasized economic rhetoric in class?  Or the students?

Dave Hoffman is a law professor at Temple University. This article originally appeared on Concurring Opinions.

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One comment

  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    The false premise is that generosity is capable of doctrinal standard. Also, if the gross generalization that “law students” sense of justice has been ruined by a pragmatic understanding of finite resources is true, what manifest examples of this injustice does the author assert besides “reams and reams” of hypothetical writings? Dumb

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