1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

Contra Law and Economics

Mises Daily: Thursday, December 17, 2009 by

A
A
Terry Jones as judge

Hans-Hermann Hoppe made a lasting impact on the first generations studying (not only) economics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. We have repeatedly invited him to be a lecturer for our free-market summer program, the Liberalni Institute Summer University.

He also gave talks for journalists, academicians, and university students in Prague and recently has been awarded the "Franz Cuhel Memorial Prize for Teaching Excellence" and delivered a lecture at the opening day of the 2009 Prague Conference on Political Economy. He has been making an impact on Czech and Slovak students through his writings and lectures, both in English and Czech, for more than a decade. Consequently, he made a defense of property — a central point of his academic focus — a keystone of scholarly investigation for many young researchers, including the current authors.

The Law & Economics movement emerging from the University of Chicago in the 1960s revolutionized the American legal academy. "Economic analysis of law" became a standard part of the top universities' curricula. Brian Bix, a leading legal theorist, considers this particular approach to law the most influential line of thought in contemporary jurisprudence.[1]

Notwithstanding the prominence it has gained so far, the initial reaction of many influential legal thinkers to some assumptions and insights of L&E was suspicious rather than laudatory. Likewise, on the part of the economics profession, it was Austrian economics and its proponents who raised eyebrows when they first explored the writings of what is here referred to as "standard Law & Economics," i.e., mainly the thought of Judge Richard Posner.[2]

While we appreciate the importance of alternative-paradigm building and the Austrian method of deriving conclusions from first principles, this time our aim is different and rather modest. We seek to point out the similarities between the criticisms of standard L&E, particularly the principle of "wealth maximization," presented by various legal philosophers (such as Jules Coleman, Ronald Dworkin, Anthony Kronman, Benjamin Zipursky and others) on one hand, and by Austrians on the other, and hence "build bridges." We will indicate that both lines of critique are, in many respects, compatible, though they rarely even recognize each other's existence.[3]

Wealth Maximization Principle — Positive Analysis

Building on Coase's insight that any conflict is of reciprocal character,[4] the general idea of Posner's Economic Analysis of Law is that any human activity has an impact on many people "if only by changing the prices of other goods."[5] However, Coasian bargaining that would maximize the joint production of all parties is likely to be prevented in the real world of transaction costs (not to mention the existence of the income effect, which may spoil the "invariability of the outcome" conclusion).[6]

Thus, there will be conflicts among people due to losses inflicted on some, which must be solved in nonmarket ways to assure an efficient outcome. Posner claims that this role of efficient problem solvers must be performed by judges and the legal system. Judges must assign property rights (liability) similar to how the market would have done so if transaction cost had not existed.[7]

Posner considers economics to be a source of insight regarding cost-benefit properties of alternative legal structures, which then can be used to mimic the market — i.e., redesign the legal system (and decide legal cases) that would lead to higher production in a broad sense. In short, Posner's principal idea is that judges should manipulate the limits of property rights in order to get an optimal — efficient — level of economic output.

The issue is rarely property right or no property right, but rather … limited property rights or unlimited property rights, with the limitation designed to induce the correct (not an insufficient or excessive) level of investment in the exploitation of a valuable resource.[8]

The criterion that should help judges in their endeavors is the "wealth-maximization principle," which states that goods (resources, rights) should be assigned to those who value them most, i.e., to those who are willing and able to pay for them. Posner acknowledged that "wealth maximization," in fact, is the same as the well-known Kaldor-Hicks Efficiency.[9] A rule, decision, or action in general is efficient, according to this view, if and only if those who benefit from it could potentially fully compensate those who lose and still have a net gain. Whether the actual payment to those made worse-off eventually takes place is, in this regard, irrelevant. We shall return to this aspect later.

The Role of Prices

To say anything meaningful about two states of the world when using the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, there have to be monetary prices to enable us to compare the actual gains and losses on both sides. Without prices, we could merely observe whether any transactions take place at all. If they do, from that very fact we could, in Rothbardian fashion, infer that the transaction makes both parties better off, at least ex ante.[10] Nothing more, nothing less.

We would not be in a position to know whether the transaction is wealth-maximizing (or Kaldor-Hicks efficient) since the very concept presupposes the existence of prices. As Jules Coleman, a Yale law philosopher, put it, "only exchanges that involve prices can be wealth maximizing."[11] Thus, in a barter economy, a Posnerian judge would have to either "refuse to decide"[12] or resort to some other principle that would guide his decision.

Not only barter economies pose problems for a Posnerian judge. This is where Austrians have a lot to say. Even if we assume that there are relative monetary prices generated in the market, the judge's inference from what he can observe at the moment is of little value.

Building on Mises's insight about the nature of market prices as the mere data of economic history, Stringham denies the usefulness of such observation for any meaningful pro futuro decision. The willingness to pay and the prices change constantly, "so it would make no sense to base decisions on prices that no longer have relevance."[13]

A similar point was made by Coleman as well. When he wrote about the need of prices for the application of the Kaldor-Hicks test, he stressed the importance of fixed relative prices.[14] There are no fixed relative prices out there, however. One of the important insights of Austrian economists is that individual actions of people on the real market generate prices in a never-ending process, or as Mario Rizzo put it, a "continual flux."[15] As such, they can never be assumed to be fixed.

The unrealistic assumption of "price fixedness" is essential for wealth maximization to hold its own. It is thus incoherent. The change of legal rules in the real world in the passage of time may have an impact on the structure of relative prices. The change of relative prices, however, affects the judge's previous calculation.

At the time of the decision, the judge might conclude that to maximize wealth it is necessary to assign a right to A. Consequently, a new price structure emerges. If the judge was forced to decide the case again under the new circumstances he would assign the right to B. The need for a shift between legal rules becomes constant and immense uncertainty floods the system.[16]

In other words, if we take into consideration what Austrians have always stressed in opposition to neoclassical economics — the dynamic nature of the market process, in which no stable equilibrium can be achieved[17] — we can claim, concurring with legal philosophers, the wealth maximization principle to be unworkable.

Playing the Market

The above-described criticisms of wealth maximization both by Austrians and some legal thinkers are relevant, but things are even worse. We have so far dealt with the problem of applying the wealth-maximization principle as if the Posnerian judge were to operate in a real-world context.[18]

However, if the celebrated principle is in fact the same as the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, we enter the domain of pure fantasy — the judge is expected to weigh and compare the willingness to pay in the absence of the transaction itself and to consider the potential compensations of the victims. As has been repeatedly shown by Austrians, such a task is plainly impossible.[19] Posner himself admits in the first edition of his textbook (p. 139) that to determine who has the greater long-run accident-avoidance potential is "an intractable question, in most cases."[20]

Ronald Dworkin, the most cited legal philosopher of our times, eloquently summarizes the position of Posner and others.

They concede … or rather insist, that information about what parties would have done in market transaction can be obtained in the absence of the transaction, and that such information can be sufficiently reliable to act on.[21]

Dworkin, for the sake of his particular argument against wealth maximization, accepts this. Needless to say, such concession is not very fortunate in general. Despite Posner's mere claims to the contrary,[22] no one has ever shown how a third party, be it a judge or a central planner, playing the market can get into the minds of potential parties to the transaction, find out their preferences and then do what they themselves would have done had the circumstances been different.

The similarity and impossibility of tasks that stand before both Posnerian judges and socialist planners is striking. In both cases, someone aspires to engage in nonprice (nonmarket) allocation of resources. It is believed in both situations that more peace and more prosperity can be attained by such a device; that someone saves some resources by knowing in advance what the result of complex social phenomena will be; that one can conceive of markets without people really having and making markets. This belief is completely fallacious.

Under socialism, as most of the economy got closer to the "socialist ideal" of nonmarket allocation, the less socialist planners knew about the real needs of the economy (the people) and the more pervasive was the ensuing chaos. The same will be true for the emergence of chaos and the spread of pure arbitrariness in law, the closer we get to the Posnerian "ideal." To claim otherwise would amount to requiring the judge to transform himself into a "cognitive superman."[23]

Implications of L&E For Individual (Property) Rights

Deficiencies in the positive arm of the L&E approach leads us to look into effects the Posnerian judge would bring about in reality if he was strictly adhering to wealth maximization.

The Contingency of Right and Wrong

In his Economics of Justice, Posner illustrated how a judicial system would proceed to maximize social wealth in cases where external effects play a role.[24] Hoppe offers a summary.

A factory emits smoke and thereby lowers residential property values. If property values are lowered by $3 million and the plant relocation cost is $2 million, the plant should be held liable and forced to relocate. Yet if the numbers are reversed — property values fall by $2 million and relocation costs are $3 million — the factory may stay and continue to emit smoke.[25]

The task of a judge is to reshape the existing structure of property rights. In fact, these rights do not count at all. The value of the rights is at stake. As the value cannot (as prices cannot), be assumed as fixed, there is no stable criterion by which we could determine ex ante who is going to prevail in each case. Whether property rights are allocated in a wealth-maximizing manner "can only be determined ex post."[26]

Moreover, seconds after the dispute is settled, the value of property rights changes — at that moment the judge's calculation might be completely different if he were to decide the case again. This is something we would not expect of what we call law. The results of adjudication should, at least to some extent, be predictable. The wealth maximization principle negates this postulate.

Austrians like Hoppe are not alone in this particular criticism of L&E. Benjamin Zipursky, a representative of so called "pragmatic conceptualism," challenges the theory of economic analysis of tort law. According to him, tort law is, in essence, "backward looking."[27] If we turn to the factory example, the right way of looking at the situation is to investigate the past, determine the structure of rights that was in place before the pollution, describe the actions of both plaintiff and defendant and, on this basis, decide who is to be held liable.

On the other hand, the economic (Posnerian) approach is "forward looking;" the initial distribution of rights is of no importance —"where liability should lie ultimately depends on an answer to a question about the future, not about the past."[28] This, unfortunately, leads us to the conclusion that, for L&E what is right and what is wrong are merely contingent. A just legal system can hardly be based on the contingent notions of right and wrong.

The Irrelevance of (Some) Autonomous Individuals

The reliance on the wealth-maximization principle has some unwelcome implications. If the redistribution of rights is based on willingness and ability to pay, what about those who are at the bottom of the society, who are willing but not able to pay? They simply do not count. As Anthony T. Kronman, a former dean of the Yale Law School, put it.

The principle of wealth maximization necessarily favors those who already have money, or the resources with which to earn it, and are therefore able to pay more than others to have a new legal rule defined in the way that is favorable to them.[29]

The nature of the proposed theory was acknowledged by its founder too when he stated.

A less welcome implication of the wealth-maximization approach is that people who are very poor … count only if they are part of the utility function of somebody who has wealth.[30]

It is no surprise that Posner's insights outrage legal philosophers. The theory that aspires to be universal cannot count only some people while making others irrelevant for the sole fact that they are not endowed with enough wealth. This brings us to the problem of the initial assignment of rights.

According to Posner, not only property rights to chattels are to be instrumentally distributed according to the wealth maximization principle. Posner seeks to present a universal, normative benchmark for allocation of all sorts of rights, including the self-ownership of one's own labor. In other words, the issue of initial assignment of property rights is considered, since it is "the starting point for a market system."[31] The fact that people own their own lives and labor is, according to Posner, explicable by the wealth maximization principle itself; assignment of these rights to "natural owners" is a result of calculus. States Posner:

This is the economic reason for giving a worker the right to sell his labor and a woman the right to determine her sexual partners. If assigned randomly to strangers these rights would generally (not invariably) be repurchased by the worker and the woman respectively.[32]

Dworkin challenges this assertion by pointing out that we cannot simply assume, as Posner does, the rights to be repurchased by their natural owners. These people must be willing and able to pay for them what the random possessors of the right would demand on the market. But all this necessarily depends on the initial assignment of rights itself. The reasoning is, again, circular.[33] As Ian Shapiro notes, the example assumes "exactly what Posner has to establish if his theory is to make any sense."[34]

The difficulty was recognized by Kronman who, building on Coleman's earlier work,[35] restated the problem in terms of an auction. No one has anything at his disposal and attends the auction where the rights are to be sold to the highest bidder.

The result of auction will satisfy the wealth-maximization principle, but the bids will have a form of mere stipulation — for the time being the bidders have nothing to pay with. The auction may result in enslavement of A by B if the auctioneer concludes that the work of A will be better managed and allocated in more valuable uses by B than if it was assigned to its "natural owner," i.e., A.[36]

The objections of legal thinkers are very similar to those made by Austrians. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, using Posner's own example,[37] showed that adherence to wealth maximization may well lead to

the denial of self-ownership and justification of slavery.

Suppose an alternative universe in which Henry Ford decided not to become an automobile manufacturer but a Trappist monk. In this universe, people would be poorer compared to our actual world; the wealth would be lowered. The notion of wealth maximization leads us to the conclusion that we could

enslave Ford and put him into the Ford factory and just tell him: "Hey, keep on being the Ford that you were supposed to be instead of just being a Trappist monk."[38]

Ethics vs. "Posnerian Economics"

It should be clear now how crucially important it is to contrast an ethically-based approach to property (such as self-ownership and its extension) to the efficiency theory of rights. Whereas the former approach (built upon by Hoppe as a leading exponent of the Austrian approach and other prominent philosophers) gives us clear guidance, a Posnerian judge cannot perform the task assigned to him.

Whereas the former approach defends property as a building block of every viable social order, Posner dilutes its importance entirely. Over time, he adopted an even less property-friendly approach.

He refuses, as he himself states, to keep the "faith in the power of science to take religion's place as the deliverer of final truth."[39] Soundness of theoretical arguments is not to be any more decisive because, as Posner claims,

in my view the ultimate criterion should be pragmatic; we should not worry whether cost-benefit analysis is well grounded in any theory of value. We should ask how well it serves whatever goals we have.[40]

The Kaldor-Hicks concept of efficiency, the concept that was the cornerstone of the Chicago approach to Law & Economics, has been abandoned and nothing has been put in its place. As Posner put it,

I do not want to stake my all on a defense of the Kaldor-Hicks concept of efficiency. For me the ultimate test of cost-benefit analysis employing that concept is a pragmatic one: whether its use improves the performance of government in any sense of improvement that the observer thinks appropriate.[41]

It is crucial to realize that "any sense of improvement that the observer thinks appropriate" may mean virtually anything from increasing taxes to building labor camps — a sad end of a once-ambitious research project.

Conclusion

Our aim in the present paper was to show that the standard Law & Economics approach has to be challenged due to its shortcomings, and that scholars in both economic and legal fields understand that. Unfortunately, while presenting their arguments, they often ignore scholarship that could make their case stronger. Consider this quote from Markovits, an eloquent critic of using efficiency criteria in law:

In fact, several highly respected economists and law-and-economics scholars have written well-known articles that make arguments purporting to justify the claim that economically efficient decisions are always just and/or desirable — arguments that they have not explicitly disavowed and that no other economist had refuted.[42]

This is simply not true, and we sought to provide sufficient evidence to support this claim. Austrian authors have written over the years a growing number of publications doing just that. The Austrian, broad approach to the study of social reality is something which legal theorists could very much benefit from. Regrettably, most of them seem to be unaware of the Austrian tradition,[43] and hence — to their detriment — they work within the framework of neoclassical economics.

On the other hand, Austrians, too, rarely quote legal philosophers for the support of their thoughts, even though both groups may, in many respects, be developing, in essence, the same arguments. This fact alone should encourage Austrians to study more of their works.

Notes

[1] Brian Bix, Jurisprudence: Theory and Context, 4th ed. (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2006), p. 189.

[2] We have argued elsewhere that Austrian praxeology provides a much better framework for the study of the mutual relationship between economics and law than the Posnerian "economic" approach. See Josef Šíma, "Praxeology as Law & Economics," Journal of Libertarian Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): p. 73–89.

[3] But to the contrary, see Edward Stringham and Mark White, "Economic Analysis of Tort Law: Austrian and Kantian Perspectives," in Law and Economics: Alternative Economic Approaches to Legal and Regulatory Issues, Margaret Oppenheimer and Nicholas Mercuro, eds. (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004), pp. 374–92.

[4] Ronald H. Coase, "The Problem of Social Cost," Journal of Law and Economics 3 (October 1960).

[5] Richard A. Posner, Economic Analysis of Law, 5th ed. (New York: Aspen Law & Business, 1998 [1973]), p. 14.

[6] Walter Block, "Coase and Demsetz on Private Property Rights," Journal of Libertarian Studies 1, no. 2 (1977); idem, "Ethics, Efficiency, Coasian Property Rights, and Psychic Income: A Reply to Harold Demsetz," Review of Austrian Economics 8, no. 2 (1995).

[7] This interventionism is, in the Coasean-Posnerian world, "obviously desirable" even " when it is possible to change the legal delimitation of rights through market transactions." See the founding article of the Chicago approach, Coase, "The Problem of Social Cost," p. 19.

[8] Posner, Economic Analysis of Law, p. 42.

[9] Richard A. Posner, "The Ethical and Political Basis of the Efficiency Norm in Common Law Adjudication," Hofstra Law Review 8, no. 3 (Spring 1980): p. 491.

[10] Murray N. Rothbard, "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics," in Mary Sennholz, ed., On Freedom and Free Enterprise: Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises (New Haven, Conn.: D. Van Nostrand 1956).

[11]Jules Coleman, "Efficiency, Utility, and Wealth Maximization," Hofstra Law Review 8, no. 3 (Spring 1980): 523

[12] Which, in standard account, "is not morally acceptable, since people expect access to justice." See Aleksander Peczenik, On Law and Reason, 2nd ed (Dordrecht: Springer 2008), pp. 26–27.

[13] Edward Stringham, "Kaldor-Hicks Efficiency and the Problem of Central Planning," Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 4, no. 2 (Summer 2001): p. 43.

[14] Coleman, "Efficiency, Utility, and Wealth Maximization," p. 524.

[15] Mario J. Rizzo, "Law amid Flux: The Economics of Negligence and Strict Liability in Tort," Journal of Legal Studies 9, no. 2 (March 1980).

[16] Coleman calls this inconvenience a "circularity-of-preferences problem." Coleman, "Efficiency, Utility, and Wealth Maximization," p. 525.

[17] Gregory Scott Crespi, "Exploring the Complicationist Gambit: An Austrian Approach to the Economic Analysis of Law," Notre Dame Law Review 73, no. 2 (January 1998): 325–26.

[18] Except for the fixed prices assumption.

[19] In more difficult cases the complications multiply. As Rizzo explains:

The efficiency approach requires not only the testing of hypotheses about the defendant's negligence, but also investigation into the (contributory) negligence of the plaintiff. If, however, the doctrine of contributory negligence is to be interpreted as a lesser-cost avoider defense, our task is still not complete. If we find that both defendant and plaintiff have been negligent, we must still determine which party could have avoided the accident at less cost. Therefore, we are driven to compare two counterfactual hypotheses.… The issue is not to compare or evaluate what has happened but, rather to speculate about what might have happened in two alternate worlds and then to compare the outcomes.

Rizzo, "Law amid Flux," p. 292; citations omitted.

[20] Here he has been quoted by Rizzo. He also reminds us that Posner omits this phrase in subsequent editions of his book. Ibid., p. 308.

[21] Ronald Dworkin, "Is Wealth a Value?," Journal of Legal Studies 9, no. 2 (March 1980): p. 198.

[22] Richard A. Posner, The Economics of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 62.

[23] Dieter Schmidtchen, "Time, Uncertainty, and Subjectivism: Giving More Body to Law and Economics," International Review of Law and Economics 13, no. 1 (March 1993): p. 78, quoting Bruce Ackerman, "Law, Economics, and the Problem of Legal Culture," Duke Law Journal 1986, no. 6 (December 1986).

[24] Posner, The Economics of Justice, p. 62.

[25] Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "The Ethics and Economics of Private Property," LewRockwell.com (Oct. 11, 2004). It must be admitted that Posner uses this example to show a possible divergence of wealth maximization from "happiness maximization"; nevertheless, it illustrates the alleged role of judges and how it would look.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Benjamin Zipursky, "Pragmatic Conceptualism," Legal Theory 6, no. 4 (December 2000): p. 462.

[28] Ibid., pp. 462–23.

[29] Anthony T. Kronman, "Wealth Maximization as a Normative Principle," Journal of Legal Studies 9, no. 2 (March 1980): p. 240. Despite the fact that the conclusions of Kronman and Austrians in this particular normative question coincide, we shall, for the sake of fairness, not forget that his approach to criticism of Posner is heavily influenced by the neoclassical notion of economics. Kronman, for example, uses utils and without hesitation engages in an interpersonal comparison of utility. Walter Block once rightly raised this objection in his reply to Kronman. See Walter Block, "Alienability, Inalienability, Paternalism, and the Law: Reply to Kronman," American Journal of Criminal Law 28, no. 3 (Summer 2001): p. 351–71.

[30] Richard A. Posner, "Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory," Journal of Legal Studies 8, no. 1 (1979): p. 119.

[31] Posner, "Efficiency Norm," p. 500.

[32] Posner, "Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory," p. 125.

[33] Dworkin, "Is Wealth a Value?," p. 208. Dworkin indeed asserts that under present conditions, it would be for most people today "impossible to repurchase the right to their labor, because the value of that labor represents more than half of their present wealth." Ibid., p. 209.

[34] Ian Shapiro, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 111.

[35] Jules L. Coleman, "Efficiency, Exchange and Auction: Philosophic Aspects of the Economic Approach to Law," California Law Review 68, no. 2 (March 1980).

[36] Kronman, "Wealth Maximization as a Normative Principle," pp. 240–41.

[37] Posner, The Economics of Justice, p. 77 n. 57.

[38] Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "Law and Economics," Lecture delivered at Mises University, Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, Friday, August 5, 2005.

[39] Richard A. Posner, Overcoming Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 394.

[40] Richard A. Posner, "Cost-Benefit Analysis: Definition, Justification, and Comment on Conference Papers," Journal of Legal Studies 29 (June 2000): p. 1156.

[41] Ibid., pp. 1155–56.

[42] Richard S. Markovits, "On the Relevance of Economic Efficiency Conclusions," Florida State University Law Review 29, no. 1 (Fall 2001): p. 5.

[43] For an author praising the humanistic approach of Austrian economics see e.g. Michael Novak, "Economics as Humanism," in Edward Younkins, ed., Three in One (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).