Working Paper

The Erroneous Foundations of Law and Economics

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Conservative legal theory is based on a shoddy definition of what constitutes “efficiency”

The fundamental originating principle of law and economics (L&E) is that legal decisions should be (and are) based on maximizing efficiency. But L&E proponents do not define “efficiency” in the way agreed to by most economists, as Pareto Efficiency. A Pareto optimal condition is obtained when no one can be made better off without making someone worse off. Pareto Improvements are win-win changes where no losers exist. In the judicial system, however, there are always winners and losers, because under Article III § 2 of the Constitution a legal case does not exist unless there is a justiciable “case or controversy” in need of resolution. Unable to use Pareto Efficiency, L&E scholars have been forced to adopt alternative definitions of efficiency. Most L&E scholars claim to define “efficiency” based on the work of Kaldor and Hicks, but (perhaps unwittingly) instead use a definition of “efficiency” derived from the 19th century idea of consumer surplus, which encompasses L&E notions such as “wealth maximization,” and “consumer welfare” in antitrust. Neither of these alternative definitions is viable, however. Outside of L&E, the Kaldor-Hicks approach has long been recognized to be riddled with logical inconsistencies and ethical failures, and the surplus approach is even more deficient.

Remarkably, virtually none of the numerous L&E textbooks even hint at such problems. Critically, all definitions of efficiency improvements in economics are biased in favor of wealthy individuals or firms, either because they are dependent on the status quo ante distribution of assets, or because they bestow large advantages on parties with political influence or who can afford to bring lawsuits quickly. Many L&E practitioners treat efficiency improvements instead as being objectively good, an error revealing that L&E is primarily motivated by its neoliberal policy agenda.