Adam Chilton at the Midway Dinner: Take Advantage of All this Great University Offers

Law School Communications
February 14, 2017

The Midway Dinner is held across the Midway each February to celebrate the midway point of the law school careers of the 2L class. These are the words Assistant Professor Adam Chilton shared last week with the Class of 2018.

We’re gathered here for one of the traditions that make the University of Chicago Law School such a special place: the Midway Dinner.

I could say more about the tradition and how happy I am to be asked to speak on this occasion, but if there is one defining norm here at the University of Chicago, it’s this: no small talk. That’s why, after working here for four years, I know the titles of hundreds of my colleagues’ articles, but none of their children’s’ names. Actually, I don’t remember the titles of their articles, but acknowledging that would be what’s considered hurtful. So let’s get right to it.

Last Friday, I crossed the Midway for the reason every member of our community does regularly without first needing to hear a speech: to find food. On that particular day though, I was meeting James Robinson for lunch. James teaches at the Harris School, is the director of the new Pearson Center for Global Conflict, holds a University professorship, and is a mortal lock to share a Nobel Prize one day with his longtime collaborate Daron Acemoglu for their research on development economics.

Now, James has a background in economics and teaches at a public policy school, and I have a background in political science and teach at the Law School, but we’ve been talking regularly this year because we are both currently working on research on related topics. In both cases, our projects are in part motivated by natural experiments, so let me just explain.  

James’ natural experiment is the fate of two cities along the US/Mexico border. More specifically, Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora.  Now, this is the corner of the world that I’m from, and anyone that has visited will tell you, the thing that is distinctive about these cities is that they were once one city, and they’re now divided by a 30-foot-high wall.

On the north side of the wall, the average income is about $30,000 per year. The majority of adults are high school graduates and the majority of teenagers are in school. By global standards, the residents live healthy and long lives that are relatively free of crime and corruption.

On the south side of the wall, the story is different. The average income is closer to $10,000 per year. The majority of adults are not high school graduates, and the majority of teenagers are not in school. And compared to their northern neighbors, the residents live shorter lives, and have to face worse in structure, higher crime, and greater corruption. In short, the side of this wall you are born on has a dramatic impact on your expected outcomes in life.

The obvious question is: what explains the dramatic difference? Now, what’s interesting about this particular case is that many of the explanations put forth to explain development aren’t available. For example, development economists often argue that geography and climate are major sources of disparities in economic growth, but in this case, both cities have the same geography and the same climate. Or as another example, economists also often argue that disparities in growth are related to culture, but here too, the culture and ancestry of the people are the same.

So if the conventional explanations don’t explain this difference, what does? James Robinson and Daron Acemoglou have gotten famous—or at least, famous for academic economists—by arguing that the difference is the quality of the institutions. More specifically, they argue that the United States has inclusive institutions that allow the residents to take part in the democratic process, for individuals to be secure in their own property rights, and for everyone (or, almost everyone) to unlock their human capital through education, employment, and entrepreneurship.

Now, I know that after the last few weeks it sounds weird to argue that America has inclusive institutions, but these things are relative. Compared to Mexico specifically, and Latin America more generally, the United States has had less corrupt and captured institutions. In other words, the thing that that explains the dramatic differences in the life chances for a child born in Nogales Arizona, and a child born in Nogales, Mexico, is the strength of our laws.

Let me give you another natural experiment that’s motivating what I’m currently working on. At the end of World War II, there were just 64 independent countries in the world. By 1970, just 25 years later, that number had more than doubled to 134. This change was largely driven by decolonization. In fact, just more than half of the new countries during that time period were formerly British colonies.

At the time of independence, England largely gave its former colonies a standard constitution known as the Lancaster House constitutions. The interesting part is that the colonies that gained independence from 1945 to 1960 did not include a bill of rights, but then in 1960 there was a decision in the British Foreign Office to start including a bill of rights in constitutions going forward.

The best historical account I know of suggests that the change was a pretty random development. Some officials thought it might make more sense to use as their template, so they did. Why I’m interested is that change presents an amazing opportunity to study whether individual rights actually improve outcomes.

Now, here’s the kicker. At least my initial analysis of the data seems to suggest that having a bill of rights doesn’t make much of a difference. Countries with the bill of rights don’t appear to have had much better rights outcomes than countries without the bill of rights. This trend doesn’t just hold with the Lancaster House constitutions. Instead, my research on the topic with my collaborator Mila Versteeg on the effectiveness of constitutional rights suggests that individual rights and socio-economic rights have no discernable impact on outcomes.

So, where does that leave us? The experience of Nogales tells us that legal regimes that protect individuals and allow them to flourish are perhaps the most important driver of development, but the experience of the Lancaster House experiment tells us that what we put in constitutions might not always make a difference.

How can we square these two claims? It could be the case that the explanation is that individual rights aren’t what matter, but that the distribution of power structures within a country are what does the important work. Or it could be the case that strong legal institutions take time to develop, and for many new countries their institutions simply have had the time to mature. There are many possible explanations, and I’m always open to hearing new theories, but I can tell you that we currently don’t know the answer.

So what does all this have to do with why we are gathered here today? The point is that we know that strong legal institutions matter, but we know a lot less about how to make them. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m positive it will be impossible for us to figure out if we don’t have an understanding of history, economics, and a variety of other fields. These are exactly the kind of things that you still have the time to study when you cross the midway.

I’m sure many of you are thinking that these questions might seem interesting to an academic, but have little to do with what you’ll work on when you leave law school. To you, I’d say this: much of what education is about is becoming increasingly specialized. What’s scary about that is that specialization is often the process of closing doors. But being an interdisciplinary person is about opening them back up. Statistics can make you valuable in public interest law, and a knowledge of Latin American history can make you more valuable to firms working on transnational M&As.

So whether you care about helping to improve the lives of people born on the wrong side of walls, or are concerned with insuring that our own institutions continue to become more inclusive and not less, or just want to ensure that you have as many options as possible when you become a lawyer, I urge you to spend part of your time over the next year and a half crossing the Midway and take advantage of all the fascinating courses in other fields that this great university offers. 

Adam Chilton