Bloomberg Business Week on Law and Economics 2.0

Will Success Spoil the Chicago School?

Q: How many Chicago School economists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. If the light bulb needed changing, the market would have done it by now.

Chicago-style free-market economics is an easy target for satire, but the movement that flourished at the University of Chicago’s economics department in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s really did change the world. Giants such as Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, Robert Lucas, and Eugene Fama provided the intellectual foundation for the political philosophy of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In his approach to tax cuts and deregulation, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is an heir to that tradition.

It wasn’t just economics that Chicago revolutionized. Across campus at the University of Chicago Law School, scholars such as Ronald Coase, George Stigler, and Richard Posner were inspired to apply economic analysis to laws and regulations, developing a field that came to be called “law and economics.” It was law and economics types who promoted the now-conventional idea that the benefits of a regulation must be weighed against its costs. Placing a dollar figure on society’s valuation of a human life went from appalling to standard.

They rethought antitrust law, junking simplistic big-is-bad formulations to focus on whether a giant like IBM (IBM) or Microsoft (MSFT) could actually raise prices with impunity. In tort law, they questioned punitive damages that seemed to them motivated by righteous indignation rather than a cool calibration of how to discourage future wrongs. At the apogee of the Reagan-Thatcher era, Chicago Law drew enthusiastic support from businesses and foundations that embraced its small-government message. “Chicago can rightly claim to have been extraordinarily influential in the growth of the field,” says Jon Hanson, a Harvard Law School professor and specialist in psychology and law.

Now Chicago’s law and economics program is coping with problems born of its success. Its intellectual dominance has triggered a pushback from other social scientists who say it’s bloodless—treating people as if they are, or ought to be, perfectly rational calculators of their own self-interest. Even some true believers complain that the field has become too technical. Posner, a federal appellate judge in Chicago, wrote last year in the alumni magazine of the risk that “economic analysis of the law may lose influence by becoming too esoteric, too narrow, too hermetic, too out of touch with the practices and institutions that it studies.” Finally, so many other law schools have launched law and economics programs, and so many judges have learned the lingo, that today law and economics “is like the air you breathe. It’s just pervasive,” says David Weisbach, a Chicago Law professor. That ubiquity has made Chicago less distinctive.

Chicago Law doesn’t take such matters lightly. Last October, Dean Michael Schill announced a major initiative to deal with the challenges, to capitalize on the school’s place in history, and to keep law and economics relevant for the 21st century. He called it, predictably, Law and Economics 2.0. “Just as Chicago was at the forefront of the first wave of law and economics, so it shall be in the future,” he wrote to alumni.

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