What is The Pursuit of Justice?
By Edward Lopez • Tuesday June 8, 2010 2:59 PM PDT •
After returning home to the United States from a trip abroad, I almost always experience a comforting sense of security. The surroundings look familiar, traffic is relatively sane, and I always know where to find a great burger when I need one. But there is something deeper going on as well. Here in the United States, if I get robbed of my property I can be pretty sure it was not the police who did it. If I am falsely accused of committing a crime, I at least know I’ll have the benefit of due process to prove my innocence. And when I plop down on my sofa with a good book, I know I can relax in the privacy and security of my own four walls for as long as I want. Citizens of most other countries can’t say these same things, and that’s too bad. So I feel fortunate to be a U.S. citizen. I have to admit. When it comes to the relatively well functioning U.S. legal system, I have a bit of a romantic streak in me.
That said, I would be foolish to let my romantic streak go too far. There is just too much evidence that speaks to widespread inefficiency, injustice, and room for improvement. Consider a few objective facts:
- Nearly five thousand wrongful felony convictions occur each year occur from mistakes in fingerprint analysis.
- The U.S. tort system imposes an implicit tax burden to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
- Eminent domain abuse results in thousands of properties being taken each year.
- There are 2.3 million people behind bars and another 5.1 million on parole or probation in America, by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, outpacing all other developed nations by several fold.
- Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that public opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans lacking confidence in their legal system.
What drives these outcomes? As an economist, I know that wishful thinking will never produce solid answers. Yet in reading the literature, I found that the vast majority of legal scholarship and commentary treats the law with fantasy. It pretends that law is a public good that can only be provided by governments, and since it is governments that supply law it must be the case that law serves the public interest. What I found in the literature was deeply inconsistent with what I found in the world.
Romance is no basis for studying the law. So I decided to produce The Pursuit of Justice: Law and Economics of Legal Systems . In this book, readers will find hard-nosed analysis of legal institutions as they perform in practice. Motivated by the tradition of public choice economics, which analyzes incentives in political systems, these eleven chapters all start from the methodological assumption that incentives matter in the legal system. From this perspective are derived testable hypotheses and normative standards against which to analyze the decisions of judges, juries, prosecutors, litigators, police, and forensics experts. These decision makers are people just like you and me. They are neither wizards nor saints. We we must first understand the real-world decisions they make in order to explain the inefficiencies and injustices of the legal system.
In a series of forthcoming posts here on The Beacon, I will draw your attention to some of the the specific content in The Pursuit of Justice: Law and Economics of Legal Systems. While you’ll find the analysis to be hard-nosed (think of this book as law without romance), it is also a hopeful approach. By explaining the effects of incentives in the legal system, we are better equipped to propose beneficial reforms.