[W]e put 70 Yale Law students in a computer lab, and had them play a game that would reveal to us their views on fairness. (The study, which was coauthored with Shachar Kariv and Daniel Markovits, can be found here.) The students made 50 decisions about giving. In some cases students started with $10, and for each dollar they gave up, their (anonymous) partner in the game would get, say, $5. In this case, giving was "cheap." In others, giving was expensive (each dollar given up yielded only 20 cents for the partner). Someone who gives a lot when it's cheap and keeps most of the pie for himself when giving is expensive focuses on efficiency: He's making sure the maximum amount is paid out to him and his partner combined. Someone who keeps 80% of the pie when it would be cheap to give is more focused on equality. Someone who always keeps everything, regardless of the price of giving, is just plain selfish, the very embodiment of the rational, self-interested Homo economicus. It turns out that exposure to economics makes a big difference in how students split the pie, in terms of both efficiency and outright selfishness. Students assigned to classes taught by economists were more likely to give a lot when it was cheap to do so. But they were also much more likely to take the whole pie for themselves.I can absolutely relate to this study. I went to law school after getting my MA in economics. I attended N.Y.U. Law, which at the time had very few professors with any sort of interest in economics. Certainly none of my first-year professors talked about economics. In our casebooks (law school textbooks), the notes after many cases would discuss the "law and economics" approach to that particular area of law, but none of my first-year professors would ever talk about those notes. I was stunned by the lack of basic economic literacy among my classmates. The most basic concepts in economics, like mutual gains from trade, were completely foreign to 90% of the people in my first-year section. When we discussed public policy considerations and I would make an argument based on efficiency, people looked at me like I was crazy. When I would criticize the law being applied in a case on efficiency grounds, many of my classmates were clearly shocked that I would have the audacity to think that I knew better than legislators. (Luckily I had a friend who had been an economics major at Harvard, so we could at least talk to each other about economics.) Moreover, this utter lack of economic literacy did not improve at all as students moved through law school. The school offered a 10-person Law & Economics seminar every other semester, but that was the only class that provided students any real exposure economics. I was still the only person talking about efficiency in my third year. So the fact that the Yale Law students whose first-year professors didn't emphasize economics focused on equality rather than efficiency doesn't surprise me at all. In fact, I'm quite sure that those students were puzzled as to why anyone wouldn't focus on equality!
Monday, April 21, 2008