Monday, August 25, 2008

Why I'M not a fan of Cass Sunstein

Before taking issue with Kathy G's specific attack on Cass Sunstein, I noted that I'm also not a fan of Sunstein. I guess I should explain why. Sunstein is an excellent administrative law scholar (which is where he made his name), and a decent, if somewhat inconsistent, constitutional law scholar. My problem is with Sunstein's law and economics work. He's prolific in the law and economics field, where he's considered one of the leading "liberal" scholars. As I've noted before, the large majority of law and economics scholarship is pure Hackonomics, and is basically worthless even for theoretical purposes. Instead of teaching the basic neoclassical model as the building block of economic analysis, to be refined and adjusted, sometimes dramatically, based on the specific context, law and economics teaches the basic neoclassical model as the final product of economics—apply basic model to area of law; get answer; repeat as necessary. Sunstein seems to have only two ways of reaching his so-called "liberal" conclusions in his law and economics work: he either plugs the findings of behavioral economics into the basic law and economics model, or he mangles basic economic analysis (as John Quiggin caught him doing yet again). Either way, he accepts that the absurdly simplistic and reductionist law and economics model is the appropriate model, with the only assumption potentially in need of tweaking being perfect rationality. Believe it or not, you don't have to be a behavioral economist to reject the Chicago School, or its even-more-simplistic cousin, law and economics. Behavioral economics is a useful field, but its central findings are far from the only, or even most effective, attacks on the law and economics model. Many of the same "liberal" conclusions could reached through a proper application of economics, rather than the Happy Meal version used by most law and economics scholars. As the estimable Dani Rodrik puts it:

[T]he tendency of many economists to offer advice based on simple rules of thumb, regardless of context (privatize this, liberalize that), is a dergoation rather than a proper application of neoclassical economic principles.
Sadly, as much as law and economics scholars bother me, most of them are actually better at economic analysis than Sunstein....and that's saying something! And this just reinforces the belief in the law and economics field that economic analysis doesn't generally support liberal positions. (To be fair, not all law and economics scholars are disingenuous armchair economists, and done correctly, law and economics scholarship can be very intellectually stimulating. Ian Ayres and Lee Anne Fennell are a cut above everyone else; their work is tremendous. Bob Ellickson is also very good. I don't know what everyone sees in Henry E. Smith's work though.)


James said...

I'm a big fan of Randy Picker, who is also at U of C. Among other things, he applies industrial organization to anti-trust, network industry, and intellectual property questions. He's not at all like the caricature of law & econ types.

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