Journal Article

What Is Law? A Coordination Model of the Characteristics of Legal Order

Gillian K. Hadfield and Barry R. Weingast

in Journal of Legal Analysis

Published on behalf of The John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics and Business at Harvard Law School with the support of the Considine Family Foundation

Volume 4, issue 2, pages 471-514
Published in print December 2012 | ISSN: 2161-7201
Published online July 2012 | e-ISSN: 1946-5319 | DOI:

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Legal philosophers have long debated the question, what is law? But few in social science have attempted to explain the phenomenon of legal order. In this article, we build a rational choice model of legal order in an environment that relies exclusively on decentralized enforcement, such as we find in human societies prior to the emergence of the nation state and in many modern settings. We demonstrate that we can support an equilibrium in which wrongful behavior is effectively deterred by exclusively decentralized enforcement, specifically collective punishment. Equilibrium is achieved by an institution that supplies a common logic for classifying behavior as wrongful or not. We argue that several features ordinarily associated with legal order—such as generality, impersonality, open process, and stability—can be explained by the incentive and coordination problems facing collective punishment.

Journal Article.  18477 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law

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