About

This Center, founded in 2012, organizes workshops, conferences, and other scholarly activities in the area of law and economics, with a particular focus on the intersection between welfare economics and normative questions regarding legal frameworks, institutions and doctrines.   The Center is interdisciplinary, seeking to spark scholarly conversations and collaborations on these topics between the Duke Law School faculty; scholars in other schools or departments at Duke; and external faculty.   The Center also hopes to increase student interest in law and economics, and to be the basis for new seminars.

“Welfare” economics is the normative branch of economics, providing advice about “appropriate” governmental policy.  At least since the rise of law and economics movement, there have been close links between welfare economics and legal scholarship.   Law and economics encompasses both private law (as in scholarship concerning the optimal design of tort, property, or contract doctrines) and public law (as in scholarship about cost-benefit analysis, risk regulation, or taxation).  

Welfare economics, in turn, has close intellectual connections with moral philosophy.   A major strand in moral philosophy, dating back to Jeremy Bentham, and evident in much of the contemporary literature, is “welfarist.”  Human well-being, appropriately distributed, is taken to be the central or even exclusive concern of morality.  Welfare economics can be seen as a more formal and mathematical expression of a welfarist approach to moral thinking, and normative law and economics as the application of that formal methodology to law and legal institutions.

Although welfare economics and welfarism are often associated with Bentham’s utilitarianism, the framework is actually much broader.   Large subfields of welfare economics focus on the measurement of poverty and inequality—topics of keen concern for policy scholars

Finally, normative/welfare economics cannot be cleanly separated from positive/explanatory economics.  Much recent work in economics, under the rubric of “behavioral” economics—inspired by the pioneering work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—uses formal models and experiments to examine departures from traditional rational actor models.  Such social-science research can hardly be ignored by normative scholars; the intelligent design of law and policy must surely take account of how humans actually behave.

The workshops, conferences and other activities organized by the Center will therefore include scholarship by law professors, economists, philosophers, psychologists, and policy scholars, and should be of interest to students working in one or more of these areas.