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Symbols, Signals, and Social Norms in Politics and the Law


  • Posner, Eric A


This article uses a signaling model to explain the role of symbols in people's behavior and beliefs, with special attention to legal manipulation of symbols. It is argued that certain actions become symbolic because they have the proper cost structure and because they are, for historical or psychological reasons, focal. The government can in theory use standard legal instruments (which mainly affect the cost of the signal) to change equilibrium behavior and belief. The use of the law in this way is likely to have unpredictable effects because of multiple equilibria and of the sensitivity of behavior to parameters, but it occurs frequently because lobbying and other actions that influence lawmaking can become signals themselves, and the law is simply an equilibrium outcome. The analysis is used to discuss flag desecration, censorship, voting, and antidiscrimination laws. Copyright 1998 by the University of Chicago.

Suggested Citation

  • Posner, Eric A, 1998. "Symbols, Signals, and Social Norms in Politics and the Law," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(2), pages 765-798, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucp:jlstud:v:27:y:1998:i:2:p:765-98

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Steven Shavell, 1981. "The Social versus the Private Incentive to Bring Suit in a Costly Legal System," NBER Working Papers 0741, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Hylton, Keith N., 1990. "The influence of litigation costs on deterrence under strict liability and under negligence," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 10(2), pages 161-171, September.
    3. Png, I. P. L., 1987. "Litigation, liability, and incentives for care," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 34(1), pages 61-85, October.
    4. Bebchuk, Lucian Arye, 1988. "Suing Solely to Extract a Settlement Offer," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 17(2), pages 437-450, June.
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    2. Jean-Robert Tyran & Lars P. Feld, 2006. "Achieving Compliance when Legal Sanctions are Non-deterrent," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 108(1), pages 135-156, March.
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    6. R. Aytimur & Aristotelis Boukouras & Robert Schwager, 2014. "Voting as a signaling device," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 55(3), pages 753-777, April.
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    14. Kahan, Dan M & Posner, Eric A, 1999. "Shaming White-Collar Criminals: A Proposal for Reform of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 42(1), pages 365-391, April.
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    19. Francis, Andrew M. & Mialon, Hugo M. & Peng, Handie, 2012. "In sickness and in health: Same-sex marriage laws and sexually transmitted infections," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 75(8), pages 1329-1341.
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