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The Trouble with Cases


  • Schauer, Frederick

    (University of Virginia)

  • Zeckhauser, Richard

    (Harvard University)


For several decades now a debate has raged about policy-making by litigation. Spurred by the way in which tobacco, environmental, and other litigation has functioned as an alternative form of regulation, the debate asks whether policy-making or regulation by litigation is more or less socially desirable than more traditional policy-making by ex ante rule-making by legislatures or administrative agencies. In this paper we step into this debate, but not to come down on one side or another, all things considered. Rather, we seek to show that any form of regulation that is dominated by high-salience particular cases is highly likely, to make necessarily general policy on the basis of unwarranted assumptions about the typicality of one or a few high-salience cases or events. Two cornerstone concepts of behavioral decision--the availability heuristic and related problems of representativeness--explain this bias. This problem is virtually inevitable in regulation by litigation, yet it is commonly found as well in ex ante rule-making, because such rule-making increasingly takes place in the wake of, and dominated by, particularly notorious and often unrepresentative outlier events. In weighing the net advantages of regulation by ex ante rule-making against those of regulation by litigation, society must recognize that any regulatory form is less effective insofar as it is unable to transcend the distorting effect of high-salience unrepresentative examples.

Suggested Citation

  • Schauer, Frederick & Zeckhauser, Richard, 2009. "The Trouble with Cases," Working Paper Series rwp09-025, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp09-025

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    • Frederick Schauer & Richard Zeckhauser, 2010. "The Trouble with Cases," NBER Chapters,in: Regulation vs. Litigation: Perspectives from Economics and Law, pages 45-70 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. George L. Priest & Benjamin Klein, 1984. "The Selection of Disputes for Litigation," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 13(1), pages 1-56, January.
    2. Dolly Chugh & Max Bazerman, 2007. "Bounded awareness: what you fail to see can hurt you," Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer;Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 6(1), pages 1-18, June.
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    JEL classification:

    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis
    • K00 - Law and Economics - - General - - - General (including Data Sources and Description)
    • K2 - Law and Economics - - Regulation and Business Law
    • K4 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior

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