Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Via Hacker News is an interesting article from nearly twenty years ago about an academic's approach to the question of whether America has too many lawyers. I regard his approach and methodology completely wrong. He tries to determine, from mathematical modeling and empirical data whether there is some economically optimal ratio of lawyers among an economy's participants. Setting aside such valid questions one could raise about counting lawyers or measuring economic performance for the moment, the article raises what seems to be a legitimate point:

But in recent years the notion that lawyers drain money out of people and organizations has assumed a macro dimension. According to some economists, lawyers are worse than mere vampires: They're "rent seekers.''

Rent seeking is an economist's term for, in effect, thievery by organized interests that use political or legal clout to redistribute wealth away from producers. (An oft-cited example is lobbying.) In this reckoning, the upshot of rent seeking by lawyers, mainly through litigation, is that lawyers - or at least an excess thereof - impede economic growth.
I have no doubt that some of this actually occurs, but this sort of opportunistic cashing-in does nothing to explain how it became possible for litigation to become so widespread as to become an economic problem.

The laws that some attorneys plainly take advantage of (and that also happen to employ so many others) didn't come from thin air or overnight. They came from the ideas in political philosophy of voters who, over time, decided that the purpose of government included redistributing wealth. If the proper purpose of a government is, in fact, the protection of individual rights, including the right to property (for example) -- and yet laws exist to violate that right (among others) -- there will be lawyers to implement those destructive laws. I don't need a mathematical model or reams of data on how many lawyers there are in the world to tell me the optimal number of such lawyers. It is zero, whether such lawyers are misguided idealists or rent-seeking cynics.

Treating all lawyers as interchangeable is an injustice and reflects such a basic error of analysis that I feel quite safe in saying that this entire analysis is a waste of time.

As with a common misconception among conservatives that our government is "too big", the notion that we have "too many lawyers" is based on the wrong premise. The size of our government isn't the issue, it's some of what Americans have decided to do with it that is the problem. Fix that and the size of the government, how many lawyers we have, and how easy it is to get sued will also be fixed.

-- CAV

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