Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Invisible Hand and the Dangers of Famililization

It is good to start this post with this quote from the Wealth of Nations:

"Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it ... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."

The question arises with the last two words. What is "public good." One look at the plight of law schools today tells you how the Adam Smith approach -- a constant battle in service of self-interest -- is working.  It is a world of low teaching loads, vanity courses, massive spending on irrelevant "scholarship," travel to do little or nothing, crushing debt for students, and dishonesty in the rankings game.

That is the good news; it could be worse. Why?  Two points. First,   I can count on one hand the number of law professors who do not attend the church of Adam Smith. In fact, I can count on the fingers of no hands the number of times I  have heard a Law professor say in response to a policy or program question, "That is inconvenient to me and will cause some changes but I can see it is better for the institution,"

Conversely I do not have enough fingers and toes to account for every time I have heard "I oppose this policy/program because it will mean I have to change what I do."

How could it be worse? Suppose faculty began acting like one big happy family. They  celebrated birthdays together, ate lunch together, and really cooperated. The cooperation was designed to maximize total benefits for faculty with the distribution of those benefits determined later. So even lower teaching loads, more travel, more vanity courses, etc.  You might call this the Tony Soprano model.

If so, the best outcome is that faculty continue to "compete" not because it increases the public good, as Smith would have it, but decreases the damage.

So should we encourage law faculties to act like families? Like that slippery notion, "leadership," it all depends on goals and values. If they are not in the right place, kinship is a dangerous thing.

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