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The Concept Of Law

The starting point for the discussion is Hart's dissatisfaction with John Austin's "command theory": a jurisprudential concept that holds that law is command backed by threat and is meant to be ubiquitous in its application. Hart likens Austin's theory to the role of a gunman in a bank and tries to establish the differences between the gunman's orders and those made by law. (For instance, the gunman forces us to obey but we may not feel inclined to obey him. Presumably, obedience to the law comes with a different feeling.)

The concept of law


Celebrated for their conceptual clarity, titles in the Clarendon Law Series offer concise, accessible overviews of major fields of law and legal thought. The Concept of Law is an important work of legal philosophy. It was first published fifty years ago. This book includes a new introduction that sets the book in the context of subsequent developments in social and political philosophy, clarifying misunderstandings of Hart's project and highlighting central tensions and problems in the work. Topics covered include: sovereign and subject, the law as the unions of primary and secondary rules, formalism, rule-scepticism, justice, morality, and international law.

Many legal tests are formulated as having necessary and sufficient attributes. If one has a duty to behave in a particular way, has breached this duty, and has caused damage to another, then one has, by definition, committed a tort. But some legal concepts are formulated as multipart tests in which factors are added and weighed, with an eye toward seeing if the ideal is met. In deciding if an attorney in a prevailing ERISA claim is to be awarded fees, for example, courts apply a five-factor test:

The implicit concept here is an ideal type of what might be called appropriate fee-shifting. None of the five elements is absolutely necessary, but if all five are plainly met, the ideal type will be achieved. The closer one gets to the ideal type, the more likely one is to get an award. The internal participant within the legal system, in this case a judge, will engage in the process of running through the attributes to see if they are met.

Legal concepts come in different levels of abstraction, often nested within one another. Private law is more encompassing than tort, which in turn encompasses negligent infliction of emotional distress. Unlike in social science, however, there is not much explicit legal work on concept formation, and few of the rich definitional debates that mark social scientific literatures on, say, democracy or even the rule of law. Our argument is that paying attention to legal concepts can improve the structure of the law.

Domain simply refers to the realm in which a concept applies, and is fairly clear when applied to law.22 The domain of legal concepts is, in fact, the legal system, and is not meant to encompass anything outside it. Thus, specialized language within the law is deployed internally. Common-law marriage refers to the idea that the marriage is legal, even if not formally recorded.

Consistency requires that a concept carry the same meaning in different empirical contexts.23 If the concept of felony murder is different in Louisiana and California, this would violate the requirement of consistency. Observe that the legal definitions in the two states might diverge, maybe even dramatically, but this does not mean that the concept would differ. But it is also the case that, for example, multipart tests may put pressure on conceptual consistency across contexts. To use the fee-shifting example described above, if an award were based primarily on the wealth of the losing party, it would imply a different purpose than if it were based on deterrence considerations. These might be seen as internally inconsistent applications of the test, ultimately based on different concepts.

Causal utility refers to the usefulness of a concept.31 Obviously, this is domain specific. Professor Gary Goertz focuses on the utility of concepts for social scientific methods.32 But in law we might ask how easy the concept is for courts to apply, and how effective it is in differentiating lawful from unlawful behavior.

The requirement that a concept be measurable is a frequent desideratum in social scientific accounts of concepts (in which it is sometimes called operationalizability). The idea here is not that there must be available data or indicators that meet the standard tests of social science. Instead, the point of measurability is that in principle there ought to be data that could be deployed to test theories that use the concept.33 For legal tests, it may be prudent to consider whether measures can be developed in principle. This might help to ensure that the analyst is proposing a workable test that is capable of achieving its aims.

Many of the central questions in social science involve relationships among different concepts. Does democracy increase economic growth? Does race correlate with voting behavior? Do people behave rationally in their investment decisions? Are military alliances stable across time? Each of these questions features at least two different concepts, which might in theory take on different meanings and surely could be measured in many different ways. Each also features a relationship among concepts, whether causal or correlative.

Examining these relationships among concepts also requires operationalizing them. This means we must come up with tractable indicators or measures that can then be deployed into a research design. Indeed, some argue that this is the central criterion of a good social scientific concept. If a concept is not capable of being operationalized, then it is lacking a central characteristic, and even the presence of many other desirable features may not be able to save it.35

Rather than try to exhaustively categorize all possible relationships, we are most concerned here with a particular kind of connection among legal concepts: that of a causal character. Causal relationships are very common in legal concepts. At the most basic level, law often seeks to advance particular interests. Some of these interests, such as efficiency, justice, or fairness, are external to the law itself. Others may themselves be defined by the law, and so can be characterized as internal concepts. Either way, there is an assumption that legal rules have some causal efficacy in advancing interests. This is what is sometimes called an instrumental view of law.38 While it is not the only view on offer, we adopt it for present purposes. We need not offer an absolute defense of the instrumental view, even if we are partial to it; the reader need accept only that it is a common view.

Causation is a good example of a concept that is used in both law and social science, in slightly different ways. Causation in social science is essentially conceived of in probabilistic terms.39 If we say that X causes Y, we are saying that a change in the value of X will likely be associated with a change in the value of Y, holding all else constant. The tools of social science, and the rules of inference, are designed to help identify such relationships. In contrast, legal causation is more normative, focusing on the kinds of responsibility for harms that warrant liability and the kinds that do not.40

As these examples suggest, recognizing that legal concepts often involve relationships implies that we ought to favor concepts whose connections can in fact be identified and established. This is because such concepts can in principle be applied in consistent and precise ways across cases. While we know that not every concept can be captured by a real-world indicator or variable, we still think it valuable for lawyers and judges to focus on relationships for which the basic logic of X and Y holds.

To reiterate the discussion to this point: Social scientists have developed reasonably determinate criteria for distinguishing between effective and ineffective concepts, and between conceptual relationships that can and cannot be demonstrated. In brief, the hallmarks of effective concepts are resonance, domain specificity, consistency, fecundity, differentiation from other concepts, causal utility, and, above all, measurability. Similarly, conceptual relationships involving correlation or causality are more easily established than ones involving necessity or the weighing of incommensurable quantities.

In terms of the social scientific criteria, these shifting notions mean that corruption lacks domain specificity, consistency, and differentiation from other concepts. Domain specificity is missing because the narrower version applies to only the restriction of campaign contributions, while the two broader versions justify the limitation of campaign expenditures as well.51 Consistency is absent for the obvious reason that the Court has adopted three inconsistent definitions of corruption in the span of just a single generation. And depending on how it is construed, corruption bleeds into bribery (whose trademark is the quid pro quo exchange), skewed representation (responsive to funders rather than voters), or inequality (in electoral influence).52

And again as with corruption, these multiple notions of powerlessness sap the concept of consistency and differentiation from other concepts. The inconsistency is obvious; the notions of powerlessness are not just multiple, but also irreconcilable.60 Depending on how it is defined, powerlessness also becomes difficult to distinguish from concepts such as disenfranchisement, underrepresentation, and even poverty. And while the different conceptions of powerlessness do not directly undermine its domain specificity, this criterion is not satisfied either, due to the uncertainty over how powerlessness relates to the other indicia of suspect class status. It is unclear whether powerlessness is a necessary, sufficient, or merely conducive condition for a class to be deemed suspect.61

However, we do not mean to claim that partisan symmetry is a flawless concept. It does not take into account odd district shape or partisan motivation, both aspects of gerrymandering as the practice is commonly understood. Its calculation requires fairly strong assumptions about uncontested races and shifts in the statewide vote.77 Two different symmetry metrics exist, which usually but not always point in the same direction.78 And to form a workable test for gerrymandering, symmetry must be combined with other prongs, thus somewhat diminishing its utility. Somewhat, though, is the key word here. Symmetry is not a perfect concept; no concept is. But symmetry can be defined, measured, and applied coherently, which is the most the law can ask of a concept. 041b061a72


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