The Chicago School's Relentless Reach

By Harmesh Bhambra ‘16

Harmesh Bhambra '16

Harmesh Bhambra '16

When one thinks of the Chicago School, it is the University of Chicago's unique contributions to economics -- price theory, Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market hypothesis -- that come to mind. The significance of Chicago School within economics also arouses criticism; for some, the term ‘Chicago School’ is used as a pejorative. Paul Krugman, in typically bombastic fashion, once wrote that Chicago School economists are "the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten”.

The Law School hosted an event celebrating the University of Chicago's 125th anniversary.

The Law School hosted an event celebrating the University of Chicago's 125th anniversary.

Notwithstanding arguments about the impact of the Chicago School, the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary celebrations have shed light on its relentless reach as your correspondent found out at an anniversary panel event, ‘The Law School's Interdisciplinary Legacy’, held at the Law School.

The Chicago School of economics extended its reach to law in part because of the pioneering work of the late Ronald Coase, a former professor at the Law School and Nobel prize winner in economics. At the panel event, Omri Ben-Shahar, Leo and Eileen Herzel Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, spoke of law and economics as a thriving discipline. On starting his 15 minutes speech, Ben-Shahar mentioned that he felt like Steve Jobs, but “presenting more than just one iPhone 7”, given the sheer range of innovation that is taking place at the nexus of law and economics.

Ben-Shahar spoke of a Law School-led experiment on the effective delivery of health insurance in India -- in some sense trying to move the debate from legal principles to outcomes. The experiment will cover about 12,000 participants in India and will focus on tracing outcomes to different treatment groups -- that is, groups that are given an option to enrol in the insurance, forced enrollment and the provision of a monetary equivalent.

Martha Nussbaum (above) and Omri Ben-Shahar (right) held a lively panel on Oct. 2 on the Chicago approach to law.

Martha Nussbaum (above) and Omri Ben-Shahar (right) held a lively panel on Oct. 2 on the Chicago approach to law.

The reach of the Chicago School approach aims to shine light on controversial areas of law and politics, such as detention at Guantanamo and the impact of case loads on judge decision making. Given his belief in the power of data in law, Ben-Shahar presented a somewhat dystopian vision of the future to the audience of lawyers. “Lawyers becoming coders. Zeros and ones” and “Judging being replaced by a better algorithm. Judges replaced by a judge-less court”.

Then, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, discussed the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach that has underpinned the Chicago School approach to law. There is a belief that law school should more than just train future lawyers -- law students should have a “whole feel of a man as a social being”. She pointed to research comparing prejudice in the US and India, and global inequality research that brings together “economics, as well as philosophy and law”, as examples of where the Chicago School approach can lead to a deeper and more systematic understanding of global justice.

The implications of the law and economics approach for the legal profession were challenged by members of the audience. Some questioned whether coding should be included as part of the JD and whether lawyers interpreting big data, as Ben-Shahar put it, represent an appropriate division of labor. Further, the Chicago School approach, as discussed by Nussbaum, would face an existential threat by proposals to reduce the length of the JD to two years.

This event is part of a series focusing on the legacy and continuing impact of the Chicago School, which continues as part of the university’s 125th anniversary celebrations. For more information, go to http://125.uchicago.edu/events.

Harmesh is News Editor for Chicago Business.