The Positive Economic Theory of Tort Law
- Mark F. GradyMark F. GradyUCLA School of Law
Tort law is part of the common law that originated in England after the Norman Conquest and spread throughout the world, including to the United States. It is judge-made law that allows people who have been injured by others to sue those who harmed them and collect damages in proper cases. Since its early origins, tort law has evolved considerably and has become a full-fledged “grown order,” like the economy, and can best be understood by positive theory, also like the economy. Economic theories of tort have developed since the early 1970s, and they too have evolved over time. Their objective is to generate fresh insight about the purposes and the workings of the tort system.
The basic thesis of the economic theory is that tort law creates incentives for people to minimize social cost, which is comprised of the harm produced by torts and the cost of the precautions necessary to prevent torts. This thesis, intentionally simple, generates many fresh insights about the workings and effects of the tort system and even about the actual legal rules that judges have developed. In an evolved grown order, legal rules are far less concrete than most people would expect though often very clear in application. Beginning also in the 1970s, legal philosophers have objected to the economic theory of tort and have devised philosophical theories that compete. The competition, moreover, has been productive because it has spurred both sides to revise and improve their theories and to seek better to understand the law. Tort law is diverse, applicable to many different activities and situations, so developing a positive theory about it is both challenging and rewarding.