The Uses of History in Law and Economics

Ron Harris


During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the humanities and social sciences have turned toward history, something that culminated in the 1990s, and this phenomenon was evident in law as well. However, until recently, law and economics, the most influential post-World War II jurisprudential movement, was a-historical in its methodology and research agenda. The first objective of this article is to call attention to this neglected characteristic of law and economics and to explain its causes by analyzing its intellectual origins, its methodological causes, and the nature of its interaction with other sub-fields of law and of economics. The second objective of the article is to identify a change-in-the-making and its characteristics. Law and economics scholars have turned to history more often and for new purposes in recent years. The article identifies the set of factors that brought about this turn to history. These factors include: a growing willingness to conduct empirical research; the integration of public choice analysis (which often led to the study of past legislation) into mainstream law and economics; preliminary comparative law and economics studies; a growing interaction between law and economics and new institutional economics; and the importation of the concept of path dependency and of greater awareness of past burdens from other quarters of economic theory. Finally, the article examines the concrete ways in which these developments are being realized, by pointing out the various uses of history evident in specific law and economics studies conducted in recent years. It suggests a classification of this growing literature into six distinct uses of history, four of them emerging only in recent years. The general aim of this article is to enhance awareness among law and economics scholars of the actual and potential uses of history. The article further seeks to connect law-and-economics historical studies to other relevant historical works so that the law and economics inquiry will not be conducted in a disciplinary vacuum. It thus calls to the attention of legal historians and economic historians the new literature published in the field of law and economics. Finally it is also directed at scholars interested in the intellectual history of jurisprudence and in the methodological turn to history in the social sciences.

Full Text: