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Journal Article

Fairness versus Welfare

Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell
Harvard Law Review
Vol. 114, No. 4 (Feb., 2001), pp. 961-1388
DOI: 10.2307/1342642
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342642
Page Count: 428
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Fairness versus Welfare
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Abstract

The thesis of this Article is that the assessment of legal policies should depend exclusively on their effects on individuals' welfare. In particular, in the evaluation of legal policies, no independent weight should be accorded to conceptions of fairness, such as corrective justice and desert in punishment. (However, the logic leading to this conclusion does not apply to concern about equity in the distribution of income, which is often discussed under the rubric of fairness.) Our analysis begins with the argument that, when the choice of legal rules is based even in part on notions of fairness, individuals tend to be made worse off. Indeed, if any notion of fairness is ascribed evaluative weight, everyone will necessarily be made worse off in some situations. Moreover, when we examine principles of fairness and the literature that advances them, we find it difficult to identify reasons that, on reflection, justify granting importance to these principles at the expense of individuals' well-being. Nevertheless, policy analysts and the population at large obviously find notions of fairness appealing. We conjecture that the notions' attractiveness is rooted in several factors. Namely, individuals who believe in ideas of fairness tend to behave better toward others; the notions may serve as proxy goals for instrumental objectives; and individuals may have a taste for satisfaction of the notions. Furthermore, each of these factors is a reason that notions of fairness are relevant under a welfare-oriented normative approach to social decisionmaking. As we explain, however, none of these factors warrants treating notions of fairness as independent evaluative principles. We develop our thesis through consideration of specific conceptions of fairness that are employed in major areas of the law: torts, contracts, legal procedure, and law enforcement. We also discuss the implications of our analysis for our primary audience, legal academics and other legal policy analysts, as well as for government officials, notably, legislators, regulators, and judges.

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