Second Opinions and Institutional Design

In many settings, decisionmakers seek second opinions, and are wise to do so. Sometimes decisionmakers do not seek second opinions when they should have, or seek them when they should not have. In yet other settings, legal rules require decisionmakers to seek second opinions before taking action.

There is a burgeoning literature on second opinions in professional contexts, as when patients or clients seek advice from doctors or lawyers. My aim, by contrast, is to analyze second opinions as a technique for the design of lawmaking institutions. I will try to show that many institutional structures, rules and practices have been justified as mechanisms for requiring or permitting decisionmakers to obtain second opinions; examples include judicial review of statutes or of agency action, bicameralism, the separation of powers, and the law of legislative procedure. I attempt to identify the main costs and benefits of second opinions, to identify the conditions under which second-opinion arguments prove more or less successful, and to consider how the lawmaking system might employ second-opinion mechanisms to greater effect.

Part I provides an analytic taxonomy of second-opinion mechanisms and introduces some conceptual distinctions. Part II analyzes the main benefits and costs of second-opinion mechanisms, and then ties the benefits and costs together with some comparative statics, attempting to identify general conditions under which second-opinion mechanisms are desirable or undesirable. Part III applies the analysis to legislative structure and procedure, and to judicial stare decisis. I claim, among other things, that the Supreme Court should adopt a norm that two successive decisions, not merely one, are necessary to create binding law.

The Invisible Hand in Legal and Political Theory

Theorists have offered invisible-hand justifications for a range of legal and political institutions, including the separation of powers, free speech, the adversary system of litigation, criminal procedure, the common law, and property rights. These arguments are largely localized, with few comparisons across contexts and no general account of how invisible-hand justifications work. This essay has two aims. The first is to identify general conditions under which an invisible-hand justification will succeed. The second is to identify several theoretical dilemmas that arise from the structure of invisible-hand justifications and that cut across local contexts. These are the dilemma of norms, which arises because norms of truth-seeking, ethical action or altruism can both promote and undermine the workings of the invisible hand; the dilemma of second best, which arises because partial compliance with the conditions for an invisible-hand justification can produce the worst of all possible worlds; and the dilemma of verification, which arises where theorists claim that an invisible-hand process functions as a Hayekian discovery procedure — a claim that is empirical but pragmatically unverifiable.

Selection Effects in Constitutional Law

The standard consequentialist analysis of constitutional law focuses on the incentives that shape the behavior of government officials and other constitutional actors. Incentive-based accounts justify elections as a means of constraining officials to promote the public welfare, or at least the welfare of the median voter; justify the separation of powers as a means of making “ambition counteract ambition”; justify negative liberties, such as free speech and free association, as a necessary corrective to incumbent officials’ incentives to suppress political opposition; and so forth.

In this experimental Essay, I offer a preliminary sketch of a different way of looking at constitutional law generally and constitutional structure in particular: through the lens of “selection effects.” Constitutional rules, on this account, should focus not only on the creation of optimal incentives for those who happen to occupy official posts at any given time, but also on the question which (potential) officials are selected to occupy those posts over time. Where an incentive analysis is short-term and static, asking only how legal rules affect the behavior of a given set of officeholders, selection analysis is long-term and dynamic, asking how legal rules themselves produce feedback effects that, over time, bring new types of government officials into power.

This turn to selection-based analysis yields fresh insight into the dynamics of constitutionalism. Because constitutional rules affect the pool of potential and actual officeholders, as well as the behavior of current officeholders, focusing on selection effects shows that some constitutional rules prove “self-stabilizing”: the rules tend to select a corps of officeholders who will act to uphold and stabilize the rules themselves. Other constitutional rules, by contrast, prove “self-negating”: the rules tend to select a corps of officeholders who work to undermine or destabilize the rules themselves. This framework supplies insights into diverse areas of constitutional law and theory, ranging from governmental structure, campaign finance, and voting rights to criminal sentencing, free speech, and affirmative action.