Why is Law So Boring?

by F.

As an area of study, the law has to be one of the most boring subjects imaginable. But note well: I mean the law, not the policies that the law is meant to implement. That stuff most people find endlessly fascinating–should we impose a carbon tax? Should we subsidize ethanol? Should we increase the retirement age for Social Security? People love to kibitz about that stuff.

But the law part is really quite dull. What normal person wants to read through regulations? The tax code? Case law? This stuff is just boring as hell. It’s hard to stay awake reading it. And private contracts are no better. This, perhaps, explains why so much legal discourse is over policies.

But then another problem arises: policies are inherently normative, and generally folks don’t agree on normative principles. Should same sex marriage be allowed under the law? Well, it depends on the policy question of “What goal do we as a society want to encourage?” If you’re a religious nutcase, you think homosexuality is a “sin,” and so having same sex marriage does not encourage a least-sin society. If you are a libertarian (small L), you don’t care how people want to pair up, and you may think marriage is a good thing generally. So you want same sex marriage to be “legal.”

And even if we agree on the ends, we can disagree on the means. Was Superfund legislation effective? Was it more effective than the alternative? Was asbestos litigation a waste of money for everyone but the laywers? These are empirical questions and are, to me, the most interesting. Policy? Mneh. Policies should be minimal, because human ignorance is so vast. It’s a little like making money: it’s easy to get rich. What’s hard is to stay rich, because time after time you’re tempted to do something risky.

Which reminds me of an interview I had the other day. My firm was interviewing a guy and we started talking about technology. (A typical male-bonding topic–in the 60’s, it was probably cars; now, it’s technology.) We were talking about how cool Apple’s products were. Then the guy said, “Yeah, I thought about buying the stock back in 2001, but I didn’t–then they came out with the iPod.”

I immediately thought the guy was a fool. Why? Because stock pickers are fools: if you diversify across the S&P 500, you’ll make whatever the market makes, which is closely tied to GDP growth. If not, you’ll almost certaintly underperform the market. But people stil believe in stupid ideas like stock picking, even though there is a huge amount of evidence against it. I was having lunch with a friend the other day and of course the topic turned to money. He said he invested in certain stocks “just for fun.”

Fun? Is Russian Roulette fun? I call that stupidity. I can think of cheaper ways to get a thrill than picking individual stocks. Maybe try a roller coaster. But such is the human mind, and this is the same human mind that designs policies which are then implemented in laws. It’s not pretty. And it’s boring.