Linking Law and Economics

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1974

The area where John Olin invested more donated resources than any other—the Law and Economics movement—was a matter of abiding personal interest for the philanthropist. Olin became persuaded that studying the interplay between laws and economic behavior was an important new academic discipline that could have potent implications for governance and public policy. Hoping to nudge America’s dominant lawyer class toward a more sophisticated understanding of markets and economic discipline, Olin’s foundation made its first grant for Law and Economics training in 1974—awarding $100,000 to a center run by Henry Manne at the University of Miami. It sponsored fellowships allowing students with graduate degrees in economics to receive legal training, and staged educational seminars introducing judges to important economic concepts.

Much more Olin funding would follow during the next two decades. The original Law and Economics Center migrated from Miami to Emory University and finally to George Mason University. And additional centers were endowed by the foundation at many top law schools, including Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Virginia, Michigan, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. By the time the Olin Foundation closed in 2005, it had spent more than $68 million to root the Law and Economics movement on campuses and in courthouses.

Olin’s efforts began bearing rich fruit as early as the 1980s, as economic understanding and reasoning became much more visible within American jurisprudence. Judges and legislators paid greater attention to incentive effects, to regulatory costs, and to the benefits of competition. Most every year, beginning in 1985, there was at least one Olin Fellow from a Law and Economics center represented among the clerks selected for the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal scholar Bruce Ackerman described the Law and Economics movement as “the most important thing in legal education since the birth of Harvard Law School.”

  • John J. Miller, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America (Encounter Books, 2006)