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Has All the Important Law Already Been Invented?

A few months ago the Wall Street Journal carried an article titled Has All the Important Stuff Already Been Invented? It was about a dispute between two Northwestern University economists over that very question. The basic gist:

Robert Gordon, a curmudgeonly 73-year-old economist, believes our best days are over. After a century of life-changing innovations that spurred growth, he says, human progress is slowing to a crawl.

Joel Mokyr, a cheerful 67-year-old economist, imagines a coming age of new inventions, including gene therapies to prolong our life span and miracle seeds that can feed the world without fertilizers.

Law 2050 being what it is, I had to ask the parallel question for law: Are the best days of legal innovation over, or are we entering a coming age of new legal “inventions”?

The first aspect of this to sort through is the difference between new law and new legal innovations. We’ll always be making new law—the question is whether any of it will be innovative. More to the point, what exactly is a “legal invention”?

My main field of research and practice, environmental law, has gone through several of what legal scholars suggest are “generations” of evolution. Each generation represents a significant innovation in the approach and content of the law. As my good friend Tony Arnold of The University of Louisville Law School framed it in a recent article, Fourth-Generation Environmental Law: Integrationist and Multimodal:

U.S. environmental law appears to have evolved from reliance primarily on common-law tort and property doctrines to government reservation and management of lands and natural resources to pollution control and prevention through command-and-control regulation, technology-based standards, and rule-of-law litigation. Some have characterized the latter collection of command-and-control statutes and regulations, administered with technology-based standards and enforced by rule-of-law litigation, as the first generation of environmental law. This generational classification is in contrast to what are often referred to as second generation environmental law methods that emphasize regulatory flexibility and the harnessing of economic incentives. These include compliance incentives, negotiated rulemaking (or “reg. neg.”), and market-based mechanisms. Some believe that the structure and practice of environmental law have now entered a third generational phase with the growing use of collaborative and voluntary processes, outcomes-based instrument choice, and reflexive law principles to achieve sustainable development and engage in ecosystem management. In each case, the new features of environmental law have simply been added to the existing features, making some modifications to the older structure but mostly just adding new generations to the family of environmental law.

He then predicts the emergence of a new, fourth generation:

Ecological and social forces of change—and the policy imperatives that they create—will move the next generation of environmental law towards integrationist and multimodal methods of addressing complex, interdependent, dynamic, and multiscalar environmental problems.

So the point is, legal inventions are new kinds of law, not just new law. And as Arnold suggests, it’s usually forces of change outside of and acting on law that spur legal innovation.

Certainly as much, and perhaps more than, any force of change, technology has rocked law over time into new configurations. So, going back to the Gordon-Mokyr debate, if Gordon is right then we can expect to see technology become less of a player in spurring legal innovations. But if cheerful Mokyr is right, we could be in store for new kinds of law we don’t even imagine today. Consider, for example, the increasing breadth and depth of information and knowledge being put at our fingertips through Big Data and machine learning. Could this lead to more than just new law, but also to legal innovation?

That’s the kind of question I put to my students in Law 2050. One assignment is to identify some economic, environmental, technological, or social trend and play with its potential legal consequences. What novel issues might it present? What legal responses will be appropriate? Do we need legal innovation to respond, or just new law? I’m looking forward to their projects and answers, and for now my strong hunch is that we have not seen the end of legal innovation, not by a long shot.


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