Pervasive Spurious Normativity, Or: the Case for Lots of Silly Rules

Gillian K. Hadfield (University of Southern California)
Dylan Hadfield-Menell (University of California, Berkeley)

Abstract: Human societies are awash with rules, with normative moralization attaching to almost everything we do: how we eat, talk, dress, work, uses resource, treat others and so on. Most analysis of the normative world seeks first-order functional explanations for norms. Evolutionary analysis proposes that specific norms survive because they promote fitness. Economic analysis has generally understood norms as value-enhancing solutions to coordination or cooperation games. While there is no doubt that many norms are functional, many are also inherently spurious, with no direct impact on material well-being. The pervasiveness of spurious norms suggests there is a deeper puzzle to solve in explaining the phenomenon of normativity in human societies than only accounting for the content of specific norms. In this paper we identify an important role for the extension of normativity to actions that have little or no directimpact on welfare. We do this by modeling an individual’s choice about whether to join a particular community with a known set of rules as a multi-armed bandit problem. Using both analytical and computational methods, we show that a community with pervasive spurious normativity–lots of silly rules–generates higher payoffs for a potential member than a community that restricts normativity to actions with direct benefits for the agent–a few important rules. In addition to providing an account of the pervasive spurious normativity that characterizes many non-legal settings, our analytical approach, by providing a framework for evaluating normative systems with arbitrary content, also contributes to the development of the microfoundational account of law introduced by Hadfield and Weingast [2012].

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