The Construction of Morals
Daniel L. Chen
Center for Law and Economics, ETH Zurich
George Mason University School of Law
November 7, 2013
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Forthcoming
George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 13-62
When do policies generate expressive or backlash effects? Recent economic models suggest that where a proscribed activity is prevalent, permissive laws liberalize attitudes toward partakers while increasing utility. The opposite occurs in communities where the proscribed activity is rare. To test these predictions, we randomize data entry workers to transcribe newspaper summaries of liberal or conservative court decisions about obscenity. We find that liberal obscenity decisions liberalize individual and perceived community standards and increase utility. Yet religious workers become more conservative in their values, identify as more Republican, view community standards as becoming more liberal, and report lower utility. Workers update beliefs about the prevalence of sexual activities differently in response to liberal or conservative decisions. These results provide causal evidence for the law having indirect social effects that may amplify or attenuate deterrence effects and suggest that legitimacy of law can affect utility and self-identification.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 59
Keywords: obscenity law, belief updating, values, norms, health risk
JEL Classification: D83, K1, K42, Z1Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: November 8, 2013 ; Last revised: January 14, 2014
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