The Relationship Between Law and Development: Optimists versus Skeptics

62 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2008 Last revised: 27 Jan 2009

See all articles by Kevin E. Davis

Kevin E. Davis

New York University School of Law

Michael J. Trebilcock

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law

Date Written: May 1, 2008


Over the past two decades there has been a resurgence of interest, on the part of both academics and practitioners, in using law to promote development in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia. The level of academic interest in the topic is reflected in the publication of three recent books on law and development by prominent American scholars: Thomas Carothers (ed.), PROMOTING THE RULE OF LAW ABROAD: IN SEARCH OF KNOWLEDGE, Kenneth Dam, THE LAW-GROWTH NEXUS: THE RULE OF LAW AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, and David Trubek and Alvaro Santos (eds.), THE NEW LAW AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL. In this Essay we suggest that these books (or at least some contributions to them) reflect insensitivity to the ambiguities surrounding the relationship between legal reform and development. We show that there is ongoing debate about fundamental questions such as whether law is an important factor in determining social or economic outcomes in developing societies given the existence of informal methods of social control; whether there are insurmountable economic, political or culture obstacles to effective legal reform; as well as, assuming effective legal reform is feasible, what types of reforms are conducive to development and what types of actors ought to implement them. We argue that although there are some reasons for optimism about the potential impact of legal reforms upon development, the relevant empirical literature is inconclusive on many important issues and counsels caution about the wisdom of continuing to invest substantial resources in promoting legal reform in developing countries without further research that clarifies these issues.

Keywords: Law and development, legal reform, empirical legal studies

JEL Classification: O10

Suggested Citation

Davis, Kevin E. and Trebilcock, Michael J., The Relationship Between Law and Development: Optimists versus Skeptics (May 1, 2008). American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2008, NYU Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 08-14, NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 08-24, Available at SSRN:

Kevin E. Davis (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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Michael J. Trebilcock

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

78 and 84 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5
416-978-5843 (Phone)
416-978-1279 (Fax)

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