Intuitive Lawmaking: The Example of Child Support
Ira Mark Ellman
Arizona State University College of Law; Arizona State University (ASU) - Department of Psychology; Center for the Study of Law and Society, Berkeley Law, University of California, Berkeley
Sanford L. Braver
Arizona State University (ASU) - Department of Psychology
Stanford Law School
November 7, 2008
Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2009
Setting the amount of a child support award involves tradeoffs in the allocation of finite resources among at least three private parties: the two parents, and their child or children. Federal law today requires states to have child support guidelines or formulas that determine child support amounts on a uniform statewide basis. These state guidelines differ in how they make these unavoidable tradeoffs. In choosing the correct balance of these competing claims, policymakers would do well to understand the public's intuitions about the appropriate tradeoffs. We report an empirical study of lay intuitions about these tradeoffs, and compare those intuitions to the principles underlying typical state guidelines. As in other contexts in which people are asked to place a dollar value on a legal claim, we find that citizen assessments of child support for particular cases conform to the pattern that Ariely and his coauthors have called "coherent arbitrariness": The respondent's choice of dollar magnitude may be arbitrary, but relative values respond coherently to case variations, within and across citizens. These patterns suggest that our respondents have a consistent and systematic preference with respect to the structure of child support formulas that differs in important ways from either of the two systems adopted by nearly all states.
Please note: this accepted paper differs substantially from the working paper of the same name previously posted on SSRN.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 51
Keywords: child support, tradeoffs, incommensurability, coherent arbitrariness, lawmaking
JEL Classification: D63, J12, K10, K39
Date posted: November 10, 2008 ; Last revised: November 17, 2008