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Minimalism and Experimentalism in the Administrative State

42 Pages Posted: 6 May 2010 Last revised: 4 Nov 2011

Charles F. Sabel

Columbia University - Law School

William H. Simon

Columbia University - Law School; Stanford University - Stanford Law School

Date Written: November 3, 2011


Minimalism is our name for the dominant liberal perspective on public policy implementation in contemporary legal scholarship. Minimalism emphasizes public interventions that incorporate market concepts and practices and that centralize and minimize administrative discretion. This essay appraises Minimalism in relation to a competing liberal view of the administrative state. Experimentalism emphasizes interventions in which central government affords broad discretion to local administrative units but measures and assesses their performance in ways designed to induce continuous learning and revision of standards. We fault Minimalist scholarship for ignoring an important reorientation in public policy along Experimentalist lines in the U.S. and elsewhere since the 1990s. We also argue that, in practice, Minimalism is excessively preoccupied with static efficiency norms and price signals and insufficiently attentive to learning and to “weak signals” of risk and opportunity. Experimentalist intervention is a more promising approach in the growing realm of policy areas characterized by uncertainty about both the definition of the relevant problem and its solution.

Keywords: public policy, experimentalism, minimalism, administrative discretion

Suggested Citation

Sabel, Charles F. and Simon, William H., Minimalism and Experimentalism in the Administrative State (November 3, 2011). Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 10-238. Available at SSRN: or

Charles F. Sabel (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

William Simon

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
Jerome Greene Hall, Mailbox A-18
New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-9215 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)

Stanford University - Stanford Law School ( email )

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Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
(650) 723-4605 (Phone)

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