Is Rule of Law an Equilibrium Without Private Ordering?

35 Pages Posted: 29 May 2016 Last revised: 8 Dec 2016

See all articles by Gillian K. Hadfield

Gillian K. Hadfield

University of Toronto; Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence; OpenAI; Center for Human-Compatible AI

Barry R. Weingast

Stanford University, Department of Political Science

Date Written: July 11, 2016


Almost all theorizing about law begins with government. In a series of papers we challenge this orthodoxy. Our “what-is-law” approach places private enforcement at the center of a theory of law. The critical public component that distinguishes legal from social order is not public enforcement but rather a public, common knowledge, and stewarded normative classification institution that designates what is and what is not acceptable conduct in a community. Law emerges, we argue, to better coordinate and incentivize decentralized collective punishment (that is, private ordering: sanctions imposed by individuals not in an official capacity.)

Our work to date shows that the social order produced by a centralized classification institution supported exclusively by decentralized enforcement is characterized by several normatively attractive features. We call these features legal attributes. They include features routinely understood in the legal philosophical literature as characteristic of the rule of law: generality, published, clear, prospective, and stable.

Importantly, the legal attributes we identify do not arise from normative claims about law. Rather, they arise from our positive analysis sustaining an equilibrium based on centralized classification when enforcement requires the voluntary participation of ordinary citizens. These legal attributes are necessary to secure coordination and incentive compatibility in a regime of fully decentralized enforcement. Without them, the effort to sustain an equilibrium based on centralized classification fails. A regime characterized by rule of law is only an equilibrium, we argue, when enforcement of public classifications includes an important component of private enforcement. Without the discipline imposed by the need to incentivize and coordinate private enforcers, a government cannot succeed in sustaining law.

Keywords: Rule of law, what-is-law, private ordering, decentralized enforcement

JEL Classification: H11, H41, K1, K4

Suggested Citation

Hadfield, Gillian K. and Weingast, Barry R., Is Rule of Law an Equilibrium Without Private Ordering? (July 11, 2016). USC CLASS Research Papers Series No. CLASS16-16, USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 16-18, Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 493, Available at SSRN: or

Gillian K. Hadfield

University of Toronto ( email )

78 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5
4169784214 (Phone)

Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence ( email )

OpenAI ( email )

Center for Human-Compatible AI ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Barry R. Weingast (Contact Author)

Stanford University, Department of Political Science ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-6010
United States
650-723-0497 (Phone)
650-723-1808 (Fax)

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