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Is Efficiency Biased?

41 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2017 Last revised: 8 Feb 2018

Zachary D. Liscow

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: February 6, 2018


Efficiency is a watchword in policy circles. If we choose policies that maximize people’s willingness to pay, we are told, we will grow the economic pie and thus benefit the rich and poor alike. Who would oppose efficiency when it is cast in this fashion?

Look more closely. When viewed through a legal lens, the term efficiency encompasses two, starkly different, types of policies: those that systematically distribute equally to the rich and the poor and those that systematically distribute more to the rich.

Our collective failure to grasp this distinction matters enormously no matter what your political commitments. Many “efficient” policies distribute more to the rich, without the rich having to pay for their bigger slice. Because these “rich-biased” policies are ubiquitous, efficient policymaking places a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of the rich. Getting efficiency right should matter to a wide swath of the policymaking spectrum, from committed redistributionists to libertarians. We should support “efficient” policies only when they systematically distribute equally to the rich and the poor neutrally as we grow the size of the economic pie.

The Article points the way forward in ensuring that a foundational tenant of the law does not follow a “rich get richer” principle, with profound consequences for policymaking of every sort.

Keywords: law and economics, efficiency, inequality, tax policy, political economy

JEL Classification: H21, H41, K00

Suggested Citation

Liscow, Zachary D., Is Efficiency Biased? (February 6, 2018). Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 581. Available at SSRN:

Zachary D. Liscow (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

127 Wall St.
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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