Symbols, Signals, and Social Norms in Politics and the Law

Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 27 (1998)

Posted: 2 May 1998

See all articles by Eric A. Posner

Eric A. Posner

University of Chicago - Law School

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This article uses a signaling model to explain the role of symbols in people's behavior and beliefs, with special attention to legal manipulation of symbols. It is argued that certain actions become symbolic because they have the proper cost structure and because they are, for historical or psychological reasons, focal. The cost structure enables people to obtain advantages by revealing information about themselves in separating equilibria. The focal character of the action removes ambiguities about the motives for engaging in it. The government can in theory use standard legal instruments (which mainly affect the cost of the signal) to change equilibrium behavior and belief. The use of the law in this way is likely to have unpredictable effects because of multiple equilibria and of the sensitivity of behavior to parameters, but it occurs frequently because lobbying and other actions that influence law-making can become signals themselves, and the law is simply an equilibrium outcome. The analysis is used to discuss flag desecration, censorship, voting, and anti-discrimination laws.

Suggested Citation

Posner, Eric A., Symbols, Signals, and Social Norms in Politics and the Law. Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 27 (1998), Available at SSRN:

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