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The law and economics of sycophancy

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Abstract

Tullock (in: Rowley (ed) The selected works of Gordon Tullock, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, pp 399–455, 2005) was skeptical of the presumed economic efficiency of the common law, as adversarialism, apparently inherent to common law procedures, allowed for and was prone to litigiousness. Common law litigations accord to patterns of rent-seeking, as litigants invest ever more resources to assure victory. This paper asks if viable institutional solutions can emerge to resolve the problem Tullock identified. I survey the historical development of the term sycophancy within ancient Greek law as a revealing case study. Though a relatively innocuous pejorative in contemporary parlance, the term’s etymological roots stem from a formative process of ancient legal and institutional change within Athenian Greece. In the wake of specific legal reforms that expanded the scope of governmental authority under Solon (born 638–558 BCE), citizens were given explicit financial incentive to report violators of newly implemented public laws. Thereafter, social stigma surrounding third party legal representation leveraged the term sycophancy in reference to prosecutors motivated by private interests over the public welfare. Forgone social status and eventually formal criminal sanction emerged as offsetting differentials against the incentives of sycophancy.

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Notes

  1. See: Zywicki (2008), Zywicki and Stringham (2013), Voigt (2017).

  2. Zywicki (2008) argues that Tullock’s claims against adversarialism are stronger than his case against common law rule making. Luppi and Parisi (2012) comparatively model rule making across the American and English systems finding confirmatory implications from Tullock’s secondary implications.

  3. Tullock (2005, p. 413) himself caveats and reserves much of his critique to the Anglo American common law system, especially within the latter twentieth century. He concedes a greater efficiency for the contemporary British system, as it possesses a “loser-pays” norm.

  4. See also (Harvey 1990, p. 105 fn 5).

  5. Harvey (1990, pp. 107–110) provides a thorough listing of the term’s pejorative uses throughout the classical canon.

  6. Barnett (1977) and Benson (1996) have noted similarly for other primitive and customary legal contexts that leveraged restitution over retributive punishments.

  7. Lofberg (1917, pp. 2–3) recreates the longer dialogue between Chremylus and the Sycophant, partially printed as the epigraph of this essay, as descriptive of the tension surrounding public v. private interest motivations in the legal process.

  8. Perhaps the most iconic source material description of primitive Greek legal processes is Homer’s description of Achilles shield in the Iliad, “…And in the middle law two talents of gold, to give to the one who delivered judgment most rightly among them (18.508).” Homer additionally describes the usage of impartial third parties elsewhere (Iliad 23. 485–487). Hesiod’s Theogony (81–90) reports similarly noting that good judges implement fair and welcomed rulings while de-escalating violence and conflict.

  9. MacDowell (1978, pp. 10–12) argues the bulk of legal references throughout the epics concern proprietary disputes. Similarly, Austin and Vidal-Naquet (1972, p. 25) argue the bulk of political and institutional change in ancient Greece centered on land disputes. See also: Calhoun (1927) and Cohen (1995).

  10. As wealthier citizens made payments to satisfy punitive sentences, poor Athenians were more often subjected to bondage. Thus, as formal state authority subsumed the right of bondage but retained the social norms of restitution, systemic inequality of bonded populations drew the public’s ire (see Allen 2000).

  11. The unique Athenian law of hubris is a similar example. In short, hubris was a charge pressed against an original plaintiff who lacked sufficient evidence or good cause to have originally pressed charges. It was a direct reference to the financial costs of time supposedly wasted by the initial defendant (Fisher 1990).

  12. Socrates trial (approximately 399 BCE) described in Plato’s Apology (37b-c) represents markedly different legal and punitive processes from earlier periods.

  13. See Everson (1984, p. 216) and (Perrin 1967, pp. 451–455).

  14. Osborne (1990, p. 92) notes the apparently systemic difference between sycophancy accusations in cases related to public relative to private violations. The latter having a rare occasion for the term, yet the former near universal invocation.

  15. Osborne (1990, p. 86) quotes Isocrates XXI.5 “[t]hose who are clever at speaking but poor’ are particularly keen to bring sycophantic allegations, and their favoured victims are those who are incapable as orators but able to pay out cash.”

  16. This sense of hostility against the rich has been challenged. See: Jones (1958, p. 36).

  17. Some have inferred sycophancy so prominent as to represent an entire professional class of citizens (Osborne 1990). While this specific claim is contested, the likely prominence of sycophantic behaviors and accusations throughout trial procedures is well empirically established and widely accepted (Harvey 1990, pp. 107–109).

  18. Harvey (1990, p. 106) cites “Lipsius 1905–1915, 449, Bonner and Smith (1938, pp. 56–57), MacDowell (1978, p. 64) and Harrison (1971, p. 83)” all documenting the formally criminal connotations of sycophancy.

  19. Other researchers have also made explicit comparisons between Ancient Greece and the common law tradition. See: Todd and Millet (1990) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2016).

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D’Amico, D.J. The law and economics of sycophancy. Const Polit Econ 29, 424–439 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-018-9261-6

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