Skip to content

Spring 2024 Reading Group

Law as a Complex System

Prerequisite: None

Exam Type: No Exam

This reading group explores the intersection of law and the systems theory. Legal analysis often proceeds by looking at individual or small sets of doctrines or policies and examining their effects. In contrast, systems theory aims to study large groups of interacting components with the belief that certain system-level properties are visible only at the macro level. For example, the “wetness” of water is not a property of its component molecules but instead arises from their interactions.

Legal scholars have recently become interested in studying law as a complex system. For example, Henry Smith has argued that tools from systems theory can help us understand the role that equity plays as a form of “meta-law.” Similarly, Adrian Vermeule has argued system effects are pervasive in public law but are often ignored by analysts, and that attentiveness to systems effects has implications for constitutional theory. Less clear is whether a focus on the systemic attributes of a body of law can guide practical law reform.

The goal of the reading group will be to examine whether law can be fruitfully studied as a complex system and, if so, how. Readings will include articles on (1) the rudiments of systems theory, (2) the applications of systems theory to public policy, and (3) recent legal scholarship attempting to apply systems theory in legal theory. Note: No background in systems theory or related topics is necessary (or presumed).

Note: This reading group will meet on the following dates: January 29, February 12, February 26, March 18, April 1, April 15.