Jefferson Meets Coase: Land-Use Torts, Law and Economics, and Natural Property Rights


In tort scholarship, conventional wisdom assumes that economic analysis explains doctrine more determinately than philosophical analysis.  This Article challenges that assumption, using land-use torts as a point of contact.

The Article studies cattle trespasses, pollution nuisances, train-sparks cases, and other basic rules of tort liability Ronald Coase popularized in The Problem of Social Cost.  The Article compares standard economic analyses of these torts against an interpretation that follows from the natural-rights theory that informed the content of these torts when “tort” was forming into a single field of legal study.  The “Jeffersonian” natural-rights theory predicts the contours of doctrine more determinately and accurately than “Coasian” economic analysis.  It also anticipates and finesses a significant normative challenge to Coasian economic tort analysis—its tendency to demand that triers of fact process unrealistically volatile and fact-specific information to prescribe legal results.

The comparison teaches that conventional impressions about tort philosophy and economics have been misguided in at least three important respects.  First, in a significant swath of doctrine, Jeffersonian natural-rights moral theory shapes the contours of tort quite determinately.  Second, if philosophical tort scholarship has a bad reputation for being indeterminate, it does so at least in part because it has chosen to focus on the general corrective-justice architecture of tort—to the exclusion of specific theories of political morality informing particular doctrines.  Finally, standard economic tort analysis cannot prescribe determinate results without making simplifying assumptions more characteristic of moral philosophy than of social science.