Legal Theory and the Rational Actor

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



The application of rational actor theory to the law has been dominated by the law and economics movement. Law and economics began as a methodology for approaching legal questions; this combiation suggested using the tools provided by economic theory to solve problems in manifestly economic fields like antitrust and taxation. But it quickly moved beyond methodology to acquire both a normative and a descriptive thesis of its own. Law and economics thus regards law as a vehicle for maximizing utility, and it maintains that much of law can be explained as serving that function already. This article suggests reasons why laws that maximize social utility are not necessarily the best legal rules for individuals that seek to maximize their personal utility. In particular, it suggests that ideally rational individuals would be unlikely to select the principle of utility maximization as the basis for choosing ideal legal rules.


actor theory, law and economics movement, economic theory, social utility, personal utility

Publication Title

The Oxford Handbook of Rationality