Economics 2120 Spring 2023. Honors Core: Rights and Harms


ECON 2120 Honors Core: Rights and Harms

Course and Instructor Information

Course Title: ECON 2120 Honors Core: Rights and Harms
Credits: 3
Prerequisites: Any 1000-level course in Economics (may be taken concurrently).
Instructor: Richard N. Langlois
Room 304 Oak Hall
Phone: (860) 486-3472
Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 9:00-11:00 or by arrangement.

Course Materials

Required Materials:

Course Description

This course will expose students to a conceptual framework at the intersection of law, economics, and philosophy – what we can call the paradigm of rights and harms.  Working within this framework, you will analyze and debate a large set of controversial social issues.  The goal of the course is to encourage you to think critically and rigorously about such issues and to hone your skills in argument and persuasion.

Consider a famous legal case analyzed by the Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase.  A physician sets up an examination room with a wall that is shared by a candy factory.  Noise from the candy machinery makes it impossible for the doctor to examine patients with a stethoscope.  If the candy factory has the right to make noise, the doctor is harmed; if the doctor has a right to quiet, the factory is harmed.  Economists and philosophers have developed ways of thinking about who should get the right – and thus who should bear the harm – in cases like these.  Most if not all controversial social issues take exactly this form: who has the right?  Who is harmed, and in what way?  As we will see, in many of these cases, the harms are immaterial: there is no tangible emission like noise.  I may harm you (make you angry or unhappy) by giving a speech in favor of Marxism or by selling my kidney to the highest bidder – even if you are nowhere in the vicinity and learn of my behavior only through a third party.  Should I have the right to engage in these behaviors?  Or should you have the right to stop me?

This course will be based around discussion.  It goes without saying that you will not be expected to come to any predetermined conclusion (or, indeed, any conclusion at all) about the issues we discuss.  You will be graded entirely on the rigor of your reasoning and the clarity of your argument.  It also goes without saying that class discussion must always be mature, collegial, and open-minded.  One controversial social issue that – somewhat self-referentially – we may touch on is the idea that instructors (or other students) in university classes can harm others by discussing distressing subjects and that therefore instructors must warn students of any potential distress.  Consider yourself warned.  All ideas are fair game, even as we strive for an open, friendly – and fun – classroom environment.

Course Goals

By the end of the semester, you should be able to:

  • Understand and manipulate fundamental concepts in the economics and philosophy of law, including:
    • The basic economics of rights, including “artificial” rights.
    • Rights in rem and as a “bundle of sticks.”
    • The Coase Theorem.
    • Deontological versus consequentialist accounts of rights and rights assignment.
    • The differences among technological externalities, pecuniary externalities, and moralisms.
    • Property rules, liability rules, and inalienability as enforcement mechanisms.
    • Eminent domain.
    • Think critically and clearly about controversial social issues.
    • Reason more rigorously and argue more lucidly in oral presentations and writing.


    Course Requirements and Grading

    We will have an in-class exam after part 1 of the course, just to make sure everyone is on the same page with the conceptual framework we will be using.  That will count 25 per cent of the grade.  For parts 2 and 3 of the course, I will set up a schedule of presentation on topics from the course outline above.  I will then assign teams to each topic.  (In keeping with the spirit of the course, if you would prefer a different topic, you can try to trade with someone.)  Each topic will consume one full class period.  You will be graded on the quality of the presentation (rigor, depth, background research, and ability to generate discussion), but nice visuals won’t hurt.  All members of the team will receive the same grade for the presentation (25 per cent of the grade).  In addition, you individually will also submit an 8-10 page paper on a topic other than the one of your group presentation (25 per cent of the grade).  Consult with me if you want to write your paper on a topic not on the list for presentations or even not on the syllabus at all.  The paper will be due at the end of the semester.  There also be a final exam (25 per cent of your grade).  This will be a relatively short essay exam that will ask you to integrate ideas from several of the student presentations.


    Summary of Course Grading:

    In-class exam on Part 1


    Team presentations


    Individual paper (8-10 pages)


    Final Exam



    Letter Grade






































    Sequence of topics

    Part 1: Rights and Harms.

    1.1. Rights.

    Adelstein, chapter 1.
    Armen Alchian, “Some Economics of Property Rights,” Il Politico 30(4): 816-829 (1965).
    Podcast: Henry E. Smith on Property, September 9, 2011.

    1.2. Harms.

    Adelstein, chapter 2.
    Ronald H. Coase, “The Problem of Social Cost,” Journal of Law and Economics 3: 1-44 (1960).
    J. David Goodman, “How Much Is a View Worth in Manhattan? Try $11 Million,” The New York Times, July 22, 2019.
    Video: Three ways to control externalities.

    1.3. Locke v. Bentham.

    John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1859, chapter 1.
    Amartya Sen, “ The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal,” Journal of Political Economy 78(1): 152-157 (1970). N.B. Do not try to follow all of the formalism in this paper (unless you really want to). Just try to understand the question Sen is posing and the implications of the result he comes to.
    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974, especially chapter 3.

    1.4. Eminent Domain.

    Adelstein, chapter 3.
    Guido Calabresi and A. Douglas Melamed, “Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral,” Harvard Law Review 85(6): 1089-1128 (1972).
    Thomas J. Miceli and Kathleen Segerson, “Takings,” in B. Bouckaert and G. De Geest, eds., Encyclopedia of Law and Economics, Volume VI. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2000, pp. 328-357.
    Film: Little Pink House.


    Part 2: Examples of property rights.

    2.1. Emissions permits.

    Adelstein, chapters 5, 6, and 7.
    Robert N. Stavins, “Cap and Trade Is the Only Feasible Way of Cutting Emissions,” The New York Times, June 2, 2014.
    Video: A Deeper Look at Tradable Allowances.

    2.2. Intellectual property rights.

    Adelstein, chapter 4.

    2.3. Taxi medallions.

    Winnie Hu, “Taxi Medallions, Once a Safe Investment, Now Drag Owners into Debt,” The New York Times, September 10, 2017.
    Gordon Tullock, “The Transitional Gains Trap,” The Bell Journal of Economics 6(2): 671-678 (1975).

    2.4. Slavery, serfdom, and self-ownership.

    Stanley L. Engerman, “Slavery, Serfdom, and Other Forms of Coerced Labour: Similarities and Differences,” in M. L. Bush, ed., Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage, London: Longman, 1996.
    Rick Geddes and Dean Lueck, “The Gains from Self-Ownership and the Expansion of Women’s Rights,” The American Economic Review 92(4): 1079-1092 (September 2002).

    2.5. The Reserve Clause and free agency.

    Simon Rottenberg, “The Baseball Players’ Labor Market,” Journal of Political Economy 64(3): 242-258 (1956).

    2.6. Immigration and citizenship rights.

    Christopher Coyne and Peter Boettke, “Institutions, Immigration and Identity,”  NYU Journal of Law and LIberty 2: 131-156 (2006).

    Michael Lokshin and Martin Ravallion, “A Market for Work Permits,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper w26590, December 2019.

    2.7. Animal rights.

    Gonzolo Villanueva, “Against Animal Liberation? Peter Singer and His Critics,” Sophia 57: 5–19 (2018).

    Part 3: Who should get the right?

    3.1 Pecuniary harms: antitrust.

    Adelstein, pp. 97-109.
    Robert Bork, The Antitrust Paradox. New York: The Free Press, 1978, chapter 2.
    Harold Demsetz, “Barriers to Entry,” American Economic Review 72(1): 47-57 (1982).

    3.2. Immaterial harms: “moralisms.”

    3.2.1. Speech.

    John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1859, chapter 2.
    Brian Eule, “Watch Your Words, Professor,” Stanford Magazine, January-February 2015.
    Rebecca Lurye, “UConn Tackling Debate of Free Speech on Campus in Wake of ‘OK to Be White’ Event,” The Hartford Courant, December 10, 2017.
    Russell Blair, “UConn Students Arrested in Racial Slur Case Sue University on First Amendment Grounds,” The Hartford Courant, January 14, 2020.
    Video: Why Social Media Shouldn’t Censor Hate Speech.

    3.2.2. Commercial transactions and speech.

    Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis, “A Baker’s First Amendment Rights,” The New York Times, December 4, 2017.
    Emily Cochrane, “Sarah Huckabee Sanders Was Asked to Leave Restaurant over White House Work,” The New York Times, June 23, 2018.

    2.2.3. Broadcasting, free speech, and spectrum rights..

    Ronald H. Coase, “The Federal Communications Commission,” The Journal of Law & Economics 2: 1-40 (1959).
    Thomas W. Hazlett, “Physical Scarcity, Rent Seeking, and the First Amendment,’’ Columbia Law Review 97: 905–944 (May 1997).

    3.2.4. “Repugnant” transactions. “Price gouging.”

    James Surowiecki, “In Praise of Efficient Price Gouging,” MIT Technology Review, August 19, 2014.
    Neil Irwin, “Why Surge Prices Make Us So Mad: What Springsteen, Home Depot and a Nobel Winner Know,” The New York Times, October 14, 2017. Selling organs.

    Philip J. Cook and Kimberly D. Krawiec, “If We Pay Football Players, Why Not Kidney Donors?” Regulation, Spring 2018, pp. 12-17.
    Film: Dirty Pretty Things. Surrogate motherhood.

    Ross Douthat, “The Handmaids of Capitalism,” The New York Times, June 20, 2018.

    3.3. Self-harms: paternalism and “internalities.”

    Christopher Buccafusco and Christopher Jon Sprigman, “Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space?Slate, September 23, 2014.
    The New Paternalism: the Avuncular State,” The Economist, April 6, 2006.
    Mario J. Rizzo and Douglas Glen Whitman, “The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism,” BYU Law Review 2009: 905-968 (2009).

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