The Law and Economics of Sycophancy

Originally published in Constitutional Political Economy

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.