Symbols, Signals, and Social Norms in Politics and the Law

  • Posner E
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Abstract This article uses a signaling model to explain the role of symbols in people's behavior and beliefs, with special attention to legal manipulation of symbols. It is argued that certain actions become symbolic because they have the proper cost structure and because they are, for historical or psychological reasons, focal. The government can in theory use standard legal instruments (which mainly affect the cost of the signal) to change equilibrium behavior and belief. The use of the law in this way is likely to have unpredictable effects because of multiple equilibria and of the sensitivity of behavior to parameters, but it occurs frequently because lobbying and other actions that influence lawmaking can become signals themselves, and the law is simply an equilibrium outcome. The analysis is used to discuss flag desecration, censorship, voting, and antidiscrimination laws.

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  • Eric A. Posner

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