Another Reason to Hate Lawyers: They're Destroying American Society

Lawyers shred the fabric of American society—that’s a widely held intuition. Now there’s science to prove it. Well, at least social science.

Peter Turchin is the vice president of the Evolution Institute and professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Connecticut. He has written the book War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires and developed 30 indicators for tracing the destabilization of societies—the Roman Empire, Imperial China, medieval and early-modern England and France, and so forth. His indicators now signal the demise of American society. Wage stagnation and income inequality have his warning sensors blinking bright red. Another, less familiar symptom of societal collapse, he writes for Bloomberg View, “is the overproduction of law degrees”:

From the mid-1970s to 2011, according to the American Bar Association, the number of lawyers tripled to 1.2 million from 400,000. Meanwhile, the population grew by only 45 percent. Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. recently estimated that twice as many law graduates pass the bar exam as there are job openings for them. In other words, every year U.S. law schools churn out about 25,000 “surplus” lawyers, many of whom are in debt. …

So why is it important that we have a multitude of desperate law school graduates and many more politically ambitious rich than 30 years ago? Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion, and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side.

Aha! You were taught that the intractable clash over slavery led to the American Civil War. Not quite. The deeper reason for all the bloodshed was contentious elites, which in today’s terms translates into too many lawyers. Or in the schematic diagram that accompanies Turchin’s grim article:

Wealth Glut –>Unemployed Lawyers–>Elite Fratricide–>Political Disorder.

“We should expect many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s,” Turchin predicts. “And because complex societies are much more fragile than we assume, there is a chance for a catastrophic failure of some kind, with a default on U.S. government bonds being among the less frightening possibilities.” (Memo to Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz: Rethink White House ambitions. The cataclysm is scheduled for the next president’s watch.)

Turchin hedges his bets. “Catastrophe isn’t preordained,” he allows. Some societies adopt “a series of judicious reforms, initiated by elites who understand that we are all in this boat together.” Whew, there’s hope.

Whether out of a sense of responsibility to their fellow Americans or out of economic self-interest, the next generation of potential lawyers has already taken matters into its own hands. Applications to law school are down sharply, a hopeful trend that Professor Turchin did not factor into his analysis.

Will a fall-off in legal manpower come soon enough to save the civilization? That’s not clear. It may be too late, as packs of recently graduated, unemployed J.D.s face off against purposeless, out-of-work print journalists and client-hungry public-relations professionals. Or maybe walking-dead zombies will hunt down and eat all these former college English majors, and the sun will rise on a brighter tomorrow. Only time will tell.

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