Adversarial legalism and American government



Compared to other economically advanced democracies, the United States is uniquely prone to adversarial, legalistic modes of policy formulation and implementation, shaped by the prospect of judicial review. While adversarial legalism facilitates the expression of justice-claims and challenges to official dogma, its costs are often neglected or minimized. A survey of existing research, together with a case study of environmental regulation in the Port of Oakland, indicates the extent to which adversarial legalism causes (or threatens) enormous dispute-resolving costs and procedural delays, which in turn distort policy outcomes. Adversarial legalism, moreover, has increased in recent decades, as Americans have attempted to implement the ambitious, socially transformative policies of activist government through political structures, forms of legislation, and legal procedures that reflect deep suspicion of governmental authority.