Lior Strahilevitz, Deputy Dean and Sidley Austin Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School recently published a brilliant new book, Information and Exclusion (Yale University Press 2011). Like all of Lior’s work, the book is creative, thought-provoking, and compelling. There are books that make strong and convincing arguments, and these are good, but then there are the rare books that not only do this, but make you think in a different way. That’s what Lior achieves in his book, and that’s quite an achievement.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lior about the book.
Daniel J. Solove (DJS): What drew you to the topic of exclusion?
Lior Jacob Strahilevitz (LJS): It was an observation I had as a college sophomore. I lived in the student housing cooperatives at Berkeley. Some of my friends who lived in the cooperatives told me they felt morally superior to people in the fraternities and sororities because the Greek system had an elaborate, exclusionary rush and pledge process. The cooperatives, by contrast, were open to any student. But as I visited friends who lived in the various cooperative houses, the individual houses often seemed no more heterogeneous than the fraternities and sororities. That made me curious. It was obvious that the pledging and rushing process – formal exclusion – created homogeneity in the Greek system. But what was it that was creating all this apparent homogeneity in a cooperative system that was open to everyone? That question was one I kept wondering about as a law student, lawyer, and professor.
That’s why page 1 of the book begins with a discussion of exclusion in the Greek system. I start with really accounts of the rush process by sociologists who studied the proxies that fraternity members used to evaluate pledges in the 1950s (attire, diction, grooming, firm handshakes, etc.) The book then brings us to the modern era, when fraternity members peruse Facebook profiles that provide far more granular information about the characteristics of each pledge. Proxies still matter, but the proxies are different, and those differences alter the ways in which rushing students behave and fraternities exclude.
DJS: What is the central idea in your book?
LJS: The core idea is that asymmetric information largely determines which mechanisms are used to exclude people from particular groups, collective resources, and services. When the person who controls a resource knows a lot about the people who wish to use it, she will make decisions about who gets to access it. Where she lacks that information, she’ll develop a strategy that forces particular groups to exclude themselves from the resource, based on some criteria. There’s a historical ebb and flow between these two sorts of strategies for exclusion, but we seem to be in a critical transition period right now thanks to the decline of practical obscurity in the information age.