Daniel Ortiz
Liz Magill

Comparative Positive Political Theory and Empirics

Edward Elgar

UVA Law Faculty Affiliations


No theoretical approach to American administrative law over the past 50 years has been as influential as Positive Political Theory (PPT). In its view, the private and institutional incentives of legislators, administrators, judges, and the executive largely determine administrative law on the ground. Its advocates have offered provocative and refreshingly cynical accounts of many of the discipline’s practices and doctrines, including its most central ones. Comparative administrative lawyers have now begun to apply PPT more broadly to explain differences among different jurisdictions’ administrative law regimes.
This article seeks to test PPT by asking how well it explains one central doctrine in most administrative law systems: judicial review of agency discretion. PPT would predict that judicial review would become more searching the more divided a particular political system is. A presidential system like the US’s, for example, would apply much stricter review than a parliamentary system like the UK’s. The article looks at four different systems - those of the US, the UK, France, and Germany - to test whether this prediction holds.
The article considers the formal doctrine in each system, commentators’ views on each system, and empirical evidence, where available, and concludes that PPT by itself does not well explain law on the ground. It also argues that some of PPT’s most prominent advocates have recognized this weakness and complicated the theory in a way that allows it to better explain how administrative law operates while causing the theory to lose much of its distinctiveness and interest.


M. Elizabeth Magill & Daniel R. Ortiz, Comparative Positive Political Theory and Empirics, in Blake Emerson, Peter L. Lindseth, & Susan Rose-Ackerman, eds., Comparative Administrative Law, Edward Elgar (2 ed. 2017).

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