Contextualizing Contract Law: An LPE 101 Reading List

Luke Herrine—

Contract is, of course, part of the core legal infrastructure that makes markets possible. But it is more than that. As an ideal type, it is at the core of all individualist social, moral, and political theories that seek to account for human sociality while avoiding social structure. Contract represents the ideal of being able to choose how to calibrate others’ demands with one’s own life plan. It presents the possibility of a social obligation that is not imposed upon one from the outside—by family or tradition or etiquette or the state. The rational choice theories that form the basis for neoliberal economic thought do not just understand chosen obligation as an ideal or a possibility: it is how they model all social institutions, even highly complex ones. No wonder “social contract” has been such an enduring model of the legitimate exercise of state power in the liberal tradition.

Theories based on the contractual ideal have proven especially useful for justifications of capitalist ordering. When the law has taken such theories too seriously, it has found it easy to endorse and even mandate all sorts of market-mediated exploitation as necessary to a free society. Lochner and its ilk were supposed to protect freedom of contract, after all.

The contractual ideal and the promissory morality that comes with it is part of our culture, and not just our legal culture. Even those of us who have been on the business end of exploitative contracts—for debt, for labor, for rent, for whatever else–have a hard time shaking the notion that we are obligated to do what we said we would (even if we didn’t know what we “said we would” via the fine print): that we chose, and therefore have responsibility for, the rules imposed upon us.

Thinking about—and teaching—contract from an LPE perspective requires denaturalizing with this tendency of thought and the forms of moral, political, and legal justification that have grown out of it. And doing that requires dealing with contracts not as the shadows of an ideal Form but as institutions shaped by socio-legal context. It requires dealing with the law of contract not as a self-contained and coherent body of judge-made doctrine but as an overlapping set of rules that deal with different contractual forms in different contexts. And it requires highlighting how the decontextualized contractual ideal can serve ideological functions when used as a map for this complex terrain.

Continue reading

Labor Relationships & and the Legal Vision of 1L Contracts

Sanjukta Paul—

Contracts is more than an area of law; it is a key piece of the vision we lawyers bring to many other areas of law. The 1L Contracts course supplies a foundation-stone of the “pre-analytic vision” with which lawyers will eventually think about many other things, including labor relationships. Labor regulation as such is addressed only in the optional upper-level curriculum, and it is relatively marginalized even there. As a result, many lawyers, notably in the commercial and business sphere, will bring to their dealings with labor issues the contracts “vision.” That vision ultimately tends to erase the law’s deep involvement in constituting labor relationships. It thus tends to furnish apparent justification for the exercise of power by the already-powerful, in pursuit of private ends rather than the public interest, on the stage created and sustained by law.

The specific pre-analytic vision transmitted by the conventional Contracts curriculum is of atomistic individuals contracting at arms’ length. In this vision, any pre-contracting power differentials, including those power differentials that are created or sustained by law, are rendered invisible. In our historical imagination this vision is symbolized by ‘the Lochner Era,’ which was characterized by the frequent judicial invocation of contract principles to either invalidate or undermine democratic attempts to structure labor relations and markets more generally.

But apart from ignoring, for example, “the background distribution of property rights,” this vision also sits uneasily with the present-time legal constitution of labor relationships. Moreover, perhaps because of its foundation in the pre-analytic vision of contracts, commercial law is generally selective about when it chooses to treat labor contracts as “special” on the one hand, or as instances of a more general type on the other. Continue reading

The Public Law of Private Promising, And Not Even That: LPE 101 for Contracts

Noah Zatz—

What would a 1L Contracts course look like from a law and political economy perspective? I can’t claim to have designed my course from the ground up to answer that question—and indeed I am intentionally more eclectic than that. Nonetheless, several of my choices—about how to thematize the material and what to include at all—clearly reflect an LPE approach.

From start to finish, I present Contracts—perhaps the quintessential “private law” topic—as a study in public power. That is among the main reasons to start with remedies (as many Contracts professors do). Ultimately, the question is whether a government institution (a court) will render a judgment and back it up with the threat of publicly authorized violence: seizing property to satisfy a judgment or throwing someone in jail for contemptuously defying a court order. I underline this point on the first day of class by assigning a recent ACLU report on incarceration for nonpayment of private consumer debt. This reading also challenges conventional field boundaries, enabling students to follow a thread of debt and poverty that connects their Contracts class to Ferguson and racialized mass incarceration.

The publicness of Contracts goes beyond the brute fact that it is law. Rather, the field reflects policy judgments about when to make the force of law available to private parties. Although invocations of party intent typically submerge this point, it actually appears on the surface of the most conventional place to start Contracts: the very first section of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts. “A contract is a promise or a set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty.”  Well then, when and how does “the law” (speaking for we, the people) choose to transform private promises into legal duties? Continue reading

The Green New Deal: What’s Green? What’s New? What’s the Deal?

Robert Hockett –

ACO.jpg

During their first weeks in the new U.S. Congress, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues already have done something no other American political figure has managed for decades. They have got the whole country, and indeed much of the world, talking about massively transformative public investment as a real prospect.

The ‘Green New Deal’ exceeds in scale and scope all major undertakings of U.S. federal, state, and local governments since both its namesake – Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal – and the mobilization effort for the Second World War in 1940s, respectively. And this is true irrespective of what measure of ‘size’ you might use – geographic and cross-sectoral scope, number of firms and sub-federal units of government apt to be playing a role, segments of the population who will be playing a role, dollar value of real expenditure, dollar value of expenditure as a percentage of GDP, … you name it.

Ambition on such a scale always draws carping and naysaying from the timid, the cynical, and the economically uninformed, and this time has been no exception. Predictable expressions of skepticism and incredulity, along with the usual ‘what about partisan gridlock’ and ‘how will you pay for it?’ queries, have abounded. Even some self-styled progressive politicians have hedged their bets, approving ‘the concept’ while studiously shying away from declaring on any particular instantiation.

Against such a backdrop, we do well to recognize that in the present case, ‘size matters’ – and matters in a way that the politically demoralized, the fiscally austere, and tepid allies alike seem to miss. The problems the Green New Deal addresses, in short, are problems where bigger is better, is imperative, and is, paradoxically, more politically feasible and ‘affordable’ too where responding is concerned.

Continue reading

The Constitution and Democratic Insurgency

Aziz Rana—

One of today’s most urgent questions is how to combine an analysis of capitalism with an analysis of democracy.  The rolling socio-economic crises of the last decade, highlighted by the global financial meltdown, have laid bare the extent to which American society is marked by fundamental and irreconcilable conflicts between those enjoying economic power and those subject to the vagaries of the market.  At the same time, the constitutional system, plagued by legislative dysfunction and extreme counter-majoritarianism, is incapable of implementing popular policy—let alone resolving endemic collective problems.  American capitalism generates profound social and material dispossession, yet American democracy either facilitates these developments or seems helpless to address them.  Why is this the case? And to what extent is the existing constitutional order—its basic ideological and institutional terms—at least partly to blame?

Since the forging of Cold War liberalism in the mid-twentieth century, elites have offered the same, familiar account—in both electoral politics and in the study of constitutional law—of the relationship between the constitutional order and the economy. The prevailing theory is that the structures of legal-political decision-making do not favor particular social groups. Instead, through an intricate system of checks and balances—overseen by a Supreme Court enjoying powers of judicial review—the constitutional process produces essentially just outcomes while ensuring that no single political or social actor wields overwhelming authority.  This structure of constraint substantively pushes decisions away from the extremes of fascism and communism and toward a moderate middle ground of ameliorative reform and steady collective improvement.

Although some may be suspicious of the Whiggish story of progress, a bedrock assumption underlying this account has been widely held—even among left-liberal circles.  This is the idea that the constitutional structure and its discursive traditions remain essentially agnostic as to existing distributional battles.  They can be used productively to pursue virtually any end—up to and including socialism.  As the New Deal victories seemed to confirm, constitutional process and language carry no essential theory of political economy.  To the extent that legal-political outcomes have remained in line with a vision of market capitalism and a limited welfare state, this is simply the product of popular will: the complex balance of views expressed across the constitutional system.

But this account ignores a fundamental critique of the constitutional order, one leveled by labor and black radicalism in the first four decades of the twentieth century before Cold War ideas took such an extreme hold. For those activists, the history of sustained racial, indigenous, gender, and class subordination made clear that the country was not then and had never truly been democratic.  Rather, the constitutional order systematically operated to expand the strength of a racial and economic minority.

Continue reading

The App and the Operating System: Neoliberalism and “Social Reproduction”

Angela Harris 

In the LPE community, issues of race, class, sexuality, and environment are sometimes referred to collectively as “social and ecological reproduction.” In this post and others to follow, I want to think about the place of the social and the ecological in “law and political economy.”

As others have written on this blog, one of LPE’s central commitments is the idea that economic and political governance are both constituted through legal rules, reasoning, and institutions. A second commitment is that in a democratically constituted society, economic governance ought not to be treated like a fully autonomous machine, but rather as bound to some extent by political norms. These ideas, of course, are not new (even to legal scholarship, which tends to be a late adopter of new ideas). But they have new force today. As the late Erik Olin Wright observed in a paper on “strategic logics of anti-capitalism,” in the early decades following World War II (the “Golden Age of Capitalism”), federal government policy worked to ameliorate the most damaging effects of capitalism in at least three ways: reducing the exposure of households to catastrophic risk through social insurance; heavily subsidizing public goods such as libraries, education, transportation, parks, and basic science research and development; and creating a regulatory regime to address some of the most devastating “negative externalities” caused by corporate capital, including environmental degradation, predatory market behavior, and workplace exploitation. The reversal of all of these policies, here in the United States and elsewhere in the world, goes under the name “neoliberalism.” And “law and political economy” is critical legal scholarship reinvented for the age of neoliberalism.

What, though, does LPE want? Would rolling back neoliberalism lead us to pack away our laptops and go home? Take, for example, some infamous features of the “Golden Age:” the omission of agricultural and domestic workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the endorsement of “redlining” by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the embrace of gendered labor markets, and the failure of the federal government to provide free child care (let alone abortion and contraception). Stirring as FDR’s “four freedoms” speech continues to be, I wouldn’t want to live in 1941. We need to do more than un-install the neoliberalism app; we need to change out the operating system, and that operating system runs on caste.

Continue reading

Three Views of Constitutional Political Economy

Constitutional Political Economy – What Is It Good For? – On the Labor Scene, Part III of III

we_the_people_fb

William Forbath –

To recap, what constitutional political economy is good for on the labor scene is three-fold:

  1. as a movement discourse that provides moral and political legitimacy to acts of civil disobedience and law-breaking – and lends reform-minded publics and law-makers a keen sense of the stakes for our deeply eroded democracy in enacting reforms that encode a pro-labor constitutional outlook;
  2. as a source of robust accounts of substantive constitutional principles to put on the scales when defending such reforms against neo-liberal constitutional attack;
  3. and, finally, as a framework for labor movement activists, lawyers and policy-mavens to compare and argue about the practical and normative considerations favoring rival constitutional constructions for the future.

Let me close this series with the briefest of sketches of two emerging views of the way forward, with a focus on how they’re interestingly at odds on constitutional grounds.

Continue reading

Janus in Appalachia

Constitutional Political Economy – What Is It Good For? – On the Labor Scene, Part II of III

we_the_people_fb

William Forbath – 

Unlike the workers’ organizations in Kate’s study, just about everything the striking teachers did in West Virginia and Kentucky fell outside the bounds of legality – the strikes themselves, the efforts to “bargain” over not only teachers’ pay but also the states’ miserly education budgets and unjust tax codes, even the stab at collective bargaining itself. It may have been because their demands were broad-based and popular that the striking teachers suffered no legal sanctions and state repression along the way. But not every collective action on the part of hard-hit public employees in red states (or the federal government) is likely to be so lucky. As the anti-strike injunctions and arrests roll out, labor constitutionalism will beckon.

Continue reading

The Labor Movement Never Forgets?

Constitutional Political Economy – What Is It Good For? – On the Labor Scene, Part I of III

we_the_people_fb

William Forbath – 

Is it really a good idea for liberals and the left to be making constitutional arguments against economic inequality? Give it a rest! Take a break from constitutionalizing everything.  And don’t talk about “taking the Constitution away from the courts.” The Constitution always leads to the courts, and the courts are not our friends, certainly not when it comes to fighting economic inequality.

That, in a nutshell, is one reaction to articles and a book-in-progress by Joey Fishkin and me, about what we call The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution. There’s something to be said for this reaction, and I’ll spell it out in a moment. But in the end, I think the arguments in favor of attacking economic inequality by pushing a left-liberal “constitutional political economy” outweigh the arguments against it.

In a nutshell, the arguments in favor of the notion come down to this.  It’s not easy to unpack why the stakes in combatting gross economic inequality are not only about fairness and distributive justice, but also about political freedom and democracy. Constitutional discourse can make that point sharp and resonant. Historically, in the U.S., constitutional-political-economic discourse was crucial to making the case for the proposition: No political democracy without social and economic democracy. It’s time to reinvent that discourse.

I’m going to use labor law as my main setting here. Labor law is the terrain on which Kate Andrias has written a great, sustained critique of Joey’s and my work, in the “Give it a rest!” vein. Responding to Kate’s critique seems a good way to test our views.

Continue reading