Against the Economic Pie: How Economic “Maximizing” Skews Legal Analysis

Martha T. McCluskey –

Should law maximize or divide the “economic pie”? Law students learn that smart thinking begins by asking this question. But this question skews legal analysis against a political economy perspective. It implicitly presumes a hierarchy where an abstract idea of economic gain normally stands above and beyond political and moral concerns, bigger in size and first in order.

Economic-Pie.jpgA recent New York Times commentary by pundit Thomas L. Friedman exemplifies the ideological work of this binary. Friedman contrasts the “redivide-the-pie” political left with various “grow-the-pie” political visions grounded in what he presents as the more realistic understanding that private economic power, not egalitarian democracy, is the foundation of good jobs and general prosperity. Similarly, legal academics often use terms like “economic efficiency” or “economic welfare” to define the optimal legal order as a matter of maximizing economic gain aside from fairness or the well-being of particular persons. For example, students learn to use efficiency to rationalize tort law limits on corporate liability for consumers’ injuries from risky products, or to justify contract law rules upholding agreements that produce harsh or exploitative results.

This first of two posts on this framing question challenges the implicit spatial metaphor embedded in the distinction between maximizing and dividing the economic pie. By definition, the whole is always greater than any particular part. We skip over many hard and important questions when we imagine the societal “whole” as a maximum “pie,” that can then be sliced and distributed for particular interests. The efficiency-distribution binary distorts legal analysis in three ways. First, the image of “maximizing” emphasizes quantity, rather than quality; second, it presumes economic gains normally and objectively expand rather than tightens the boundaries of prosperity and well-being; and third, it represents gain as a sum of separable parts, rather than as an interdependent system.

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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.

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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

It’s Mine, and Yours

Rashmi Dyal-Chand –

I teach in a law school where most students and faculty pride themselves on falling somewhere along a spectrum of progressive, extremely progressive, socialist, and left anarchist. Thus, every year, usually within the first month of starting my first-semester property law course, I find myself surprised that the vast majority of my students appear to be intuitively and deeply committed to the idea that property ownership is and should be fundamentally about exclusion. Many of the same students who demonstrate depth of understanding about issues of discrimination, inequality, and power, voice the intuition that exclusion is somehow essential to those of us in the 99% (including their family and friends) without really considering the ways in which exclusion produces and maintains maldistribution.

Regularly, the first instance when students voice this commitment during class is when we discuss Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, in which an elderly couple sued a manufacturer of mobile homes for trespass when the defendant crossed an unused portion of their land for the purpose of delivering a mobile home to their neighbors. I have long used Joe Singer’s casebook, and I start my course with a unit on trespass that begins with State v. Shack. Thanks to Singer’s pioneering analysis of public accommodations law as central to understanding the principle of access in property law, I spend much of the trespass unit discussing the balance in trespass law between exclusion and access. Yet when we get to Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, students voice their intuition that the Jacques had the right to exclude the mobile home company from their property. “Why?” I ask, “Their property was in no way harmed by the defendant’s use of it.” They typically answer with some version of: “Because the defendant is a big corporate entity and the Jacques have very little power. The only power they have is over their property. We can’t take that power away.” “Well,” I ask, “what about the fact that mobile homes are a major source of affordable housing in this country? What if the company was doing its best to limit the costs of installing affordable housing on the neighboring property in order to avoid transferring those costs to the Jacques’ neighbors, who may not have been able to afford those costs?” For years, when we had this conversation, the students remained resolute. They said, for example, that the larger point still remained that corporations have too much power in this country and that property rights are our defense to such power.

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The Racial Wealth Gap and the Question of Time Zero

Michelle Wilde Anderson

Each year teaching Property Law, I have taught many of the big cases and topics on race and property law, such as M’Intosh and Dred Scott; segregationist turbulence in rights of reasonable access; public accommodations law; racially restrictive covenants; the Fair Housing Act. I never quite had a cohesive idea about this—they each seemed formative.

Meanwhile, evolving case law and politics have made it clear that we still have a basic disagreement at the heart of American law and politics, and my students carry that question with them into class: On matters of race, did we reset the playing field of property to start a merit system where fair access to markets would govern? Did we create a new Time Zero—for instance, when LBJ signed the Fair Housing Act as a gesture of solace and appeasement seven days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination?

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Property Law as Poverty Law

Michelle Wilde Anderson –

I recently interviewed a man in a weakened rural town who makes sausages for a local meat packing business on the 3am shift. He told me about a homeless woman who had come to the meat shop one dark morning with blood-soaked hands. Delirious with cold and exhaustion, she had punched in the glass on an abandoned burrito shack to shelter from the cold rain overnight.

For her, housing and land still matter. The forces of weather and gravity mean that 100% of people need shelter, with a patch of dirt for it to stand on. More than ever, it seems that housing and land matter most for understanding poverty and rising inequality. An average of more than 550,000 people were homeless each night in 2017, and 6,300 people are evicted in the US every single day. I live in San Francisco, where just yesterday I passed by 40 or so tent shelters on sidewalks, plus two Lamborghinis worth at least $250,000. I’ll guess that those cars don’t spend their nights outside.

The 1L introductory Property Law course isn’t usually about how law helps protect money and drive poverty, but I think it could be. Teaching it as a class mostly centered on land helps it get there.

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Teaching from Narrative in Property Law – Part II of II

Kali Murray –

In my last post, I argued that property law needs to tell new stories, and in doing so, a key benefit would be that we would “uncover” the relationship between property and equality.  In this second post, I will turn to another benefit to using narrative as a teaching tool–the ability to “frame” abstract concepts by grounding them in experiential detail.  To do so, I would like to tell a story.

One of my favorite property narratives comes from an entry contained in the diary of Charlotte Forten, a noted antebellum African-American abolitionist. In this entry, written in 1864, Forten describes visiting a government-occupied plantation in South Carolina before she went to work with newly freed communities. During her visit, Forten marvels that when she “[a]rrived at the Superintendent’s house we were kindly greeted by him and the ladies and shown into a lofty ceilinged parlor where a cheerful wood fire glowed in a grate, and soon we began to feel quite at home in the very heart of Rebeldom.” Forten’s narrative offers a new frame by which we can view three subjects that are often poorly understood in property law: dispossession, disruption and spatiality.

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Teaching from Narrative in Property Law – Part I of II

Kali Murray –

My teaching in Property Law is shaped by stories (if I am feeling fancy, I call them narratives). Whether true, false, or fictive (to borrow Carlos Ginzburg’s wonderful delineation), narratives enrich my teaching in property law because they offer a way to interrogate how property regimes manifest political, social and economic hierarchies within different societies.

This focus on these “thread of narrations” has been influenced by property law scholarship in the last twenty years. Groundbreaking work on property law that we have seen in the last twenty or so years in a number of disciplines including critical legal studies, progressive property theory, critical race studies, feminist theory, anthropology, geography and social/cultural history, led me as a young scholar to ask two questions:

  • Whose stories do we tell in Property Law?
  • If we tell new stories, how would that impact how Property Law is taught?

Early in my teaching career I encountered a law review article that prompted me to reconsider whose stories get told in Property Law: Evelyn Alicia Lewis’s masterful article, Struggling With Quicksand, in which Lewis addresses a default rule that manages shared ownership of property called a tenancy in common, which describes the relationship that arises where two or more people may have ownership interests in one property. In Struggling with Quicksand, Lewis uses a personal narrative of her family’s fraught disagreements over the family homestead to explore how default rules related to tenancies in common have often disfavored communities of color. Specifically, according to Lewis, default tenancy in common rules often fail to address when one sibling co-owner retains possession of the property, thus potentially disfavoring those co-owner siblings that do not retain possession of the homestead. The default tenancy in common rule does not manage conflict well between the in-tenant and the out-tenant, and consequently, this rule may harm families of color because such families may lack access to lawyers that might help them navigate around default rules.

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1LPE Round-up

Earlier this fall, the LPE blog launched 1LPE, which aimed to provide a critical countervailing perspective on the doctrinal areas traditionally constituting the 1L curriculum. Take a look at what we’ve published – and get ready for more posts after the break!

Criminal Law




Constitutional Law