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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Reconstructing the Administrative State

Blake Emerson –

In the early weeks of the Trump presidency, Steve Bannon declared that one of its principal tasks would be the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Though Bannon has since left the White House, this project has so far proved one of its most enduring preoccupations. Administrative bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, and Federal Communications Commission have reversed course on key progressive initiatives such as reductions in carbon emissions, healthcare insurance enrollment, police reform, redress of campus sexual harassment and assault, and net neutrality.

agencies

The tenured civil service is being sidelined, or even targeted by opposition research firms hired by their own departments. The recently enacted tax bill promises to starve the government of the resources to sustain the remaining pillars of the welfare state, namely Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court casts doubt on the future of a core principle of administrative law—that courts should defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of statutory ambiguities.

This effort to rein-in the regulatory state has been at the center of the conservative agenda since the 1930s, and ascendant since Reagan. It overlaps with a broader neoliberal policy framework that many centrist Democrats share, which remains skeptical of the public provision of goods and services, and “command-and-control” regulation. Bill Clinton’s bipartisan mantra that “the era of big government is over” has steadily eroded regulatory and welfare institutions, and fulfilled its own prophecy that bureaucrats are incapable of promoting the public good.

As we near the pinnacle of this era of governance, Bannon’s declaration throws into relief a constituent feature of any viable counter-movement. If we are to develop a political program capable of rescuing the American polity from private domination, economic inequality, and caste hierarchy, we must think through what kind of administrative apparatus could carry that program into action. One that sees its role primarily as correcting market failures, “nudging” individuals to make decisions the expert deems wise, and maximizing aggregate social welfare, is likely to simply reproduce the logic of private enterprise within government.

The hegemonic framework for policy reasoning today—cost-benefit analysis—attempts to approximate market pricing where it does not exist, asking, for example, how much people are “willing to pay” to avoid certain kinds of harms. Such methods can be useful in ensuring that decision-makers fully take into account the economic effects of proposed courses of action. But they instill a regulatory ideology where the model of formally free, reciprocal, and competitive exchange predominates over the practice of joint action motivated by a common aim. We come to approach even political rights and obligations as priced commodities rather than as products of either reasoned agreement or social struggle. Instead of a cost-benefit state, we need a state that simulates an egalitarian society and stimulates a democratic politics.

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Law, Political Economy, and the Legal Realist Tradition Revisited

K. Sabeel Rahman — 

As David, Amy, and Jed note in their opening post, the economic, social, political, and ecological crises of the current moment are helping fuel an exciting wave of legal scholarship. This emerging trend, the “law and political economy” (LPE) approach, interrogates the relationships between law, politics, and economics, exploring issues of power, inequality, democracy, and social change. As we explore what this approach might mean and what its implications might be, it is important to situate these inquiries in a larger history of legal scholarship and reform politics. This is not the first time that a similar moment of crisis has helped spur creative new thinking about the relationships between law, capitalism, and democracy—and it won’t be the last. In this post, I want to sketch a particular aspect of this trajectory: the long legacy of legal realism and its relationship to our current debates around law and political economy.

This legacy is important for two reasons. First, now, as then, we face a similar period of socioeconomic upheaval and political conflict, prompting us to rethink our legal structures. As a result, the substantive insights of legal realism remain valuable for an LPE approach today. Second, recalling the trajectory of legal realism and its successor intellectual movements is helpful in highlighting the kinds of tensions and questions that an LPE approach will have to continue to address.

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