But Who Gets the Driveway? Teaching Property as LPE (Sort of)

Jedediah Purdy —

I wrote a lot about Property between 2005 and 2010. I came to the topic as a new law professor because it struck me as something like constitutional law for the economy: the basic arrangement of power, cooperation, and legitimacy. The writing I did then was about how property law creates the terms on which people cooperate. By allocating the resources we all need to live, act, and pursue our projects, it sets up the scope of options and the bargaining power between, say, an investor and an entrepreneur, a business owner and an employee, a homeowner and an undocumented worker doing yard maintenance. The distribution of control over resources is also the distribution of control over lives—one’s own and others.’ It empowers people and, by the same token, makes us vulnerable to one another’s demands.

Property law is often taught as a kind of elementary version of the theory of voluntary market cooperation generally: without ownership, we would fall into the tragedy of the commons, but with it we achieve both economic efficiency and autonomy-respecting uncoerced collaboration. I was interested in the underbelly of this theory: how the ideal landscape of free cooperation is in fact terribly uneven, marked by towers of wealth, highlands of security and capacity, and full of vulnerable lowlands, populated by people who mostly find they have to take what they are offered. The point was critical but also reformist—to look for places where different regimes could make the terms of cooperation more genuinely equal, which ideally would require people to enlist one another’s energy by appealing to their wishes more than to their fears—to make “an offer you can’t refuse” a slogan of joyful acceptance rather than unshakable threat. If the usual utopia of Property is Ronald Coase’s frictionless allocation of all resources to their wealth-maximizing uses, regardless of distributional results, I wanted to introduce an alternative utopia of truly voluntary cooperation, focused not first on the use of resources, but on the shape and tone of the human relationships that arise from a pattern of control over resources.

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Just Transitions?

Sarah Krakoff –


“Either Way the Outlook is Dire, Especially for the Poor.” So concludes a journalist after reviewing a draft report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the environmental justice and human rights consequences of climate change. The 800-plus page report, which is not yet publicly available, details the effects of a 1.5 degree Celsius increase on food systems, water, shelter, infrastructure, and health. Even if countries meet their pledges under the Paris Accords (from which the U.S. withdrew under President Trump) 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030 is locked in. If countries fail to meet their commitments, the world will be well on its way to 2 degrees of warming or more.


“The risks to human societies … are higher with 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming compared to today, and higher still with 2 degrees Celsius global warming compared with 1.5 degrees … These risks are greatest for people facing multiple forms of poverty, inequality and marginalization. —Draft IPCC Report, 2018

On one hand, there is nothing new about this. Environmental harms, and harms of all sorts, have disproportionate impacts on people, communities, and regions with preexisting vulnerabilities. Earthquakes, fires, floods, and drought do not themselves discriminate. But structural wealth insulates people from the ill effects of natural disasters and helps them to recover more quickly. As Mike Davis and John Mcphee have documented, albeit in distinct tones, wealth also constructs the very path of nature’s disasters, steering them away from privilege to the extent possible. Malibu’s ritzy canyon dwellers benefitted from fire suppression, and Pasadena’s craftsmen-style homes from the lassoing of the Los Angeles River, while L.A.’s population as a whole lost public spaces and healthy riparian areas. Climate change has made the unnatural inequalities of natural disasters more visible and acute, but the landscape of injustice preceded sky-rocketing greenhouse gas emissions. Laws, including environmental laws, sometimes shaped that unjust landscape, and at others did little to counter the unequal distribution of environmental and economic benefits.

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State Power and the Construction of Contractual Freedom: Labor and Coercion in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz – 

If forced to choose, I might pick Bailey v. Alabama as my favorite contract law case. That is, if it even counts as one. Which is pretty much my point. Decided in 1911, Bailey is a criminal case – Lonzo Bailey was convicted for fraud.  It is also a constitutional case – the Supreme Court struck down the conviction as violating the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude. A labor case, too – the criminal statute specifically targeted workers who took advances on wages and then later quit before paying the debt. And a race case, though the Court denied it – Alabama’s “false pretenses” statute was one cog in the wheel of Jim Crow neoslavery. But yes, also a contracts case (in a libertarian’s casebook, no less!) because the Court used the case to erect a boundary between criminal and civil consequences for breach of contract.

This overflowing of conventional doctrinal boundaries makes Bailey the perfect vehicle to deliver key insights of a Law & Political Economy approach. So much so that I will do it over multiple posts.

In this first installment, Bailey punctures the ubiquitous conceit that there is or could be an autonomous sphere of economic life – “the free market” – that stands apart from politics, from contests over whether and when to authorize the coercive exercise of governmental power. That contrast between economic freedom and political power is ubiquitous, as in the language contrasting “private” law with government “intervention” in the market (via “public” law). This conceit renders unremarkable what might seem contradictory: a ubiquitous politics that abhors government regulation (of “the economy”) yet thirsts for a state that is “tough on crime.” Continue reading