Robin Bradley Kar, ‘Contract as Empowerment Part II: Harmonizing the Case Law’

In ‘Contract as Empowerment’, I develop a new theory of contract, ‘Contract as Empowerment’. This article applies that theory to a broad range of doctrinal problems and argues that contract as empowerment offers the best general interpretation of contract law.

The argument proceeds in two stages. First, I identify a core set of legal doctrines, which provide an especially suitable test for different interpretations of contract. Second, I argue that contract as empowerment has the unique capacity to explain this entire constellation of doctrines. Along the way, contract as empowerment offers (1) a more compelling account of the consideration doctrine than exists in the current literature; (2) a more penetrating account of the expectation damages remedy; and (3) a concrete framework to determine the appropriate role of certain doctrines like unconscionability, which limit freedom of contract. Contract as empowerment also explains key doctrines and answers central puzzles at each basic stage of contract analysis. When coupled with its other normative and explanatory advantages, contract as empowerment thus offers the best general interpretation of contract.

The whole of this explanation is, moreover, greater than the sum of its parts. Because of its harmonizing power, contract as empowerment demonstrates how a broad range of seemingly incompatible surface values in modern contract law can work together — each serving its own distinct but partial role — to serve a more fundamental principle distinctive to contract. These surface values include the values of fidelity, autonomy, liberty, efficiency, fairness, trust, reliance and assurance, among others. The current theory suggests that many seeming conflicts between doctrines that serve these values are not, in fact, zero-sum games. So long as the complex interlocking rules of contract are fashioned in the right way, these doctrines can work together to serve a deeper and normatively satisfying principle of empowerment distinctive to contract. This framework can be used to guide legal reform and identify places where market regulation is warranted and needed in many different contexts of exchange — from those involving consumer goods to labor, finance, credit, landlord-tenant, home mortgages and many others.

There is also a deeper implication of contract as empowerment. Contract as empowerment reinterprets the basic nature of contract law and many related forms of economic activity. It suggests that contract law is not simply a set of rules that aim to maximize efficiency and promote personal consumption, rooted solely in competition and self-interest run wild. Contract law is instead a set of rules that produce genuine legal obligations in part because its rules are simultaneously personally empowering and reflective of a deeper moral ideal of equal respect for persons. If — as this article argues — this represents the best general interpretation of contract, then contracts and many related market activities have a distinctive moral fabric that has been running through them for some time now. This moral fabric has been obscured by classical economic interpretations but cannot be ignored in any true social science of these phenomena. Contract as empowerment seeks to cure these distortions. It can lead to a distinctive societal self-understanding, which better integrates economic activity into lives that brim with moral and civic virtue.

Kar, Robin Bradley, Contract as Empowerment Part II: Harmonizing the Case Law (August 6, 2014).

First posted 2014-08-18 12:36:02

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