06 April 2016

Straining Toward Natural Law: Margaret Radin and Contract Degradation Part 1.5.1

Last week I posted some initial comments about Professor Margaret Radin's article Access to Justice and Abuses of Contract here. I had planned to get to Part 2 this week but an apposite comment by Eric Enlow, dean of Handong International Law School in Pohang, Korea, has forced me to reconsider two points I made my first time around.

Dean Enlow first questions my conclusion that, just as contracts are means by which humans obtain private goods, so too public remedies for breach of contract are private goods. Quoting myself,

[I]s a right to claim damages for breach of contract a public good? It seems not: the remedy of contract damages--like the practice of contracting--is a private good. 
To which Dean Enlow responds, 
I don't understand why the practice of courts' remedying of breaches of contract concerns only private good. To the contrary, if courts create a state of affairs where the public knows that a breach of a private contract may be remedied, then it creates public conditions where people may contract at lower costs and with greater confidence. Courts thereby facilitate more commercial transactions by lowering transaction costs. Courts may also promote the moral development of personal responsibility in taking responsibility for certain commitments with others and making amends for harms caused by failing in those commitments. 
In other words--my words--provision of a civil remedy for a private wrong (damages suffered as a result of breach of a contract) contributes to the public good in two ways. First, contract law works to increase the frequency of the social practice of contracting and, second, contract law functions as a tutor of private virtue, in particular the virtue of promise-keeping or fidelity. The first promotes an increase in the aggregate number of private goods while the second, the goad of potential civil liability for contract breach, works to increase our individual well-doing, our individual flourishing. In turn, individual flourishing contributes to the flourishing of society as a whole.

In response, I agree with the second of Enlow's points but not the first. With respect to his first criticism, increasing the quantity of private goods (what economists call welfare maximization) may be good for an individual but the effects of American consumerism (my thoughts about consumerism here; even better ones here) suggests that welfare maximization may in fact detract from growth in individual and collective virtue. (Some earlier thoughts on that point here.) In any event, and returning to a point I made in my initial post, I remain unconvinced that welfare maximization is a condition sufficient to identify a public good. I suspect that nothing can be a public good that affirmatively reduces our capacity for private goods but I don't believe the converse follows. In other words, increasing welfare is a necessary but not a sufficient condition by which to identify a public good.

I stand corrected by Enlow's second observation. Promotion of the virtue of fidelity is a public good and contract law can promote fidelity. It is particularly vexing to have overlooked this point because I've made it on previous occasions (see my posts here and here). We all must admit that we need socially instantiated practices to grow in virtue, a habitual turn to the good, and contract law is one such practice. Thus, I affirm that contract law is a public good.

In conclusion, I am grateful to know that someone reads what I write and takes the time to respond thoughtfully to it. Dean Enlow raised an additional point about my Aristotelian account of justice to which I hope to respond soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your careful consideration of my comment. I offer some further thoughts of agreement and attempted refinement on these fine remarks over at: