ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Friday, July 13, 2007

Contract Damages and the Economists

Aab The life of the law, said Holmes, has not been logic, it has been experience.  But that has never stopped anyone from trying to apply logic to it.  No group of people on earth is more logical than the economists, and over the years they have striven mightily to try to explain various doctrines of contract law in logical terms.

Enter Nate Oman (Wm. & Mary), with a new paper, appropriately titled The Failure of Economic Interpretations of the Law of Contract Damages.  Oman doesn't think that the various economic analyses offered to explain contract doctrines are convincing, but he still thinks economics has a lot to say about contract law.  Here's the abstract:

The law of contracts is complex but remarkably stable.  What we lack is a widely accepted interpretation of that law as embodying a coherent set of normative choices.  Some scholars have suggested that either economic efficiency or personal autonomy provide unifying principles of contract law.  These two approaches, however, seem incommensurable, which suggests that we must reject at least one of them in order to have a coherent theory.  This article dissents from this view and has a simple thesis: Economic accounts of the current doctrine governing contract damages have failed, but efficiency arguments remain key to any adequate theory of contract law.  Contractual liability -- like virtually all civil liability -- is structured around the concept of bilateralism, meaning that damages are always paid by defeated defendants to victorious plaintiffs.  Ultimately, economic accounts of this basic feature are unpersuasive.  This criticism, however, leaves untouched many of the key economic insights into the doctrine of contract damages.  The limited failure of economic interpretations points toward a principled accommodation of both autonomy and efficiency in a single vision of contract law where notions of autonomy provide the basic structure and economics fills in most of the doctrinal detail.

[Frank Snyder]

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