Thursday, September 5, 2013
This is the eighth in a series of posts in our online symposium on the Contracts Scholarship of Stewart Macaulay. More about the online symposium can be found here. More information about this week's guest bloggers can be found here.
Doctrines of Last Resort
Last week I had occasion to re-read “The Path of the Law” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and I was reminded of my many discussions about contract law with Stewart Macaulay (pictured, below left). During my time teaching at Wisconsin, the Contracts professors held weekly lunches to discuss the materials we were covering in class. These discussions would often turn to the fundamental question that Stewart began to wrestle with in his famous study “Non-Contractual Relations in Business” and that has fascinated him ever since, namely, “What good is contract law?”
In “The Path of the Law,” Holmes offered a well-known and provocative perspective on this question: the purpose of law is to constrain “the bad man.” Whether Holmes actually believed that one who “want[s] to know the law and nothing else … must look at it as a bad man” is the subject of some dispute, but the bad man has become an important starting point for thinking about law for generations of law students and remains a powerful image for legal scholars.
In “Non-Contractual Relations in Business” – and in our lunchtime discussions – Stewart didn’t seem to have much faith in law to constrain the bad man. Mark Suchman deftly summarized the core insight of Stewart’s most famous work: “Legal doctrine and legal recourse often matter very little . . . since most transactions are governed, in practice, by informal community norms, enforced by informal social sanctions.” On more than one occasion, therefore, I pressed Stewart on whether his emphasis on the impotence of contract law undermined our teaching of the course to first-year law students.
But the point for Stewart was never that contract law is irrelevant, only that it is sometimes overemphasized by legal scholars, particularly legal scholars who rely on highly reductionist theories of human behavior. Indeed, in his more recent article, “The Real and the Paper Deal,” Stewart observes, “doctrine can matter.” In my contribution to the book, I focus on a collection of legal doctrines, which I call the “doctrines of last resort,” and I argue that these doctrines matter because they facilitate contract formation.
The doctrines of good faith and fair dealing, fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment are doctrines of last resort because they are activated only when all other potentially applicable commands from constitutions, statutes, regulations, ordinances, common law decisions and contracts have been exhausted. In these circumstances – where positive law and private ordering are otherwise incomplete – contracting parties rely heavily on informal social sanctions to protect against opportunism, but the doctrines of last resort reinforce these social sanctions. Rather than regulating all of the deviations and adjustments that are common in contractual relationships, doctrines of last resort constrain extreme deviations from social norms, reinforcing agreements precisely in those contexts where informal social sanctions are weakest.
In my essay, I introduce the notion of “boundary enforcement,” arguing that the doctrines of last resort are united by a similar objective: the establishment of boundaries on self-interested behavior to mitigate opportunism. This concept is developed further in my working paper (with Jordan Lee) entitled Discretion, which focuses on the role of the duty of loyalty. Two insights about boundary enforcement are crucial to that paper and not limited to fiduciary law. First, “boundary enforcement” suggests that courts should respect the reasonable exercise of private decision making within the boundaries established by the doctrines of last resort. In contract law, for example, courts should generally respect the deals struck by the parties, even if the courts would have struck a different deal. Second, when boundaries are not established by the contracting parties, courts often turn to industry customs and social norms to establish the limits of self-interested behavior, and this is a sensible way to meet the reasonable expectations of the parties. By establishing the boundaries of opportunism in this way, the doctrines of last resort not only constrain the bad man, but embolden private parties to form contractual relationships, thus servicing another important value in law: the promotion of entrepreneurial action.
[Posted, on Gordon Smith's behalf, by JT]