ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Guest Post: Robin Kar, The Emerging New Life of Contract Law Studies, Part III

KarThis is the third in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. SchneiderMore Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure 

Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.

Part II, Breaking Out of the Shell, can be found here.

Part III: What IsThis Emerging New Life?

In Part II, I described how More Than You Wanted to Know seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions relevant to consumer protection law based not on ungrounded psychological premises or the kind of abstract theoretical reasoning that is typically associated with the classical law and economics paradigm but rather on actual psychological and empirical research. I suggested that these methodological moves explain the power of the book to take us much closer to the truth about use and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure regimes to cure a host of problems in consumer contracting.

As someone interested in methodology and the sociology of knowledge production in the legal academy, I find developments like these incredibly interesting. I am fascinated by the fact that they are often viewed as developments internal to the law and economics movement—even though they essentially dispense with some of its early guiding premises and draw on methodologies from other cognate fields.

The movement to replace classical economic assumptions about human decision-making with psychological facts is, for example, sometimes called “behavioral economics”. But what is really happening is that classical economic assumptions about human psychology are being replaced with direct psychological research into the relevant facts. Similarly, the move to replace economic modeling with rigorous empirical research is sometimes called “econometrics”. But what is really happening—at least within the legal academy—is that fewer law and economics scholars are making predictions about legal rules based merely on theoretical modeling and more are engaging in genuine empirical research. When they do this, they typically use statistical and other methods developed in the social sciences more generally—and not methods specific to the field of economics.  

Morethan In my view, one of the greatest virtues of some parts of the law and economics movement is that it has been willing to revise many of its early premises and adopt methodologies from other fields when necessary to make its scholarship better track the truth. This willingness is also one of its greatest sources of continuing strength. Because of this willingness, the field has essentially been able to absorb a broad range of criticisms, while continuing to broaden in influence and produce scholarship that better tracks the truth. More Than What You Wanted to Know is a wonderful example of this development—at least when it come to curing distortions caused by the first two premises of the classical law and economics paradigm.  (For a description of these 3 premises, see here.)  

Still, as far as I know, there is not yet any name for the move to replace ungrounded economic assumptions about how to assess normative arguments (i.e., premise 3 from Part I) with rigorous thought developed by experts in the appropriate cognate fields. These are the fields of moral, legal and political philosophy, along with the field of meta-ethics. Corresponding to this fact, there is not yet as robust an acknowledgment of the need for this move within many influential contract law circles.

When I say I believe significant new life may be emerging in the study of contract law, I am nevertheless referring to the possibility that all three of the classical law and economics premises be replaced with rigorous lines of evidence and argumentation drawn from the correct cognate fields. I am referring to a highly interdisciplinary research program that draws on (1) our best contemporary psychological findings into decision-making and how humans operate with legal rules when asking psychological questions relevant to contract law, (2) rigorous empirical research into the consequences of different legal rules when adopted by groups with real human psychologies, and (3) philosophically well-grounded argumentation and debate over the normative propositions that are most relevant to contract law.

I am describing a hope, not an expectation—because it is we, as a field, who will decide whether this new life fully emerges. 

For a range of historically contingent reasons, the classical law and economics movement may just end up serving as the early vehicle (or the proverbial “egg”) for this transition within the legal academy. I believe that would be an incredibly good thing for the study of contract law because it would essentially allow the legal academy to adapt a ready-made set of social and academic networks that are already studying this subject matter intensively and in highly influential manners. But this would also require a much greater appreciation by scholars who work within this paradigm of the need for more rigorous philosophical input on normative questions.

The result would, moreover, not just be an expanded sub-field of law and economics. It would be better described as a fully informed search for the truth. The proverbial “egg” will have given birth to something much, much better.

But we are not yet there yet. There is still too large a disconnect between moral and political philosophers and economists within the legal academy. Hence, a great deal of highly influential work on contract law still risks producing distortion. In Part IV, I will show how this problem still affects many discussions of consumer protection law. I will also make a plea that we work together to breath the right new life into contract law studies going forward.

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