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Contract Theory and the Limits of Contract Law

  • Alan Schwartz

    (Yale Law School)

  • Robert Scott

    (Yale School of Management)

Contract law has neither a complete descriptive theory, explaining what the law is, nor a complete normative theory, explaining what the law should be. These gaps are unsurprising given the traditional definition of contract as embracing all promises that the law will enforce. Even a theory of contract law that focuses only on the enforcement of bargains must still consider the entire continuum from standard form contracts between firms and consumers to commercial contracts between business firms. No descriptive theory has yet explained a law of contract that comprehends such a broad domain. Normative theories that are grounded in a single norm -- such as autonomy or efficiency -- also have foundered over the heterogeneity of contractual contexts to which the theory is to apply. Pluralist theories attempt to respond to the difficulty that unitary normative theories pose by urging courts to pursue efficiency, fairness, good faith and the protection of individual autonomy. Such theories need, but so far lack, a meta principle that tells which of these goals should be decisive when they conflict. We attempt to make progress here with a more modest approach -- to set out and defend a normative theory to guide decisionmakers in the regulation of business contracts.

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Paper provided by Yale Law School John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics, and Public Policy in its series Yale Law School John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics, and Public Policy Working Paper Series with number yale_lepp-1011.

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Handle: RePEc:bep:yaloln:yale_lepp-1011
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  1. Schmitz, Patrick W., 2001. "The Hold-Up Problem and Incomplete Contracts: A Survey of Recent Topics in Contract Theory," MPRA Paper 12562, University Library of Munich, Germany.
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