Can Contract Emancipate? Contract Theory and The Law of Work
23 Theoretical Inquiries L. (2022 Forthcoming)
38 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2021 Last revised: 20 Oct 2021
Date Written: April 28, 2021
Contract and employment law have grown apart. Long ago, each side gave up on the other. In this Article, we re-unite them to the betterment of both. In brief, we demonstrate the emancipatory potential of contract for the law of work.
Today, the dominant contract theories assume a widget transaction between substantively equal parties. If this were an accurate description of what contract is, then contract law would be right to expel workers. Worker protections would indeed be better regulated by – and relegated to – employment and labor law. But contract law is not what contract theorists claim. Neither is contract law what the dominant employment theorists fear – a domain that necessarily misses the constitutive place of work in people’s life-plans and overlooks the systemic vulnerability of workers to their employers.
Contract, we contend, is not work law’s canonical “other.” Rightly understood, contract is an autonomy-enhancing device, one founded on the fundamental liberal commitment of reciprocal respect for self-determination. From this “choice theory” perspective, the presumed opposition between employment and contract law dissolves. We show that many employment law doctrines are not external to contract, but are instead entailed in liberal contract itself.
Grounding worker protections in contract theory has two salutary effects. First, it offers workers more secure protection than that afforded by their reliance on momentary public law compromises. Second, it reveals contract’s emancipatory potential for all of us – not just as workers, but also as widget buyers. Contract can empower, and employment can show the way.
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