Social Insurance and the Autonomy of Private Law
Grading my secured transaction’s exam has got me thinking about the politics of private law. In particular, I think that debates about the proper level of government provided social insurance have a way of distorting our thinking about private law. Consider the much debated subordination of tort victims to secured creditors in bankruptcy. In law school I was taught that the debtor-friendly American bankruptcy system (and yes, even after the supposedly draconian 2005 amendments, it is still among the most debtor friendly bankruptcy laws around) was a substitute for our lamentable lack of a greater government funding for social insurance. Implicit in this line of argument, however, is that tort judgments are supposed to function as a kind of insurance mechanism.
Tort as insurance, however, doesn’t really make that much sense. From an economic point of view there is no a priori reason to suppose that tortfeasors can provide insurance at a lower cost than tort victims. Furthermore, the dominant philosophical theories of tort – corrective justice and civil recourse – don’t view damages as providing insurance to victims. Rather, damages are supposed to vindicate a moral claim by the plaintiff against the defendant, either to compensation or to the right of legitimate retaliation against the tortfeasor. Indeed, for a civil recourse theory in particular, the important thing about a tort system is that it allows a tort victim to act against the person who has wrong him. Driving the tortfeasor into bankruptcy may serve this purpose just as well as money damages, even if the victim ultimately receives pennies on the dollar in bankruptcy.
Indeed, if we take moral theories of private law seriously, then the traditional ideological positions in some of our legal debates get moved around in rather interesting ways. For example, a corrective justice theorist would be quite troubled by a tortfeasors ability to avoid paying compensation in bankruptcy (a “progressive” position) while at the same time being quite hostile to punitive damages (a “conservative” position). A civil recourse theory, on the other hand, would be less concerned about the subordination of tort victims to secured creditors in bankruptcy (a “conservative” position), while being quite a bit friendlier to claims for punitive damages (a “progressive” position). Even more interesting that this diversion from traditional ideological groupings, however, is the way that these theories are both more or less indifferent to the questions of social insurance that so dominated my own introduction to bankruptcy and commercial law.