You probably own something which is worth more to you than the money you could sell it for. Wedding rings and family heirlooms are obvious examples. Suppose that this thing which you value so much had been damaged in some way, and you took it to a repair shop. Suppose that this repair shop, as is common, was in the business of selling as well as repairing items like yours. Suppose lastly that, because of mistake or malice, the repair shop sold your item instead of returning it to you. Certainly, you would want to recover your item and would expect the law to support your claim. After all, you have a right to your property, and when the repair shop sold your property instead of returning it to you, your property right was violated. Protecting property rights is one of the essential functions of government; in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” But in the circumstances described above, your high expectations would be disappointed. Under current law, although you could sue to recover the monetary value of the item, you could not recover the item itself.
State law governing the sale of goods is based on a body of model statutes called the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Instead of arising from the usual legislative process, the UCC was written by two private legal organizations and then enacted—with a few modifications—by the legislatures of most states. See UCC Introduction. The provision of the UCC that would prevent you from recovering your item in the circumstances described above reads as follows, “Any entrusting of possession of goods to a merchant who deals in goods of that kind gives him power to transfer all rights of the entruster to a buyer in the ordinary course of business. … regardless of any condition expressed between the parties …” UCC § 2-403(2)-(3).
So we see that in some circumstances state law explicitly refuses to protect you from clear violations of your property rights. This isn’t earth-shattering news. It probably won’t make you jump out of your chair and start a revolution. Nevertheless, it is worth noting because this and other laws which work similar mischief are evidence of a dangerous trend in society’s view of property rights. Put simply, concerns about commercial efficiency have come to trump principles of justice.
The efficiency justification for UCC § 2-403 runs something like this: commerce depends upon low-cost transactions between buyers and sellers. If buyers were obliged to return goods that they had purchased under circumstances like those described above (a repairman wrongfully selling goods that were only entrusted to him for repair), then buyers could never be certain that they actually owned the goods that they paid for. This uncertainty about ownership would have inefficient consequences. For example, some buyers would pay to investigate whether the seller had actual ownership of the goods; some buyers would buy anonymously to avoid the risk; and some transactions simply wouldn’t happen at all. These inefficiencies and other consequences of uncertainty would stifle commerce.
I don’t know whether these efficiency concerns stem from sound economics, but it doesn’t really matter. The important question is not whether a law is efficient; the important question is whether a law is just. Just laws are the foundation of individual liberty because just laws recognize and protect individual rights. UCC § 2-403 is an unjust law because after implicitly recognizing a property right, it declines to enforce it. Sadly, this is not an isolated problem.
This substitution of efficiency for justice manifests itself in many other areas of the law. In real property law, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not bar government from seizing the homes of private citizens and giving them to a corporation if that corporation could show that it would make more efficient use of the land. Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005). In nuisance law, courts now allow individuals to damage their neighbor’s property through the creation of a nuisance if that nuisance produces economically efficient results. Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co., 26 NY2d 219 (1970). These are only two examples of many.
Justice is the heart of good law. If we substitute efficiency for justice, law becomes nothing more than a manipulable mechanism for invoking government force. Justice is a foundational part of American traditions. Among the few phrases of the Pledge of Allegiance that have remained constant—and have not been the target of law suits—is the phrase “liberty and justice for all.” Do we really want to substitute such noble ideals with an uninspiring surrender like “efficiency and commerce for all”?