Samuel Scheffler, Distributive Justice, the Basic Structure and the Place of Private Law, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Volume 35, Issue 2, p. 213-235
In John Rawls’s theory, the role of the principles of justice is to regulate the basic structure of society—its major social, political and economic institutions—and to specify the fair terms of cooperation for free and equal persons. Some have interpreted Rawls as excluding contract law, and perhaps the private law as a whole, from the basic structure. However, this interpretation of Rawls is untenable, given the motivations for his emphasis on the basic structure and the highly inclusive characterisations he gives of it. Yet if he includes private law within the basic structure, he seems committed to holding that its design and operations should be regulated by his two principles of justice, which govern the distribution of basic liberties, economic resources and opportunities. This would leave it unclear whether there was any room for values other than distributive values to inform the design of private law. Leaving no role for other values might be unproblematic if distributive justice were a master normative category with equal regulative authority over all basic social institutions. But we should not assume that this ‘distributivist paradigm’ gives the best interpretation either of private law or of the fair terms of cooperation for a society of free and equal people. We need to think further about how non-distributive values may inform the principles of justice that regulate the institutional structure of society. And we need to ask how much of law, whether public or private, is regulated solely by principles of justice that focus on the distribution of basic liberties, economic resources and opportunities.