The Rise and Fall of Article 2
On August 13, 2001 the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws voted 89 to 53 to reject the 2001 Amendments to Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code that had just been approved in May by the American Law Institute. While negotiations continue, this public split between the two bodies that have together shepherded the UCC project for over fifty years represents the likely end of the fourteen year effort to revise the law of sales as embodied in Article 2.
In this Essay, I examine the political economy of the Article 2 project from its origins to the present. I begin by analyzing the drafting and enactment process of the original Article 2 and evaluate the success of the new sales law it introduced, a success attributable in no small measure to the replacement of archaic vestiges of property law with efficient contract default rules. I then I consider the effects of the compromises Karl Llewellyn made to secure the enactment of the Code. Of particular significance is how the vague terms that invoke the commercial context (originally intended by Llewellyn as a means of incorporating ex ante default rules) have been used to challenge the objective meaning of disputed contracts. For many commercial contractors, exit may have been a cheaper option than lobbying for clearer and more predictable default rules. But the parties to mass-market sales transactions remain subject to Article 2, and their representatives have sought to influence the revision process. Thus, the focus has shifted from Llewellyn's original goal of prescribing optimal default rules for commercial contracts to the current debate over proscribing freedom of contract in mass-market transactions. The resulting divergence between the interests of producers and those of consumer buyers, computer information licensees and their representatives has produced deadlock.
I conclude that the flaws in the Article 2 project were present from its inception. Given the limits of legal regulation, it is unlikely that any set of "uniform" rules that are promulgated for adoption in every state can both efficiently complete the gaps in commercial contracts as well as optimally police consumer transactions. In sum, the uniform laws process works when there is distributional symmetry (when today's buyer might be tomorrow's seller). On the other hand, the process deadlocks when it seeks to produce uniform rules for transaction-types in which the distributional effects are asymmetric and prices do not adjust efficiently to compensate for the victory of one group in the legislative process.