|Joe Jones, Wastelands (c. 1937)|
Jill Fraley recently posted "Waste Law", a critique of Morton Horwitz's influential account of the changes in American property law brought about by industrialization, and of the methodology she thinks supported his work. For the uninitiated, "waste" is the common-law doctrine that says that tenants of real estate cannot make changes to the property to detriment of those with future interests in the land; Adam Wolkoff explains its significance from an environmental history perspective here. Fraley's abstract:
The history of waste law, posited as a radical transformation from the traditional English rule to a uniquely American one to support resource exploitation, provided a cornerstone for Morton Horwitz’s influential view of the transformation of American law. While Horwitz’s general approach to the transformation of law has been critiqued, his economics-driven view of waste law has remained the primary narrative from textbook to scholarly accounts. Yet Horwitz’s account of waste law’s transformation lacks evidentiary support. Indeed, the story of waste law has remained half written because scholars have examined the American doctrine without considering the prior and concurrent English cases. This article provides a previously unwritten history of waste law and demonstrates that despite vastly different social and economic contexts, American courts and English courts shifted roughly contemporaneously and in parallel. Both jurisdictions shifted in response to innovations in surveying technology and title recordation. For American courts, the changes were both less radical and less American than previously suggested, maintaining a deep fidelity to the English tradition.
Given that Horwitz’s overall theory of transformation has been criticized and that the evidence so little supports Horwitz’s account, the traction of Horwitz’s narrative of waste presents quite a quandary. By examining the resilience of Horwitz’s narrative, this article suggests a critique of the methodology of legal history. By overly focusing on social contexts, historians have allowed themselves to be anachronistically biased, viewing transformations of law through a lens of the inevitability of industrialization. While social contexts provide key data points, the law and society methodology does not absolve historians of their duties to doctrinal investigation. When scholars examine transformations through the lens of social context without engaging the history of doctrine, they risk distorting the role of law as an independent, stable, and internally consistent structure of society — one that promotes social stability and affirms existing rights and investments, particularly where property is concerned. Only by reintegrating and reaffirming the role of doctrinal investigation can we mold a more accurate method of examining the transformations of American law.