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John C.P. Goldberg & Benjamin C. Zipursky, Hohfeldian Analysis and the Separation of Rights and Powers, in Wesley Hohfeld A Century Later: Edited Work, Select Personal Papers, and Original Commentaries, (Shyamkrishna Balganesh, Ted M. Sichelman & Henry E. Smith eds., forthcoming 2022).


Abstract: At the time he wrote, Wesley Hohfeld seemed to be of the view that longstanding conceptual confusions that had blocked progress in legal thought — particularly confusions about legal rights — would soon be put to rest. If so, rights have proved a tougher nut to crack than he expected. Indeed, the difficulty of providing an adequate account of rights has led many scholars, including scholars who share Hohfeld’s aptitude and aspirations for analytic philosophy, to lose sight of a distinction central to Hohfeld’s project, namely, the distinction between a right (or claim right) and a power. Or so we argue in Part I. Worse, confusions over rights and powers, when combined with a particular understanding of what constitutes clear-eyed analysis of legal issues, has contributed to the now-widely shared but mistaken supposition that common law reasoning must (or should) take the form of instrumental reasoning. We outline this claim in Parts II and III. Ultimately, we suggest that Hohfeld’s juristic legacy contains two profound ironies. His entirely sound insistence on the analytic separation of legal rights and legal powers has helped to obscure their deep substantive connection in certain bodies of law, especially tort and contract law. And his implicit acceptance of the idea that a commitment to conceptual clarity goes hand in hand with instrumentalism in legal analysis has indirectly led prominent courts — including most famously the California Supreme Court in landmark decisions such as Rowland v. Christian — to mangle how rights, duties, and powers are linked within private law.