At the end of my turn, I want to thank the Credit Slips bloggers for the opportunity to talk about some of my work and the readers for putting up with my long posts.
With my last post, I want to turn away from stories and air an issue about which I admit I am rather confused. I hear some modern bankruptcy scholars calling state control the defining characteristic of bankruptcy, and I am not sure what that means, or at least, I am not sure how to explain the way the state and the bankruptcy procedure intersected historically if state control is the defining characteristic. I will agree that from the first, bankruptcy has been a fundamentally statutory system. Not completely, mind you, because medieval northern Europe had a customary debt relief system that was something like bankruptcy, and some of the elements of what became modern bankruptcy were developed customarily in medieval northern Italy. Also, a great deal of English bankruptcy law was judge-created expansion and explanation of the statutes. But at its base, bankruptcy was built on statutes. Thus, even though for centuries the procedure was often run by the creditors, they operated in the shadow or under the compunction of the statutes, and more importantly under the threat of state-imposed punishment for not following the statutes. Given this caveat, I still think that indiscriminately labeling the various shades of state involvement “state control” is to homogenize what was a varied situation. By homogenizing under one descriptor, we lose a sense of important differences. What follows are a few very, very sketchy and selective observations about the public-private coexistence of bankruptcy procedure in several times and places. My question for readers is: what is the role of the state in bankruptcy procedure? Where is it vital and where is it, perhaps, optional?