Please Initial Here, Here, Here, Here, and Here, And Sign There

In theory, I agree with Jim Manzi that adults ought to take responsibility for contracts that they enter. “To the extent that we can count on people to act responsibly,” he writes, “we can have a less regulated economy that will tend to produce greater freedom and growth.”

But I think that Jim neglects to mention a major obstacle to this kind of system: the legal profession, and its ever-expanding presence on the American scene. Is it even possible for the average American to read and understand all the terms put before her by corporations, government, and the former following the dictates of the latter? Perhaps if I really worked at it, I could grasp all the “terms of use” I agree to on the Internet, the intricacies of my two credit cards, the warranties on the consumer products I buy, the tax laws in all the jurisdictions where I earn freelance income, the insurance provisions in car rental agreements, the liability agreements in parking garages, the waiver I’m forced to sign when I rent a kayak on the Back Bay in Newport Beach, California, the forms I’m forced to fill out whenever I visit a new doctor or dentist, the arbitration clauses in the health and dental insurance I carry, the non-disclosure agreements I’ve been given, the signs on the doors of seemingly every building in California telling me that cancerous materials are lingering about, my cell phone contract, and all the rest…

I suspect, however, that if I did read all the relevant language, I’d be losing rather than gaining utility, especially because odds are that if I ran any one of the documents by a lawyer friend they’d patiently explain to me that although it may seem like the language of the agreement states X, it actually means Y, or at least it did until the terms changed without warning, as the contract states they might, to Z (except in California, Wyoming and Texas, where the clause in question is superseded by statutes 1, 2, and 3 respectively).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that adults are absolved of understanding all the agreements that they enter, or that Jim is wrong about the particular case of credit cards, on which I take no position. But the volume of legal material the average person is “expected” to read, the needlessly complicated, sometimes deliberately confusing language in which it’s written, the fact that laws outside the agreement often bear on its terms in significant ways, and the low probability that the terms of any single agreement are ever going to be invoked all undermine the kind of society where voluntary agreements between adults can make us happier, richer and freer.

I’m unsure how this situation might be improved upon, since the prospect that lawyers are going to stop writing in incomprehensible jargon is unlikely — were contracts written intelligibly and concisely, first year law associates wouldn’t get paid 6 figures to read them carefully for clients, and their partner bosses wouldn’t get to bill their time at $300 an hour. Nor is the situation helped by the fact that so many legislators — and members of their staff — are trained by the same profession, such that the average American is often enough unable to understand a piece of legislation passed by their Congress, or a criminal statute that might land them in jail if they break it.

If ever the inertia could be reversed, however, I sure think we’d benefit from more English and far less legalese.