The Option Syndrome

I have invented a new concept called the Option Syndrome. I hope the expression will catch on and people will start using it. It refers to the never-ending thickening of legalese.

Why the Option Syndrome?

Friends of The American Scene might remember that I graduated from law school but decided not to be a lawyer, and therefore never passed the bar. I usually say this makes me just enough of a lawyer to be a pain in the ass, but not enough of one to be actually useful.

Our law school library was stocked with law review archives dating back a couple of centuries, and when I was studying and needed a mental health break, I would wander around the library and pick an ancient book at random and start reading. This was an intense pleasure, because unlike lawyers and legislators today, French lawyers and legislators of back in the day knew how to write.

Stendhal, one of the great 19th century novelists of the French pantheon, once said that he would read the French Civil Code (somewhat erroneously referred to in the English-speaking world as the Napoleonic Code) as stylistic inspiration.

Of course, today there are still plenty of great legal minds who are also excellent craftsmen of prose, and a joy to read. But the overwhelming majority of legal documents involve redundant, unnecessary, overwrought, undecipherable legalese.

Just try to read the terms of service to the next website you subscribe to. You’re never quite sure if they’re going to be able to buy your newborn from you.

This is destructive. It increases transaction costs (to an eye-popping extent in the US) for everyone, and also raises real questions of democratic accountability, insofar as the law is supposed to be the expression of the general will, and it is hard for the people to oversee their representatives when the understanding of the laws belongs more and more to a learned elite.

So in order better to identify, and therefore combat this phenomenon, I’ve dubbed it the Option Syndrome. Why the Option Syndrome?

Because, wherever you look, an option is defined as “the right, but not the obligation,” to buy or sell an asset at a certain date and a certain price. But of course, by definition, if something is a right, then it is not an obligation. Yet you will never see an option defined as a right. Always “the right, but not the obligation.”

Ergo, the Option Syndrome.

Go forth and spread the meme!

EDIT: This WSJ op-ed, “You Commit Three Felonies A Day,” is quite related.