Public: Contracts
Abolish Enforceable Contracts   (+11, -17)  [vote for, against]
You'll have to Deal With People You Can Trust.

Consumer choice can be a powerful weapon for change. If contracts were not legally enforceable then people would have to fall back on dealing with people that they can trust, either locals that they know or businesses that have provided good service in the past, rather than rely on the dubious efficacy of legal 'rights'. Businesses would have to concentrate more on keeping their reliable, existing customers/clients rather than putting vast resources into trying to attract new customers. And customers would have to be a bit more savvy about who they deal with, learn a bit more about their subject, as it were. The same principles would apply to employment law and so on.

Obviously, when the change first takes place, a large number of people will become victims of the unscrupulous. But, as time goes on, this should become less of a problem as people are forced to become more knowledgeable and the dodgy dealers' reputations precede them.
-- DrBob, Jun 19 2001

The Dark Ages https://en.wikipedi...Modern_academic_use
Not as dark as you might think. [DrBob, Jul 13 2021]

prior art from William Morris https://en.wikipedi..._Dream_of_John_Ball
He really didn't like lawyers. [pertinax, Jul 13 2021]

Come back and annotate those fishbones you cowards!
-- DrBob, Jun 19 2001

Even now, with enforcable contracts, plenty of people successfully rip off others and still stay in business, so I doubt that this idea would really make things better.
-- PotatoStew, Jun 19 2001

I don't think it counts as WIBNI. For one thing, it really wouldn't be nice. For another, if enough people really wanted this to happen, it could be made to happen. A true WIBNI (IMHO) is something more like faster than light communications, or time travel, something that even if everyone in the world wanted it, it still couldn't be done (at least not with anything resembling present technology).
-- PotatoStew, Jun 19 2001

What about all the poor, hard-working, decent lawyers this would put on the streets? We must always keep the well-being of our lawyers in mind!

[I'm joking, of course, but I gave it a fishbone anyway. It's a nice theory, but just completely impractical. Let's just abolish starvation while we're at it. Contracts came about for a reason; they weren't forced on us to supress the masses.]
-- smizzou, Jun 20 2001

And look what would happen if contracts between nations were unenforceable--a US president could just go and say, "Oh we're not gonna abide by that ole missile treaty no more, mostly just 'cause I don't wanna" and no one could stop him from doing it! Terrible state of affairs.

[And I refuse to annotate my fishbone.]
-- Dog Ed, Jun 20 2001

Basically what you're calling for is an increase in transaction costs and an additional barrier to market entry. This benefits no one: consumers buy less, and pay more for the goods they do buy; producers lose sales and have to expend more resources on the sales they do make.
-- bookworm, Jun 20 2001

'OK, [DrBob], now I know you have a contract of employment with us, but...'
Can I fishify you now?
-- angel, Jun 20 2001

This is one of those ideas that would work if society was on a smaller scale. The large and complex societies we live and work in needs contracts, a process to abitrate them and most of the common infrastructure we have accumilated over time.
-- Aristotle, Jun 20 2001

I reckon this is similar to what the internet is doing for information: there is every view expressed out there, it's up to every person to decide what they think is trustworthy, rather than relying on a certain guaranteed minimum standard of trustworthiness.
-- lubbit, Jun 20 2001

Just to clarify, all fishbones are welcome regardless of whether annotated or not. The comment I put up was in response to two fishbones appearing within about 15 seconds of my posting the idea. It seemed to me to be 'knee-jerk fishboning' (can I copyright that phrase?), with barely enough time to read the thing let alone think about it and form an opinion.

-- DrBob, Jun 21 2001, last modified Oct 05 2001

Abolishing contracts is probably neither desireable nor possible. But a reduction in contractedness would be nice. How many consumer products are there that used to be available with no contractual strings attached, but now are not? I wouldn't mind seeing a reversal of this trend, not that that's realistic.
-- LoriZ, Oct 16 2001

First, some political perspective. It's interesting that even the most extreme of right-wing libertarians (as opposed to communist libertarians, who I will come to below) believe in the preservation of property rights and contract law; thus this is judged one restriction on freedom that many people are unwilling to give up. Property and contracts are in fact largely connected; since the latter exists only to protect the former, and serves to guarantee the smooth operation of a capitalist society (which as Marx showed is equivalent to any society based on the preservation of private property and the payment of wages).

In contrast, a true anarcho-communist society would most likely have neither private property nor legally enforceable contracts. All production would be done on a voluntary basis and all goods used on the basis of need (possibly involving peer pressure or the threat of expulsion to regulate behaviour; these are matters for debate in anarchist literature). This is arguably a WIBNI in a technologically advanced modern society. Although it's worth noting that many "primitive" tribal cultures exist without contract law, private property or paid employment, making decisions by consensus and sharing food.

Abolishing contracts without abolishing private property would have a number of odd effects. For instance, the contract that most binds people is with their employer, and without the assurance that one would be paid at the end of the week, the workplace would be more insecure. Yet it could possibly still run to a degree on trust. Another area at risk would be that of credit: money lenders would have no guarantee or recourse to law for recouping their loans.

However, the interdependence of worker and employer in modern capitalist society means that such relations could probably continue (much as in societies with little or no employment law; however the effect on the workers would tend to be dire, as in places such as Indonesia, at least when there is a surplus of workers). The main effect would be, as mentioned, on moneylending, which would be much too risky, and on all long-term commercial relationships, which would only be sustained if in the interest on both parties (defined as, if both parties would be worse off in the short term if they left). The losers (certainly until a system of trust could be established) would be both workers and entrepreneurs, which is why the system of contract law has been introduced.

However, it is worth noting that there are a number of ways under existing law to have contracts declared null and void, or simply to ignore them, most of which involve large amounts of money and lawyers. Thus without the protection of the state helping the weak (such as statutory rights for consumers), the rich can already to a degree decide whether or not to honour contracts with those poorer than themselves.
-- pottedstu, Mar 07 2002

//the rich can already to a degree decide whether or not to honour contracts with those poorer than themselves//

This was pretty much the motivation behind my idea, 'stu. The fact is that, unless you've got the time and money to enforce your 'rights', they're not worth the paper that they're written on. In theory, the law of contract treats everyone equally, but the judicial system that has evolved to enforce these laws has become, in many (though not all) cases, prohibitively expensive to many people.
-- DrBob, Mar 07 2002

I like the sentiment, but can't accept the execution. The idea of returning to pre-agricultural business practices in a post-industrial economy would be disastrous. You can't shake a corporation's hand, and you can't trust its word; they have neither.
-- dbsousa, Dec 24 2002

But is there no way to skip the corporations? What would it entail? (sorry for jumping in 20 years late)
-- pashute, Jul 11 2021

The way to skip the corporations is to revert to a scale of human organisation comparable to that prevalent during the Dark Ages.

A clue as to why this might not not be a good idea can be found in the phrase "Dark Ages".
-- pertinax, Jul 13 2021

Well, the 'Dark Ages' is a bit of a mis-nomer, isn't it. It generally relates to the period, in Western Europe, that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. It is generally taken to mean that 'civilisation' ceased to exist during that period until new empires arose to take its place.

This is, of course, not true.

//pre-agricultural business practices in a post-industrial economy//

I beg to disagree. I used to deal on the London Money Market. It was highly pressurised & highly efficient & business was conducted on a 'my word is my bond' basis.

Also, thank you both for resurrecting this thread. Regardless of your stand on the idea, whether pro- or con-, it's very gratifying to see something I wrote twenty years ago suddenly coming back to life! :D
-- DrBob, Jul 13 2021

//the 'Dark Ages' is a bit of a mis-nomer, isn't it//

Is it?

There is a relative shortage of primary historical sources for the period so that, if you want to, you can project on to it a vision of happy "small is beautiful" living. However, the phenomenon of völkerwanderung, dating from this period, does not suggest to me that the people doing the wandering were particularly content, and the people into whose lands they wandered were often not best pleased to see them either.

The village of Ewyas Harold, in Herefordshire, is, I understand, a very pretty and peaceful place today. At some point in the Dark Ages, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Ewyas.

Now, on the one hand, a villager of old Ewyas would have enjoyed the advantages of living in an autonomous capital*, especially that of being physically close to the centre of sovereign power. On the other hand, as capital cities went, it would have been a bit short of amenities, and the threat of military conflict with the neighbouring states of Erging and Morgannwg was constant and very, very close.

So, is that really the condition you would like to live in, [DrBob]?

*Though not, I admit, an autonomous collective in which executive power derived from a mandate from the masses. Those seem to have been a bit thin on the ground, with the possible exception of Iceland. Regarding Iceland, see William Morris' comments in the Dream of John Ball (link).
-- pertinax, Jul 13 2021

//you can project on to it a vision of happy "small is beautiful" living//

I haven't said any such thing, so that's a straw man argument. I'm a city boy myself. The countryside is terribly boring and very smelly. :D
It's nice enough for the occasional visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

Your point really comes from the perspective of someone on the inside of the tent pissing out. There are plenty of wars, imperial interventions, oppression, fleeing refugees & migrants in the world today.

I've read quite a lot of history* as a general interest, not as a professional, and I haven't come across a single resource that devotes itself to contract law (as opposed to some other branches of law) as a mover for the rise or decline of civilisation. So I don't see how you relate this terrible collapse to barbarism with a change in general contract law. Please enlighten me further! :)

* Although not history, as such, I knew of William Morris by reputation but hadn't looked into any of his stuff. So thanks for the link!
-- DrBob, Jul 14 2021

//the dodgy dealers' reputations precede them//

That's not how reputations work. In years past the dodgy dealer simply moved to a new city and did a couple of honest deals before bilking others. These days "new city" is replaced with "new URL", "new phone number" and "new business name"
-- Voice, Jul 14 2021

//Please enlighten me further!//

Certainly, Grasshopper. Having observed the distinctive energy of your chakras, I have selected a mantra to assist you on the path to enlightenment. The mantra is "It does not scale". Please repeat this, morning and evening, while sweeping out the ashram, and don't forget the grungy bit under the garden tap.

How does this relate the terrible collapse into barbarism with a change in general contract law? Well, I am cheating by treating general contract law as metonymous with any structure for dispute-resolution which is formal enough to transcend a particular social circle. As [Voice] pointed out, reputation is not a useful protection beyond a group in which everybody knows everybody - a group whose maximum size is therefore around a Dunbar Number or, at a stretch, maybe the square of a Dunbar Number.

Therefore, unless you propose to replace contract law with some alternative clique- transcending mechanism (which you don't), then you are bringing about the end of large-scale human collaboration. The good things about city life all depend on large-scale human collaboration so, if you sacrifice those, then, smelly or not, you're living in Ewyas.

The relationship of the absence of contract law to the collapse of civilisation was not that the former caused the latter, but that the two things were naturally concomitant.

Where was I? Ah, yes; pissing out of the tent.

You're right, we are privileged to be living in parts of the world which are functioning, while other parts are not. But I think you've got the tent metaphor wrong. If the tent is a collection of institutions which provides a measure of protection to people inside it, this does not mean that everyone outside it is pari passu worse off. It's better to have a quite large tent, which protects a steadily increasing number of people, than to have no tent so that everyone is in imminent danger of being pissed on.
-- pertinax, Jul 15 2021

On the one hand, I am very much in favour of this idea as it would put me out of a job and force me to fulfil my dream of being the West Highland Christopher Knight, living under a tarp in a derelict crofthouse (I have one picked out, at Glendrian). But on the other hand, I have some experience in this area. Based on the many / various due diligence exercises I have been involved in over the years, I am now of the opinion that the need for a contract is vastly overstated - a huge amount of business is done on a handshake and in such a way that any effort to imply a contract by the courts would result in something quite unlike what either party would (had they ever thought about it) have imagined.

I suppose my point is that commerce operates not because of contracts, or because of the law relating to contract but because people think that the law relating to contract exists and exists in a way which will be of use to them if their usual way of trading creates problems. Of course, the law doesn't actually exist, except in the collective imagination, and it certainly does not exist in a way that would be of any material assistance. All of which goes to me saying that if we remove contract law from the collective imagination, business will probably go on fine for a little while, then grind to a halt and then, over time, a new collective imagination of law will accrete and we'll be back to where we currently are.

Still, croissant.
-- calum, Jul 15 2021

//Please repeat this, morning and evening, while sweeping out the ashram, and don't forget the grungy bit under the garden tap.//
Awww! But that's too hard! :(

//...this does not mean that everyone outside it is pari passu worse off.//
True enough. But that argues in favour of my point rather than yours.

// It's better to have a quite large tent//
Well that depends on whose tent it is & what the terms & conditions are for living in it.*

//business will probably go on fine for a little while, then grind to a halt and then, over time, a new collective imagination of law will accrete//
As I understand it, the law of contract grew up around custom & practice with disputes resolved by judges in civil courts. Effectively creating law out of thin air. So I doubt things will grind to a halt, but I agree that there may be some slowdown for a while. I also agree with your wisdom in handing over your croissant to me. A far more deserving owner of such baked goodies.

*I think that the tent metaphor has probably outlasted its usefulness now. But I am up for stretching it to breaking point if you are! Perhaps we should canvass opinion on it. Or would that be a ridge too far?
-- DrBob, Jul 15 2021

I should clarify "worse". I meant "worse than they otherwise would have been, if there were no tent", whereas you mischievously took it as "worse than the people inside the tent", you scamp, you.
-- pertinax, Jul 15 2021

random, halfbakery