Jul 282015

mosterbookIt’s weird that governments enforce contracts. I’ve been reading some upcoming changes to a few details of a subset of contract law, and that fact just struck me in the face again.

Say I’m a representative of the government. Two people come up to me, hand me a piece of paper they both signed some time in the past, and complain to me that one of them isn’t sticking to their agreement. Why the hell does that concern me? You are two private individuals that made a private agreement. Don’t try to get me mixed up in your private affair! What kind of egomaniac thinks “Well, obviously this is something I should stick my nose into! I’m glad they came to me!”

My first instinct would be to tell them to bugger off. I was never any part of this, they can resolve their dispute on their own. I suppose if they want my advice as a disinterested third party, and they feel I have expertise in the area, I can offer advice for a fee. But I’m not going to get involved and enforce anything with violence.

If they wanted me, as the government, to act as an arbitrator and give them Violence Vouchers – which is a legitimate request IMHO – they should bring the contract to me beforehand so I can look it over and agree that I’m willing to give Violence Voucher for this. They don’t get to come to me after the fact and request that they be granted retroactively!

And yet the government does this all the time. Hell, it’s one of the core functions of government – enforcing contracts people entered into privately without any prior knowledge from the enforcing party!

I do see why this is better than all the alternatives. You don’t want people resorting to private violence for enforcement. Preserving the government as the only legitimate user of violence is the single most important function of government. And you don’t want to require that every proposed contract come before a magistrate for review first, as this would slow economic activity to a crawl. Reviewing those private agreements that have become contested for reasonableness, and then siding with one party or the other after the fact, just seems like the most rational and efficient way to deal with this problem in the real world.

But damn, the basic premise is just so freakin’ bizarre.

  5 Responses to “Contracts are weird”

  1. Actually, your proposal is closer to what the government actually does.

    They only enforce certain kinds of contracts and not others. So it’s akin to a blanket permission of *these specific sorts of contracts*, which is much easier than actually having some bureaucrat go “yes”, “yes”, “yes”, “yes” when it’s about routine contracts.

    • Yes. For instance if you take to the judge a contract that says “Party A agrees to provide Party B with a tasty sandwich or else Party A will pay Party B $1,000,000 dollars in penalties” then a judge will say “Nope, no consideration here don’t bother me with this.” Though consideration isn’t required in jurisdictions which derive from Roman law so don’t sign something like that there. A more relevant thing is the extent to which a judge will enforce a non-compete clause varies a lot between US states.

    • That does make sense, but having the option (but not obligation) of getting specific contracts pre-approved would be more in line with his proposal and still probably manageable (especially if doing so required a fee). I think that could be the best of both worlds: you can request that any contract be enforced post-violation, but they might say no; you can get one you really want pre-approved, but this would only happen for larger contracts worthy of the fee.

  2. Sir, you are truly a product of the modern school system.

    Government is supposed to do three, and only three things in a free society. It is supposed to keep the peace, it is supposed to organize the defense of the nation from enemies foreign and domestic, and it is supposed to ENFORCE CONTRACTS.

    Enforcing contracts is the primary, and only really legitimate, use of the government’s monopoly on the use of force. When a person defaults on a legal and legitimate contract, such as by taking delivery of goods and then not paying for them, the cops go to his house and stick a gun in his face until he gives up the money or the goods.

    Without that surety, private enterprise devolves into a contest between warlords. That is why governments exist at all.

    You need to hunt down your Civics teacher and beat him for screwing you over like this.

    • Yes, I’m well aware of what the government actually does. What I’m saying is that it’s WEIRD, if you sit down and think about it.

      Hypothetical: I show up at your door and tell you that John Johnson said he’d trade me his healthy cow for my twenty chairs. It turns out his cow had cowpox and died three days after the trade. You should get your gun and force John to give me back my chairs. Look, we even both signed this piece of paper agreeing on the trade, and saying the cow was healthy. Do you go get your gun and get my chairs for me? Or do you tell me not to involve you in my personal affairs?

      Like I said, I even understand WHY it’s done this way. It’s just completely bizarre from a “humans are free agents and responsible for themselves” point of view.

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