Monday, March 3, 2014
My student, Sam Henderson (who blogs here), directed my attention to this report on the Legal Informatics Blog about blockchain contracting and conveyancing systems. Blockchain technology is apparently one of the many things that makes Bitcoin transactions foolproof, genius-proof, and completely impervious to rampant speculation, financial catastrophe and the bankruptcy of major dealers in the virtual currency. So, like Bitcoin itself, applying blockchain technology could only democratize and decentralize commercial law, or so maintains this blog post on Thought Infection.
What a strange idea.
Contracts are private legislation. They are already about as democratic and decentralized as they could possibly be. Sure, they are governed by the relevant laws of the relevant jurisdictions, but blockchain technology would not change that. In any case, the law of contracts already permits the parties to choose the law that will govern them (within reason), so that's pretty decentralized and democratic.
What is not democratic and decentralized about commercial law is the fact that contracts tend to be drafted by the powerful and imposed upon people as take-it-or-leave it deals through form contracting. Given the complexity of the technologies associated with Bitcoin, it seems unlikely that adding layers of technology to commercial law would render it more democratic and less centralized.
Unfortunately, Thought Infection's post is misinformed about contracts. He writes
Whereas today contracts are restricted to deals with enough value to justify a lawyers time (mortgages, business deals, land transfer etc…), in the future there is no limit to what could be codified into simple contracts. You could imagine forming a self-enforcing contract around something as simple as sharing a lawnmower with your neighbor, hiring a babysitter, or forming a gourmet coffee club at work. Where this could really revolutionize things is in developing nations, where the ability to exchange small-scale microloans with self-enforcing contractual agreements that come at little or no cost would be a quantum leap forward.
Here are the problems with this as I see it:
- Contracts are not restricted; they are ubiquitous;
- Contracts do not require lawyers; they are formed all the time through informal dealings that are nonetheless legally binding so long as the requisite elements of contract formation are present;
- To some extent, Thought Infection's imagined contracts already are contracts, and to the extent that they are not contracts it is because people often choose to form relationships that are not governed by law (e.g., do you really want to think about the legal implications of hiring a baby sitter -- taxes, child-labor laws, workman's comp . . . yuck!); and
- Microloans are already in existence, and the transactions costs associated with contracts do not seem to be a major impediment.
Look, I'm not a Luddite (I blog too), but I also don't think that technology improves our lives with each touch. Technology usually makes our lives more efficient, but it can also make our lives suckier in a more efficient way. Technology does not only promote democracy and decentralization; it also promotes invasions of privacy by the panopticon state and panopticon corporations or other private actors, reification of human interactions, commidication and alienation. It has not helped address income disparity on the national or the global scale, ushered in an era of egalitarian harmony overseen by benevolent governments or pastoral anarchy.
As to contracts specifically, however, there are lots of ways to use technology that are available now and are generally useful. Last week, we discussed Kingsley Martin's presentation at KCON 9. Kingsley has lots of ideas about how to deploy technology to improve sophisticated contracting processes. But for the more mundane agreements, there is a nifty little app that a couple of people mentioned at KCON 9 called Shake. For those of you looking for a neat way to introduce simple contracts to your students, or for those of you who want to make the sorts of deals that Thought Infection thinks we need blockchain to achieve, Shake is highly interactive, fun and practical.