Thursday, October 9, 2014
This is the second in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II: Breaking Out of the Shell
As we all know, the law and economics movement has proven a formidable force within the legal academy, especially in relation to subjects like contract law. As recently as 2012, even Charles Fried, the author of Contract as Promise, was forced to acknowledge that “the economic analysis of law may today be the dominant intellectual approach to legal institutions generally and contract law in particular.”
Because of Omri Ben-Shahar’s training and intellectual ties, many will view More Than What You Wanted to Know as a work that is partly internal to the law and economics movement. This affiliation should help the book because it will allow the book to speak credibly to a wide range of influential contract law scholars who currently share this affiliation. The book ultimately challenges one of the early dogmas of the classical law and economics paradigm, as described in my prior post, but—because of the book’s intellectual affiliations—the book can pose this challenge in an especially effective manner.
It should nevertheless be noted that the central insights in the book arise not from anything specific to the field of law and economics but rather from rejection of the field’s first two classical premises. With respect to human psychology (see premise 1 in Part I), Ben-Shahar and Schneider do not simply assume that consumers make more rational decisions whenever more facts are disclosed to them. Instead, they canvass a wealth of psychological evidence to the contrary. This evidence shows that consumers are especially likely to make poorer decisions as their choices become more complex and unfamiliar and when those terms are dictated by sophisticated contracting parties.
When determining the likely consequences of legal rules (see premise 2 in Part I), the authors similarly avoid abstract economic modeling and turn instead to direct empirical data. They draw this empirical data from a broad range of sources, and the facts suggest that mandatory disclosure regimes have increasingly begun to harm consumers in many contexts.
One reason for this is dynamic. Over time, mandatory disclosure regimes tend to lend increasing complexity and unfamiliarity to even the most banal of transactions. In one particularly poignant example, the authors describe the $.99 purchase of an iTunes song—which was accompanied by 32 feet of complex and often incomprehensible boilerplate (when printed out in a tiny font, as illustrated on the left). One of the underappreciated consequences of mandatory disclosure regimes is that they have increasingly begun to flummox consumers in even the simplest of transactions.
In highlighting facts like these, More Than You Wanted to Know takes us much closer to the truth about mandatory disclosure regimes than classical law and economics methodologies can. Speaking from a purely methodological perspective, it is able to do this because it is willing to abandon the first two premises of the classical paradigm and replace them with something better. It seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions relevant to consumer protection law based not on ungrounded premises but rather on actual psychological and empirical research.
This is an example of the emerging new life that I see in contract law studies. It is a better life because it is more likely to track the truth.
In my next post, I will nevertheless reflect more deeply on this new life. I will ask whether we have gone far enough as a field to make it really come to life. Have we—in other words—gone far enough yet to ensure that our collective research best tracks the truth?