Brooklyn Law Review


Nathan B. Oman


Our theoretical approaches to contract law dramatically over-estimated the importance of voluntary consent. Voluntary consent plays, at best, a secondary role in the normative justification of contract law. Rather, contract law should be seen as part of an evolutionary process of finding solutions to problems of social organization in markets. Like natural evolution, this process depends on variation and feedback. Unlike natural evolution, both the variation and the feedback mechanisms are products of human invention. On this theory, consent serves two roles in contract law. First, consent makes freedom of contract possible and freedom of contract generates variation in transactional structures. In effect, it creates a store of possible solutions to problems of social organization. Second, consent is one method among several by which “bad” solutions are weeded out and “good” solutions are selected. But consent is not the only—or in many cases even the primary—feedback mechanism for transactional structures. Because there are other mechanisms that mitigate against pathological transactional forms, we are comfortable enforcing contracts in many situations where consent is formal at best and the voluntariness of contracting parties is open to serious doubt. Ultimately “meaningful consent” is not a necessary condition for the normative justification of contractual enforcement. Applying this model to boilerplate contracts explains why we are justified in enforcing agreements where consent may be attenuated and very imperfectly informed. The voluminous criticism of these agreements shares the common assumption that robust voluntary consent is a necessary condition for the normative justification of contract law. This basic assumption, however, is mistaken.