Regulation Through Boilerplate: An Apologia

Author: 
Omri Ben-Shahar

This essay reviews Margaret Jane Radin’s Boilerplate: The Fine Print, Vanishing Rights, And The Rule Of Law (Princeton Press, 2013). It responds to two of the book’s principal complaints against boilerplate consumer contracts: that they modify people’s rights without true agreement to, or even minimal knowledge of, their terms; and that the provisions they unilaterally enact are substantively intolerable. I argue, counter-intuitively, that contracts with long fine prints are no more complex and baffling to consumers than any alternative boilerplate-free templates of contracting. Therefore, there is no alternative universe in which consumers enter simpler contracts better informed of the legal terms. In addition, I argue that any policy that mandates consumer-friendlier arrangements (such as ones that eliminate boilerplate arbitration clauses, warranty disclaimers, or data collection) would hurt consumers in an unintended but potentially costly way.