Contract as Promise: Lessons Learned
In The Choice Theory of Contracts, Hanoch Dagan and Michael Heller state that by arguing “that autonomy matters centrally to contract,” Contract as Promise makes an “enduring contribution . . . but [its] specific arguments faltered because [they] missed the role of diverse contract types and because [it] grounded contractual freedom in a flawed rights-based view. . .. We can now say all rights-based arguments for contractual autonomy have failed.” The authors conclude that their proposed choice theory “approach returns analysis to the mainstream of twentieth-century liberalism – a tradition concerned with enhancing self-determination that is mostly absent in contract theory today.” Perhaps the signal flaw in Contract as Promise they sought to address was the homogenization of all contract types under a single paradigm. In this Article, I defend the promise principle as the appropriate paradigm for the regime of contract law. Along the way I defend the Kantian account of this subject, while acknowledging that state enforcement necessarily introduces elements — both normative and institutional — for which that paradigm fails adequately to account. Of particular interest and validity is Dagan and Heller’s discussion of contract types, to which the law has always and inevitably recurred. They show how this apparent constraint on contractual freedom actually enhances freedom to contract. I discuss what I have learned from their discussion: that choice like languages, is “lumpy,” so that realistically choices must be made between and framed within available types, off the rack, as it were, and not bespoke on each occasion. I do ask as well how these types come into being mutate, and can be deliberately adapted to changing circumstances.