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Contract as Commodified Promise

Posted by on Thursday, January 18, 2018 in Articles, Volume 71, Volume 71, Number 1.

Contract as Commodified Promise


Many scholars assume that lawmakers should design contract law with the goal of facilitating commercial promises. But the question of which promises count as commercial remains neglected. This Article argues that this question matters more than one might initially expect. Once we understand commerciality in terms of commodification—roughly, treating something as subject to market norms—surprising recommendations for reform follow. First, if contract law should enforce commodified promises, we should demote the consideration doctrine to a presumption of enforceability rather than a formal requirement. Second, we should adopt a rule, contrary to current doctrine in most jurisdictions in the United States, that intending to make a promise legally binding renders it presumptively enforceable. Beyond these reforms, understanding contracts as commodified promises also provides a new lens through which to view recurring debates about boilerplate, enforcing donative promises, remedies, and efficient breaches. We can even understand the 2008 financial crisis as caused in part by over-commodifying promises. In short, this Article shows how debates about the moral limits of markets, which might have seemed peripheral to contract theory, belong at its very core.


Erik Encarnacion
Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School.