Last week I bought a smart television. In order to use its full capabilities, I had to accept a user agreement and two supplementary protocols. You have to click various buttons to read the terms of these agreements and, like almost everyone who owns such a set, I did not bother.
Also last week, along with half the world, I accepted without reading the new conditions associated with Apple’s latest operating system iOS7. To have done otherwise would have strained my eyesight as well as my patience. Yet at a conference last week I found myself berated by consumer advocates for my casual attitude. So here is why I behaved as I did, and will do so again.
Samsung and Apple are plainly in business for the long term, and their continued success depends on maintaining their reputation with their customers. It is unlikely that these agreements contain anything seriously damaging to my interests, and if they did I am reasonably confident that the combined forces of judges, legislators, regulators and the press would protect me.
On the odd occasion when I have troubled to read similar agreements, I have found they are generally riddled with ambiguities and with conditions that are unenforceable in practice and probably unenforceable in law. The attorneys who draft these documents are mostly unimaginative hacks rather than hotshots of the profession. And complex contract specifications do not so much define the obligations of the parties as identify the point at which legal argument will start. Ask the people who thought they knew where they stood with Lehman Brothers.
But I am not going to engage in any legal argument with Samsung or Apple anyway. The cost of even discussing litigation far exceeds the value of a television set or iPhone, and the central provision of modern law is that a fight with an American company that has $150bn in the bank is one that you can only lose. To the extent that the user agreement has relevance at all, that relevance is to the battles these large technology companies conduct with one another and with their various regulators.
So there was nothing “irrational” about my decision not to bother reading these agreements, which would give me no pleasure and waste my time; not even in the rather peculiar sense – rationality as consistency – in which the word rationality is used by modern economists. I do not regret failing to read the iOS 7 agreement, and when Apple issues an iOS 8 agreement I will not read that one either. I am even confident that an omniscient computer programmed with complete knowledge of my preferences and all relevant information, including the contents of the agreements, would advise me not to bother reading them.
So I shall continue to ignore the busybodies who complain that consumers ought to be spending more time perusing the small print on the back of dry-cleaning tickets. Or who scold that savers have no right to complain when they are taken for a ride by their financial advisers because their level of financial literacy is low. These consumer champions are probably the sorts of people who miss their train because they are still studying the national conditions of carriage.
If there is a problem, it is not the laziness of consumers but the use of inappropriate models in the formulation of public policy. These too often espouse a legal and economic view of human behaviour in which agreements are negotiated between informed and consenting parties, and enforced through adherence to the contract provisions, if necessary through the courts. The reality is that the terms of exchange in a market economy are defined by social expectations and enforced by the mutual need of the parties to go on doing business. From time to time, matters work out badly. Often this is when contract form and the requirements of the parties clash with each other – as with opportunistic trading in financial services or large one-off projects in government procurement or the construction sector.
My decision not to read the terms of these agreements was not the result of my stupidity and ignorance, but my wisdom. The stupidity and ignorance lies in the minds of the people who, when they see a world that fails to correspond to the models they use, blame the world rather than their model.