In societies built on promises

According to Charles Fried of Harvard Law School, contracts are the principal form of social organization and the basis of civic friendships between complete strangers. According to Alfred North Whitehead: "Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them." Putting 2+2 together we can say: societies advance by extending the number of friendships we can form without thinking about them.

Contracts allow us to silently and spontaneously trust others and rely on them for things we need. We enter into many contracts so readily and routinely we don’t even call them 'contracts', we call them 'infrastructures' and 'services'. Looking at it another way, we are designing contracts when designing infrastructures and services.

Indeed, seen through the lens of promises, every society appears to be a rich, diverse, and growing collection of contracts covering everything, from trains, tracks, and transmission lines, to privacy, privilege, and peace of mind. And the collections keep growing as societies evolve, with new dependencies and interactions, new windows within which promises are made, as we find new reasons to rely on others. New habits and excuses. New rules and regulations that are societal compulsions. Small changes to promises in existing contracts create a new kind of mutual understanding, cooperation, and trust. New 'species' of contracts may emerge from such mutations.

There is structural harmony

Contracts create conditions for harmonious, orderly interactions between people and things across time and space. Without inexpensive coordination based on mutual understanding, cooperation and trust, there won't be societies of any scale of scope, any infrastructure or service, industry or government. Contracts encourage instances of demand or supply to appear within windows of opportunity i.e., rectangles of time and space within which parties to the contract enjoy the highest payoffs from mutually agreed outcomes and therefore are willing to go through necessary pains.

Contracts are meant to be fair, equitable, and attractive for all participants – whether we refer to them as ‘buyers and sellers’, ‘customers and service providers’, ‘citizens and governments’, or simply as ‘parties to the contract’. Public infrastructures and services such as roads, bridges, and tunnels, or banks, airlines and hotels, are contracts designed, not for a few parties but for entire populations. Contracts are ‘good’ when they promise higher value at lower costs for all participants. They are ‘lovely’ when free of hidden surprises, false choices, or compromises.

And beautiful contracts

Beautiful contracts are mutually beneficial and collectively good. Parties to the contract promise each other more for less while also promising more good and less harm to everything and everybody else: ecosystems and environments, heritages and cultures, legacies and endowments. Their propositions are so attractive that both sides can't help but keep their promises, thus reducing the need for costly litigation, enforcement and regulation.

Take for example the ferry service between the Dutch island of Texel and the mainland run since 1907 by TESO, a non-profit organization owned by the citizens of Texel and other users of the service. The service offers quick and comfortable transport for pedestrians and vehicles with a convenient schedule and reasonable fares. The ships are always on time and their interiors are clean and comfortable with cafeterias, decks, and lounges. Its massive propellers that provide a very strong and stable glide produce a solid wake in the water. The ferry service is not only financially healthy, it reinvests its revenues into safety, quality, and continuity. It is not only compliant with all environmental regulations but also contributes to the protection of the Wadden Sea ecosystem.

Such contracts can be between any kind of demand and supply; between kitchen counters and grocery shelves, airline seats and physical coordinates, towing trucks and tires, biological samples and scientific equipment, properties and insurances. The contractual quintessence here is, if demand and supply are relatable, reliable, and renewable with respect to each other, and show up within promised windows, everybody is happy. The outcome happens again, and again and again, at lower and lower costs as goodwill and trust accumulate, and gaps and conflicts that make things unnecessarily difficult for everyone disappear.