Standards are important, but they can develop without governments

With a new baby at home, I have time to respond only briefly to Glen Whitman's post about De Soto and Polycentric Law. Glen points out that while property rights tend to form spontaneously, having many different local systems is less effective than having widespread standards. I'm in complete agreement so far. Where I disagree is on one single word, in bold below:

This poses a challenge to polycentrists, who contend that multiple legal systems can exist side-by-side. They can, but De Soto contends that formal unification is required for sustained and widespread economic growth.

I would argue that this is just a case about standards, as Glen and De Soto's argument don't seem to particularly depend on the features of this being a standard in rights or laws. It seems clear that having the government mandate standards is quite effective at making them widespread and uniform. The problem is quality. When standards are set by politicians, they are products of the political marketplace, which as we well know produces a much inferior product to the higgledy-piggledy of a real market, where different approaches are tried, modified, melded, and abandoned if they aren't good enough.

With laws, as with anything, while an altruistic government might best be able to unify local standards, there is no such beast. All we have are herds of swine like those fellows in DC, and I don't exactly trust them to keep my best interests in mind. My DVD's play on every DVD player, my browser can access almost every web site, and my computer can read a vast array of types of data files - all without any mandated standardization. Why do we think unifying legal standards requires the heavy hand of coercive government?

It would be a disserve here to miss the fact that Glen has a specific example from De Soto, about mining laws in the US, where government intervention was helpful. While I am not familiar with this example, there are two generic answers. The first is that while it may be that government regulation is sometimes helpful, that does not mean it is on net helpful. And the second is that in a country with strong government and without the institutions of polycentric law, I would not expect the market for laws to function particularly well. This parallel's De Soto's points about the problems with economic development in countries without a history of strong property rights. Even polycentrism requires institutions and culture, especially for a sophisticated function like unification. For example, it took many centuries for the Lex Mercatoria to develop from the morass of medieval laws for international trade.

(Ah, this turned out not so brief - the little fella stayed asleep for me.)

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This isn't the best

This isn't the best counter-example, but it always comes to mind: America has yet to spontaneously switch to the metric system. And then there are all those different converters you have to buy when travelling to Europe.

It's been a while - shouldn't those things have been standardized by now?

Tanner, It’s been a while

Tanner,

It’s been a while - shouldn’t those things have been standardized by now?

No.

A universal standardization would involve a large destruction of existing capital. Even if there may seem to be a large benefit when viewed by an uninterested observer, what counts is the cost and benefit to the individuals and firms that would actually be involved, and their projections of how consumers would vote with their money.

Regards, Don

With a new baby at home, I

With a new baby at home, I have time to respond only briefly to Glen Whitman’s post about De Soto and Polycentric Law.

This is probably off-topic, but do you have a consequentialist justification for wanting to have children? Over-population might fail to maximize utility after all...

Stefan, Surely you don't

Stefan,

Surely you don't think Patri believes in overpopulation. Read your Julian Simon!

Overpopulation is only one

Overpopulation is only one reason why you might not want to have children; it just seemed like the most utility minimizing effect I could think of. Since it seems like everything around here has to be "efficient" to be worthy of being done, I figured I may as well ask. :juggle:

There are perfectly good

There are perfectly good reasons to have more kids.

That argument assumes that

That argument assumes that you want financial and/or emotional comfort from your kids/grandkids in your senior years. If you're rich anyway, you're an old curmudgeon, or you have very high time-preference then it doesn't seem as compelling.

Thanks for the

Thanks for the clarification, Don.

This is only loosley on point, but I find it interesting that many of the same people who call for greater governmental standardization bemoan the standardization of languages (i.e. the dying out of relatively useless ones). It's a pet cause among linguists on the left. Or, in other words, 99% of all linguists.

The Lex Mercatoria is in

The Lex Mercatoria is in fact a good example of why polycentricity does NOT have such a problem. The LM first arose because different nations had different legal standards, and a court in country A often wouldn't recognise/uphold a contract made under the laws of country B. This was a serious problem for international commerce, and merchants called for more harmonisation of legal standards, but monopolistic governments cared bugger-all about their subjects' convenience and did nothing. So the merchants got together and created an international non-state system of mercantile law that was far more uniform than what the state provided.

It's no surprise that the market is *more* likely to promote universal standards (when they're desirable) than government is, because competition creates more incentives to provide what consumers need. (I wonder if anyone thinks government regulation is all that stands between us and some company suddenly starting to issue triangular credit cards?)

I think this discussion of

I think this discussion of legal standards in a polycentric order is equally applicable to the need for content and assessment standards in education. I'm a teacher in the Bronx and have been very dissatisfied with the "official" standards movement. I linked to this post from http://classcontext.blogdrive.com, where I further discuss the pitfalls of educational content a la coercion.