Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tools not Rules!

This was a motto pasted on our Computer Science tutors' computer back at uni. It is also the sentiment in some of the chapters of Superfreakonomics. It reminds me of the arguments of privatisation from the Economist. Of course I agree that our democratic instincts to demand that there ought to be a law (or to demand that the government own stuff) is generally too dismissive of solutions or widgets that fix the problem (or too dismissive of privatisation programs). This does not mean that I think there should be as few laws as possible/ nor do I think that everything should be privatised.

The issue is that for widgets or solutions to be thought of, tested, funded and implemented requires a societal structure which includes the strong rule of law. No "failed" state (ie state with no laws) has ever had anyone have a good idea that has managed to go through to implementation.

Freakonomics held back from proscribing any kind of philosophy. Superfreakonomics has gone a bit further, by proscribing the idea that "laws don't work", but "good technology" does. I would adjust this by saying " Laws have a place, but only with well researched social engineering :- good technology sells itself"

4 comments:

Chris Fellows said...

Why *don't* you think there should be as few laws as possible? What value is there in a law we can get along without?

No "failed" state (ie state with no laws) has ever had anyone have a good idea that has managed to go through to implementation.

You shouldn't make yourself such a large target. There is no such thing as a state with no laws, since even the most anarchic band of brigands has some rules. Prehistory was full of clever people implementing good ideas that we still use today, like sewing, the bow and arrow, the use of fire, etc. And some of the most intellectually vibrant times/places in history, like Ancient Greece and Renaissance North Italy, were a hodgepodge of maladministered feuding micro-states. You don't have any data- or else you would show it- showing a correlation between any substantive measure of innovation and the degree of regulation. Much less causation.

Marco said...

It is mainly a philosophical issue. I can agree with the statement thus "every country or legal system ever known has had laws that we could do better without"

However there are laws that we individually treasure as laws because they are an extension of moral imperatives of our belief systems. Thus one can think that laws against abortion are unhelpful in the general sense but should be pursued regardless. One can think that Laws against carbon emissions are unhelpful but still pursue them because you believe. Economists believe absolutely that you need good property law.

Laws are subject to evolution like everything else. Good laws survive and get enforced more with time, while bad laws eventually get completely ignored or reversed.

As to your point about history, my belief is that the acceleration of technology in modern times could not have happened without the multitudinous layers of laws and intense evolutionary competition between them!

Chris Fellows said...

Good laws survive and get enforced more with time, while bad laws eventually get completely ignored or reversed.

How do you define 'good' and 'bad'? And have you any evidence? I would suggest that laws are at the 'gene' level of evolution and societies are at the 'organism' level of evolution, so that it is *societies* with bad laws that eventually get completely ignored and reversed.

...my belief is that the acceleration of technology in modern times could not have happened without the multitudinous layers of laws and intense evolutionary competition between them!

'Could not have happened' is pretty strong- I admit that property law, and especially that perfidious Venetian invention, intellectual property law, have probably played a role in fostering innovation, but:

1) I don't see how complex laws ('multitidinous layers of laws')can be helpful; in them I see only increased compliance costs and more loopholes for violators of intellectual property 'rights'.

2) I don't see any evidence that the same degree of innovation could not have been achieved under a dramatically different socio-economic system without perfidious Venetian fictions. Think of the Bogdanovists: they are presented as being extremely innovative technologically, yet embracing an anarcho-moonbatist philosophy. And why not?

Marco said...

How do you define 'good' and 'bad'?

Proximal "Economic" (or freakonomic/Marconomic equivalents) advantage.

And have you any evidence? I can only offer anecdotal evidence. In the business world I see it all the time (economic = marconomic) bad laws get ignored by citizens and enforcers alike. Often the law seems to be left there like an ornament for those who believe there is a moral imperative attached

I would suggest that laws are at the 'gene' level of evolution and societies are at the 'organism' level of evolution, so that it is *societies* with bad laws that eventually get completely ignored and reversed.
Now you are just pushing my buttons :). Just as in the natural world there are (mostly invisible) proxies and agents that work at the lower level such that it (almost) never gets to the stage of the whole society failing. The competition between similar industries etc. in different countries produce large forces against "bad" rules. It is those business and individual proxies failing which gives bad laws their invisible negative feedback.

An unwanted child is an invisible proxy for a future criminal (abortion laws get progressively ignored). Higher wages are an invisible tax on being employed at a task. The very people who win the higher wages are the ones who will find it harder to keep the job. Increasing a tax may lead to getting less revenue as there is flight to other countries/constituencies. The less a rule is enforced, the less that compliance is an issue. Enforcers aren't going to clamp down if the cost of enforcement goes through the roof without significant "payback".

Think of the Bogdanovists: they are presented as being extremely innovative technologically, yet embracing an anarcho-moonbatist philosophy. And why not.

The Bogdanovists have a great philosophy. The laws that they are under are the same as everybody else on the planets. I didn't really say that it was important to follow the letter of every law. Or in fact to follow any of the laws. It doesn't really matter how many laws there are for people who choose to ignore them. The only important thing for those, are which can reasonably be enforced! Also, the laws affect how they and their ideas can interact with the rest of society.