Universal standards

by Russ Roberts on November 18, 2009

in Competition, Complexity & Emergence, Uncategorized

There are advantage to universal standards. The most important is economies of scale–once you learn the standard, it applies everywhere. But the disadvantages are subtle and usually much greater than the advantages.

I don’t want a single standard of health care, one standard of what’s “best.” Everyone is different and what is best for me may not be best for you. More importantly, what is best is unknowable to a committee of experts. Not hard to know. Not difficult to discover. Unknowable. What age should a women have a mammogram is not a question that has an answer. There are many answers. One reason is that women are different. A more important reason is that our knowledge evolves. What is thought to be “best” (wait until 40) may turn out to be different (wait till 50). But even more importantly, when power is centralized, the very idea of “best” no longer applies. The incentives aren’t there. When there is one standard set by the political process, the experts’ incentives on whatever committee determines the universal standard are inevitably going to be politicized. So give me “inefficient” competition among standards. Let different standards vie for attention.

I was thinking about these issues this afternoon when I spoke at a convention of international accountants. The topic was the crisis but there was a side issue of what they called “convergence,” the idea of a single international accounting standard. As one speaker put it, an investor examining a company in Beijing or Barcelona or Boston should be reading the same information that has been generated by the same standards.

It’s a nice idea. And convergence sounds good, doesn’t it? But I couldn’t help thinking about Basel II. Those were international standards and yes, it was good that they were the same everywhere. But they might not have been the right standard. Yousee, when you have only one standard, it really has to be very, very good or it’s really a disaster. And what is the incentive to come up with the “best” standard? When a standard has a monopoly, the incentive to manipulate it to make sure it complies with your desires is very strong. So rent-seeking is inevitable.

Rather than have a set of experts come up with the best standard, I would prefer competition among standards. Let investor dollars determine which are the best standards. Maybe tehre would be convergence, maybe not. And when there are lots of standards, you can get improvement as people learn over time. But those universal standards struggle to improve. The people who design them have a tendency to defend them even when they’re flawed.

At the end of the discussion, a committee was mentioned, I think it was part of the UN, that was looking at some accounting issue. It was mentioned that the committee represented the different regions of the world. There was a representative from Africa, South America, Asia, North America, and Latin America. Because every part of the world had a representative, it was assumed in the conversation that everyone’s interests would be heard.

The word “representative” is usually used that way, but it really has no meaning. The African “representative” on the commitee is not representing Africa in any meaningful way. There is no African “interest” or meaningful sense of the phrase “what is best for Africa.” Africa is a diverse place. Some rules or standards might benefit rich countries or small countries or multinational corporations or leaders or the people. To say that someone represents Africa is a meaningless phrase. But of course it’s worse than that. The person who is called the African representative has no real incentive to represent Africa or the people of Africa. That person is likely to respond to his or her political patrons. So the whole thing is a romantic illusion.

Give me more competition and less universality.

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muirgeo November 18, 2009 at 8:32 am

“Rather than have a set of experts come up with the best standard, I would prefer competition among standards. Let investor dollars determine which are the best standards.”

Think experts at CDC with recommendations for disease control versus private market innovation resulting in OTC derivatives and CDO’s.

I’ll take a Jonas Salk over a Llyod Blankfien any day.

I don’t get this idea that dollar and investor driven outcomes will necessarily be better then a dedicated group of professionals driven by other goals and measures of success. Say like pride, professional standing ect ect… The idea that people are at their best when their greed is unleashed is morbid and I suspect possibly where the quip on economist knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing comes from.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 10:44 am

“I don’t get this idea that dollar and investor driven outcomes will necessarily be better then a dedicated group of professionals driven by other goals and measures of success.”

This is called drive. You’ll find this quality highest among those in a free society. We will not be able to defend ourselves against biological attacks without private capital and expertise of those in a thriving, nimble and innovative civilian drug industry.

If you think that being nimble and innovation are qualities shared among government bureaucrats you are sadly mistaken.

http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_anthrax.html

The government cannot handle the swine flu. I am aghast to think that many people believe that government can handle something as complicated as medical care.

Kevin November 18, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Why can’t Jonas Salk participate in a competitive environment in order to obtain pride, prestige, etc? If Jonas and Lloyd competed against each other, you could make the choice, any day as you say, to use Jonas. How does Lloyd’s presence prevent you from choosing as you please?

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 6:41 pm

You are right Kevin. I would want them both to compete. As far as I know private enterprise was not deferred from competing to get a Polio vaccine. I’m guessing it just was market feasible.

The public option health care plan is of the same idea. And there are plenty of examples of both government and private forces working together or competing to improve our choices.

Think for example of the Human Genome Project, the catalytic converter, the microprocessor, the internet….

Again the extreme ideas that it should be all government or all private market drivin are futile and ideological. The real world suggest a balance between these two extremes.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 7:26 pm

“The real world suggest a balance between these two extremes.”

Yes, the two work so beautifully, side by side. The worker and the bureaucrat, working happily together, producing what no two free people could ever produce together.

Freedom and compulsion are two great tastes that taste great together, aren’t they muirry?

MWG November 18, 2009 at 3:27 pm

“I don’t get this idea that dollar and investor driven outcomes will necessarily be better then a dedicated group of professionals driven by other goals and measures of success.”

That’s because you’re not very bright.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Actually, I think it’s something deeper. There is an element of envy as well as an obsession with unfairness. It’s like muirgoo hasn’t matured beyond four or five years old.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Say like pride, professional standing ect ect… The idea that people are at their best when their greed is unleashed is morbid and I suspect possibly where the quip on economist knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing comes from.

So greed doesn’t apply to pride, professional standing? They are all patterns of seeking individuation.

Also, to be frank, there is nothing wrong in itself with making money, despite the modern liberal panic and hysteria over that issue.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 6:24 pm

>> Also, to be frank, there is nothing wrong in itself with making money, despite the modern liberal panic and hysteria over that issue.I’d go much further than that. Profit is a great thing; perhaps the best of things. Market-based profit directs resources (e.g., capital, labor) to incrementally more valuable uses. And it does so organically, in that every individual is driven independently to produce more wealth. It’s very much like evolution in that way. Profit is the great organizer of a capitalist society. It’s the engine of its growth. Take away profit, and we have stagnation or decline. To give one quick example, when I was a kid, TV repair was considered one of the best blue collar jobs to go into. People will always have TVs, TVs will always break down, so the TV repairman will always be in high demand. People flocked to technical schools offering the skill. 20 years before that there were no TV repairmen because the TV wasn’t common enough to warrant such a specialization. Today, there are also no TV repairmen because it’s not practical to fix a busted TV. No one directed people to go into the TV repair field (or to offer training in the field), and no one directed people to leave. It came and went solely based on profit incentives.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 6:54 pm

“Profit is the great organizer of a capitalist society. It’s the engine of its growth. Take away profit, and we have stagnation or decline. ”

Yeah but you neglect how much good has come from public sources… from my incredible 9th grade biology teacher to cancer cures from the NIH to this here internet and government directed developement of microprocessors.

Markets need good governance to be most effective. You can’t have one without the other.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 7:14 pm

“you neglect how much good has come from public sources”

“my incredible 9th grade biology teacher” – wow, one teacher out of the dozens you had. That really proves how good public education is. And of course, said teacher would not have been available to you unless provided to you by the government.

“this here internet” oh, so wordpress and amazon and google were brought to us by government bureaucrats? That’s garbage, you trashtalker!

“government directed developement of microprocessors” Oh, right!!! Dream on! It was the good people at the guvmint that ‘directed’ the development of the chips in our ipods, cell phones and computers? JOKE!

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 8:35 pm

The internet was largely the design of folks outside of government. I know, I was there when it was born. The notion that ARPANET was somehow the only genesis point of the internet is a myth in fact.

Anyway, you treat government as if it works differently from the market, as if the actors in government are motivated differently from those in the market, and decades of public choice research has demonstrated that this is simply wrong.

Public schools suck. I won’t be sending my children to them.

The NIH is a problematic agency at best.

The government did not direct the development of the microprocessor.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Yeah, to some degree a person who wants to save the world from polio for purposes of personal recognition and one who wants to do it to get rich are the same.

But at some level they are not. We ARE altruistic by nature and some of us more so then others. If people were simply guided by greed you’d think everyone would want to be a Wall Street banker. But plenty of people dedicate their lives to some endeavor knowing full well they could choose a financially more lucrative path. I am self indulged just as everyone else is but the idea of having a job solely on the basis of making money with out regard to feeling you are doing something good for the world is foreign to me. If we let the money chasers overwhelm the truly well intended ours will be a very poor society both in spirit and economy.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 7:18 pm

“If we let the money chasers overwhelm the truly well intended”

Oh yeah, muirdope. The bleeding hearts have done so so much for society. The money chasers have brought us nothing, made us poorer in spirit. OK, then please vacate your house, quit driving your car (you fossil fuel consuming hypocrite), take off those profit-driven, greed soaked clothes you’re wearing. Don’t eat any more corporate-farm food. And the next time you shop for a low price, repent of your soul-murdering greed!!!

Go find all the same stuff produced by great people who produce things merely for the pride of it. Wow, those are really great people!

Mark November 18, 2009 at 7:19 pm

“We ARE altruistic by nature and some of us more so then others.”

OK, when are you coming over to mow my lawn and wash my car, you altruistic guy?

You’re not a money-chaser, are you?

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 9:45 pm

And muirdog will use the stick of the state to beat that altruism right into you – whether you want it or not you dirty kulak.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Dude, you appear to have a pre-Kuhnian notion of what science does and what scientists are about.

I am self indulged just as everyone else is but the idea of having a job solely on the basis of making money with out regard to feeling you are doing something good for the world is foreign to me. If we let the money chasers overwhelm the truly well intended ours will be a very poor society both in spirit and economy.

People have mixed motives, desires, etc. No duh. You’re trying to paint the libertarian world as if it were like the Gordon Gecko caricature.

Still, there is no better incentive for the farmer to get up in the morning to produce grain for the New Yorker to eat as his morning toast than the profit motive. Not everyone can part of your family, so there has to be a very different reason to serve your fellow man. And people serve their fellow men every day by engaging in trade.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 8:30 pm

“there is no better incentive for the farmer to get up in the morning to produce grain for the New Yorker to eat as his morning toast than the profit motive.”

No, muirdoo said it: we are all altruistic. The farmer should do what he does out of love for New Yorkers.

You’re such a Gekko, Mommsen!

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 9:45 pm

There is nothing wrong with what Gordon Gecko did in Wall Street. Insider trading should not be illegal. He proved in his big speech that he has a track record of improving companies, who cares what his motivations are?

Randy November 18, 2009 at 11:39 pm

“We ARE altruistic by nature…”

True, but what has this got to do with government? Government is a profit seeking rent collection business. The supposed altruism is mostly propaganda.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 12:07 am

We are NOT altruistic by nature.

We are altruistic only when we become wealthy – not only in terms of material wealth but in terms of freedom, though the two go hand in hand. When we are free to provide for ourselves and free from coercion, we are relaxed enough to turn our mind to the plight of others. But, when we live in fear, we think only of ourselves and our immediate family.

There is no common decency, let alone altruism, in forced collectives where people live or died at the whim of government. Altruism is for rich people.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 4:46 am

Thanks, Methinks.

I hoped you would respond to that bit of muirdiocy. I’d go farther and suggest that, “We ARE altruistic by nature” belongs on The List.

From The Notebooks of Lazarus Long by Robert A Heinlein:

Beware of altruism; it is based on self-deception, the root of all evil. If tempted by something that feels altruistic, examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it.

For a man who never met Yasafi, Heinlein sure understood muirpidity.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Furthermore, someone who claims that science and money don’t go together is completely unfamiliar with the grant writing competition that goes on amongst scientists. Scientists are as greedy for money as any other member of society, and this is reflected in the intense scrambling scientists do for grants of funds from private and public sources.

And you better believe that scientists talk about and brag about what grants they get; and everyone knows who is who on the pecking order of funding.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Yeah but a lot of that grant money is from public sources.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Yes, which I noted. Duh! That says nothing about the competition between scientists for that money.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I’d like to become a scientist and grant myself a bunch of your money.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 7:23 pm

“The idea that people are at their best when their greed is unleashed is morbid ”

Yeah, muirmaid, it should be:

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

Now an organizing ideal like that would create a truly nice society, wouldn’t it? All nice people, workin’ together, lovin’ each other?

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 8:02 pm

muirgeo, aren’t you a doctor of some kind? Doesn’t that make you some kind of expert in the medical field? Given that, why would you give out bad medical advice? Are you so cheaply bought that the promise of mere trinkets can be used to bribe you?

Of course, you’re not the one who’ll give out bad medical advice. It’s all those other doctors (every one of them except for you). Yeah, those evil doctors who care only for money and never for the patients.

Seth November 19, 2009 at 1:01 am

“I don’t get this idea that dollar and investor driven outcomes will necessarily be better then a dedicated group of professionals driven by other goals and measures of success.”

Where did anyone one say “necessarily”? I see “prefer”. Straw man.

I too prefer market based outcomes. Dollars usually provide more reliable feedback of true individual preferences than measures of success that are subject to statistical manipulations, misinterpretation, invalidity, groupthink, bias and politics. But, it’s not always the case. But, it doesn’t have to always be the case, it just has to consistently be the case, which it is.

Are there exceptions? Sure. There always are. But, an exception doesn’t necessarily rule out that the exception wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 9:30 am

Note that since I know next to nothing about accounting, this is just a criticism as with regards to what you have said about breast cancer.

I don’t want standard of health care, one standard of what’s “best.” Everyone is different and what is best for me may not be best for you.

Yes and no. Doctors make recommendations all the time. And it become fairly trivial to calculate the cost of early detection vs the cost subsequent treatment in dollars and cents terms. And the relevant benefits as well. How much money is saved from early detection?

And it is not implausible that the disvalue of getting cancer, a mastectomy or even chemotherapy is very high. From these, we can make useful generalisation. Also, happiness research may be a good empirical way to make these generalisations.

So, here’s the thing, if people were required by law to come before they were 40, I would understand your objection, but given that these are recommendations which people can choose to follow or not (at least as with regards breast cancer) it is not morally problematic that there are recommendations and standards.

Also, it doesn’t have to be the case that any particular standard is the “BEST”. That a particular standard is good enough is sufficient to justify said standard, as long as said standard is not mandatory. Of course if it is mandatory, the fact that it is not the best may have ethical implications.

If lets say all the relevant statutory boards are privatised tomorrow, It is not clear that that things will change. I dont think we would get multiple competing standards just like that. A lot of these institutions have a lot of trust and social capital going for them. And I think that they have incentive to maintain their social capital.These institutions are going to be maintained, and just like in the current system, when doctors and scientists make new discoveries, the changes are going to percolate up.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 1:51 pm

So, here’s the thing, if people were required by law to come before they were 40, I would understand your objection, but given that these are recommendations which people can choose to follow or not (at least as with regards breast cancer) it is not morally problematic that there are recommendations and standards.

But it will become problematic when we have a single payer health system (which is the stated goal in inserting a “public option”) and women are PREVENTED from obtaining a mammogram before the age of 40 – regardless of family history. It is possible for women to be denied a mammogram even if they are paying out of pocket.

Today, we can choose to get mammograms when we want. When government is forcing a standard rather than a doctor and patient deciding on a standard, we get the scenario Don describes.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 1:08 am

But it will become problematic when we have a single payer health system (which is the stated goal in inserting a “public option”) and women are PREVENTED from obtaining a mammogram before the age of 40 – regardless of family history. It is possible for women to be denied a mammogram even if they are paying out of pocket.

Are you sure? That sounds crazy. In Singapore we have both government run hospitals and private sector hospitals, but I dont see the private sector going out of business here. Also, I’m not sure that government hospitals can refuse to do mammograms for people who come in to do them either. (Of course Singapore may be different since government services in general are run is ways that net them a healthy profit and allowed to be subject to market forces. Which as part of a larger libertarian project, simply means that these aspects of the government are much closer to privatisation)

Methinks November 19, 2009 at 3:27 am

Yes, in Singapore things actually work and the public sector works very differently than it does in Europe and Canada. In Canada, it is illegal to pay out of pocket for services that are provided by government. It’s illegal to set up a private clinic – although, distressed by patients dying on waiting lists, Canadian doctors have now started breaking that law.

In Britain, women are denied yearly mammograms after a certain age – can’t remember if it’s 65 or 69. After that age, they can only get them every 3 years. Unfortunately, breast cancer is highly correlated to age.

In the U.S., if you’re on Medicare (government health care), and you need a root canal, you won’t get one. It’s cheaper to extract the tooth. That would be okay if you could just pay the same doctor to do the root canal, but you can’t. It’s illegal to pay out of pocket to a doctor who has accepted you as a medicare patient.

My understanding of the Singapore system is that government will pay the amount that it would cost to extract the tooth and if you want the more expensive root canal, then you have to pay the difference (usually, out of the HSA account everyone is required to contribute to). Also, the Singapore government runs like a business – in general. There’s very little bureaucracy, very few entitlement programs in need of funding and very little interest in killing the private sector. At least, that’s my impression. This is a government that understands the importance of markets. I believe Singapore recently legalized a market in kidneys.

Things work very differently in Singapore. Things work. I’ve been trying to learn more about the medical system there, so if you can provide insight, I’d love it.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 5:16 am

I havent had much occasion to actually purchase healthcare (my parents are doctors, so most of the stuff I get from them) But for dental, I’ve found that I pay out of pocket, even for the National Dental Centre. Thats one of the reasons I switched to private dental, not only was she nicer, I paid half of what i usually did. (because we could negotiate)

About the rest of it, you know as much as I (having seen your comments on caplan’s blog and elsewhere) What can I say, means testing works. It may be the case that the government pays for basic dental in NDC, but since I’ve never personally experienced it (silver spoon in mouth and all that) I’m not sure that it is the case. Usually, schools do provide some dental and health service.

What we have going on for us are family clinics. While most of hospital care is public, (60-70% of the beds are in the public sector) There are a lot of private practices that can be found in every neighbourhood. So the bulk of specialists are public while the opposite is true for GPs.

In the public sector, the government will subsidise more of your treatment if you take class C wards which differ from class B and A primarily in how much privacy and comfort you get, and based on how much you are earning.

As caplan has said, its not a libertarian paradise. You are required to declare your income, and if you are alocal, they probably have the resources to check whether you have been honest about it.

My Dad used to run the emergency ward at SGH (Singapore General Hospital) and came up with ways to really get the urgent cases seen to first. In lots of ways, even with a bureaucracy if you are given sufficient local authority to implement ideas, things can be bottom up even in the public sector. Of course things were kind of newer then so when you are starting from scratch you dont have a bureaucracy telling you what you can or cannot do.

But the government at least pays lip service to the notion of bottom up organisation etc etc. And when I was in the army, we did have quite a bit of latitude on various things. Of course when orders came from the CO, there was nothing we corporals could do.

Methinks November 19, 2009 at 3:39 am

BTW, Murali, I agree that government doesn’t have to crowd out the private sector. Singapore is a great example of that. Singapore spends roughly 4% of GDP on health care, but gets as good or better outcomes as in the U.S. All the latest medical and pharmaceutical technology is available and there are no wait lists. Singapore achieves this largely by maintaining a free market health care system of which HSA’s are a big part.

If the U.S. congress were really interested in reforming our health care system, they would at least take a look at Singapore’s. But, health care reform in this country has nothing at all to do with reforming health care. It has everything to do with nationalizing a critical sector which is 16% of the U.S. economy in order to grow the power of politicians – and to divert attention from the fact that government run medicare is bankrupt.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Sorry. That’s Russ, not Don.

Carl Pham November 18, 2009 at 11:09 am

And isn’t it totally ironic that the Modern Left understands this argument completely when it comes to biodiversity? They’ll lecture you at great length of the folly of cultivating only one strain of hybrid rice, and letting all the oddball boutique strains of the past die out.

But when it comes to diversity in our economy, no, they’re into monoculture in a big way. One Ring Health Care Plan to Rule Them!

By the way, the other factor you might have mentioned is that diversity is the major driver of innovation. How do you think scientific medicine advances? It’s only rare that it happens by very deliberate experimentation that everyone agrees makes sense. If everyone could see some innovation made sense, it would already have been done.

No, as a rule, scientific advance comes about when some oddball in the minority bucks the conventional wisdom and does something that he believes in, but which most sensible people think is nuts.

Er…but then it works, and all the sensible people observe it, and it becomes the new conventional wisdom…and then Hollywood after some times writes a nice moralizing movie about how in the past (but no longer!) iconoclastic thinkers were suppressed by a smug majority that thought it had all the answers already.

A lack of diversity, whether in our crops, our economy, or even in our thoughts, is a sure route to stagnation and (if unforeseen conditions emerge, as they often do) possible disaster.

Randy November 18, 2009 at 11:51 am

Good point.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

RE: “And isn’t it totally ironic that the Modern Left understands this argument completely when it comes to biodiversity… but when it comes to diversity in our economy, no, they’re into monoculture in a big way.”

Wow. Congratulations on winning the most ridiculous generalization of the week award.

Mark November 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

That should mean a lot, coming from you, Mr. Ridiculous.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Daniel is right. The left doesn’t actually understand any of that, it’s just that the right group takes up the cause and the rest of the left just follows along like sheep. Muirpid is a good example.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 11:21 am

Russ,

Good piece in tone and purpose but, for myself, I am uncomfortable with your use of the word “standard(s)” in this context.

This quote reveals a standard. “I don’t want standard of health care, one standard of what’s “best.” Everyone is different and what is best for me may not be best for you.”

The standard is personal choice.

My feeling of discomfort comes because I do not read you as talking about standards, I read you as talking about regulations, rules, or even law, any and all of which could take us to that convergence.

In my understanding of history and the development of standards, I see standards as evolving within groups or cultures through a mix of wise practices, sound education, and shared goals, and which are not necessarily written down. Those who observe and meet the standards typically do well, those who do not meet them typically do not do well.

As an example, one such standard might be the voluntary honoring of a contract at all personal costs. Another might be self sufficiency or self responsibility.

I especially agree with your pointed comments about representation. Very well said and very appropriate to speak into this worldwide epidemic of political correctness that says my choice for you can or should have more weight regarding your actions than your personal choice for you.

That view is a sickness that is slowly killing humanity and. if not reversed, guarantees that we have a long sloping road into hell ahead of us.

JohnK November 18, 2009 at 12:10 pm

I agree with your semantic quibble. Standards are voluntary, government mandates are not.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 1:29 am

No, my discomfort is not just semantics. There is more there than just semantics. I may not be adequate to explain it but it is there.

I recognize that you said you agree with me, but I am still compelled to reply.

For instance, as I said, law, regs, rules, can theoretically all get us to convergence and probably much quicker than standards. In Russ’s piece note that the people he mentioned as supporting standards to reach convergence were really talking about rules, regulations, and law, not standards; at least not in my lexicon and understanding of the word standards.

Standards, as I said, evolve more than are dictated. Again I go to examples of what I see as standards:

Consideration of others, a standard, can not be legislated.

Ambition to excel, a standard, can not be legislated.

Kindness, a standard, can not be legislated.

Honesty, a standard, can not be legislated.

Courage, a standard, can not be legislated.

Faithfulness, a standard, can not be legislated.

Responsibility, a standard, can not be legislated.

I am not fussing at you, just trying to articulate my thoughts on this subject, which by the way is not the first time I have thought long and hard about standards.

It is in my mind that we can have rules, regulations, or law without character, but no standards without character.

It is in my mind that if people have personal character and standards they can not be enslaved or controlled, no matter the rules, regulations, or laws they are subjected to.

Destroy the standards, you weaken or destroy the character, and then you can have your great collective.

Am I making sense to any one but me?

Gil November 19, 2009 at 2:07 am

Sure those things can be legislated against vidyohs unless you want their counterparts (being inconsiderate, unambitious, unkind, dishonest, etc.) to co-exist and let people choose which way they want to go. If people were caught not practicising those virtues were severely punished then they’d be less likely to do it again. I’m sure you punched others for flinching until they stopped flinching.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 3:41 am

Do not operate keyboard when stoned. You embarrass yourself.

But what the hell, so does your pals muirduck, Disingenuous Kuehn, et al., so have at it.

JohnK November 19, 2009 at 12:25 pm

It appears that you are one who would rather lose and be right than win and be wrong.

If that is the case, how do you allow yourself to work with lawyers?

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I believe that Russ was arguing more for bottom-up standards as opposed to top-down standards. If once standard evolves out of the market place because it works the best, that is a good thing. If on the other hand a government imposed standard that if forced form the top-down claiming to be the best that is a compeltely diffrent story.

Randy November 18, 2009 at 11:48 am

The idea of representation is worse than a “romantic illusion”. Its propaganda. And absurd propaganda at that.

Gil November 18, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Gee more ‘standards’? Gee wouldn’t it be nice to have another temperature scale to compete with F, C and K? Gee, wouldn’t it terrible if there were only two major languages used throughout the world such that if you knew both you converse with everyone else? Or how terrible is that a visitor touring the E.U. doesn’t have to worry about which cash to use? Oh the horror of it all!

Michael November 18, 2009 at 5:35 pm

There are many more temperature scales than just F, C, and K. The Rankine and Reaumur scale are still used in the occasional field. People in high energy and plasma physics usually measure temperature in electronvolts. But hey, I guess you know better than they do which is the best temperature scale for them.

Also, there are a bunch of temperature scales which are no longer used. Not because of any law against using them, but because they just aren’t convenient. The problem is that it would have been impossible to know beforehand which temperature scale would prove the best. The Celsius scale originally had the freezing point at 100 and the boiling point at 0. Imagine if that temperature scale had been the one codified into law. Thermodynamics would be a lot of fun, what with absolute zero at 373 C.

Gil November 19, 2009 at 6:04 am

So I had a look on Wiki at the alternate temperature scales and, surprise, surprise, they are nearly disused competitors to the C/F/K (whereas eV is more complicated than just a temperature scale). I s’pose many a handful of Libertarians likewise would get a kick out of learning a near-dead language in the hope of conversing in a way that no one else can understand them.

Imagine a temperature scale codified into law? Well what of the Kelvin scale? It’s the International Standard for temperature and it’s the one that makes the most sense at 0 K as it is set at a non-arbitrary point – absolute zero.

By the way, I’m sure many a Libertarian loves to hold tenaciously onto the Imperial System of measurement over metric. After the true imperial measurement are based on the length of human body parts thus giving everyone their own personalised definition of an ‘inch’, ‘cubit’, ‘foot’, ‘yard’, etc.

Michael November 19, 2009 at 11:58 pm

You’re right, temperature scales other than F, C, and K are no commonly used. That’s the entire point: people are capable on individually deciding which scale best suites them. In most cases it is one of F, C, or K, but not all.

You’re missing the point in the Kelvin scale being codified into law. Yes, it is formally defined by the CGPM, but that’s separate issue than the one here. I have no objection to the governments setting an exact definition for the Kelvin scale. After all if I don’t like the Kelvin, I can always use a different one, or invent my own and use that. A better analogy to the issue here would be government regulations saying that every temperature scale must conform with certain guidelines. There is no way for anyone to know what the desired properties of a temperature scale will be for every application. The same holds for health care; there is no way to know what what makes up a desirable health care plan for every person.

Michael November 19, 2009 at 11:58 pm

You’re right, temperature scales other than F, C, and K are no commonly used. That’s the entire point: people are capable on individually deciding which scale best suites them. In most cases it is one of F, C, or K, but not all.

You’re missing the point in the Kelvin scale being codified into law. Yes, it is formally defined by the CGPM, but that’s separate issue than the one here. I have no objection to the governments setting an exact definition for the Kelvin scale. After all if I don’t like the Kelvin, I can always use a different one, or invent my own and use that. A better analogy to the issue here would be government regulations saying that every temperature scale must conform with certain guidelines. There is no way for anyone to know what the desired properties of a temperature scale will be for every application. The same holds for health care; there is no way to know what what makes up a desirable health care plan for every person.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 12:17 pm

It sounds like a study is in order. Let’s examine situations when private interests and investor dollars end up producing convergence and compare those outcomes to when that convergence is planned. Weren’t railroad track gauges nonstandardized years ago? What about getting all of our tech gadgetry to work well together? Or how about phillips head screws and the various sizes of nuts and bolts and home design standards? Etc.

John November 18, 2009 at 12:23 pm

This is the programmer take on standards:
‘The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.’
— Andrew S. Tannenbaum (disputed)

Hopefully the standards Russ talks about will go the same way, many many versions: )

JohnK November 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm

If the government set standards with regards to programming we’d still be using punch cards.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

When you mentioned accounting, I was instantly reminded of the mark to market accounting argument that was raging last year. The crux of the argument was that if firms didn’t have to mark their assets to market, but rather marked them to whatever number helped their stock price the most, we’d all be better off. Under pressure, the FASB changed the standard to mark to make believe. I’m sure we’re all better off.

Anonymous November 18, 2009 at 3:21 pm

The only ones who like standards are the thugs who seek rent and engineers.
.

Larry November 18, 2009 at 5:48 pm

“Standards” = “Least Common Denominator”

The best standards are those that develpe in the mark3et (see “Internet”).

The worst ones are imposed by government. Examples are legion.

Seth November 19, 2009 at 12:38 am

Excellent thoughts. As a young engineer working for an electric utility I was amazed by the vastly different construction standards used by some of the neighboring utilities – as in the utilities that were just across the street. I thought something as old and boring as electricity would have evolved to a single standard. But no, each utility had different experiences and different people with different values reacting to those experiences.

To illustrate this idea to others, I sometimes ask them how they think it would work if there was a Vacation Department in DC who planned our vacations. They would choose when we go, mode of transportation, dates and times for travel, where we stayed, ate and which activities we would partake in.

Most get it. Some say, “that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I have such a hard time deciding.” Knowing this person prefers cruises to beaches, I say, “okay, next year you spend a week on the beach. Too many people prefer cruises. You’ll have wait 3 years for your next cruise so we can accommodate demand.” After that, I usually get an, “…oh…hmmm.”

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 4:26 am

Don, I am a CPA, a big 4 escapee and am adamantly opposed to the use of international standards.

Your thoughts are cogent and rare. You face an uphill battle in getting the economics profession to listen, as the revivified Paul Volker is a founding chairman of the foundation that supports IFRS.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 7:12 am

Excellent point. Thank you.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 9:41 am

excellent post!

Anonymous November 21, 2009 at 10:45 pm

I hate to agree with muirgeo, but the D / C / AA / AAA universal battery sizes are an excellent proof of the value of universal standards. Thank goodness we have muirgeo around to point out things like that, because the rest of us are too stupid to notice real-life things like that. We’ve all just got our heads up our ideological economic asses, and need down-to-earth sensible people like muirgeo.

Thanks again for pointing that out, Muirgeo!

Mark November 18, 2009 at 8:42 pm

“The notion that ARPANET was somehow the only genesis point of the internet is a myth in fact. ”

Yeah, the idea that government can claim credit for what we think of as the world wide web is just ridiculous.

Ditto for the idea that the government guided the development of the microprocessor, kind of like how a shepherd guides his sheep: wisely, gently, protectively. Actually, the image is a beautiful one though, isn’t it? The love of a paternalistic government agency? Excuse me while I hold back the tears. Muirgoo, can you pass the government hymnal? I’m thinking a song would be appropriate about now.

Gil November 19, 2009 at 6:07 am

How about this one then: child-rearing cannot be legislated? Child abandonment has a long history and is agreeable to many Libertarian as a child has no right to the fruits of their parents. If the State forbids child abandonment then they’re making the parents the slave of their children.

Anonymous November 19, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Thank you for your reply, Murali. Interesting. I don’t think there is a libertarian paradise anywhere. Governments have no incentive to provide one. But, it seems to me that Singapore’s ruling party understands that its strength lies in allowing the economy to work by not molesting business too much. This is not something that is well understood by our government – anymore.

Are you here or in Singapore?

Anonymous November 20, 2009 at 2:56 am

I’m in Singapore now, but I’m thinking of visiting the US for a week in june after I’ve handed in my Honours thesis. Go to some libertarian seminars maybe, visit some of my relatives or something.

Anonymous November 20, 2009 at 2:56 am

I’m in Singapore now, but I’m thinking of visiting the US for a week in june after I’ve handed in my Honours thesis. Go to some libertarian seminars maybe, visit some of my relatives or something.

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