Missing Coordination

The main justification offered for government is coordination – that governments help us to coordinate. Yes, many suspect that governments exist primarily to perpetuate and enrich themselves and their controllers at the expense of others. But defenders counter that governments are uniquely able to produce net benefits via coordination, and have historically often realized this potential.

This dispute can be illuminated by considering missing coordinations: the many possible coordinations that seemingly offer large gains, yet receive little government attention:

  • Zoning – There are often high gains to coordinating how neighboring lands are used. Cities use this to justify zoning regulations, but these regulations often inefficiently push growth and the poor away to other regions. Larger scale governments could coordinate to discourage such inefficiencies, but they rarely do.
  • Language – Since it is much easier to interact and trade with folks who speak the same language, there are huge gains to coordinating to speak the same language. National governments once devoted large efforts to internal coordination, but there is little effort to coordinate languages across nations.
  • Innovation – Since innovators personally gain only a small fraction of the social returns to their innovation, the world could gain from subsidizing innovation. Many nations and subunits invoke this rationale and pay directly for research. But there is little effort to coordinate research spending or innovation subsidies on larger scales.
  • Migration Huge gains are possible via moving willing labor from places where wages are low to where wages are high. The attempts to realize these games across nations seem remarkably weak compared to the possible gains.
  • Move South – The locations of our major cities once made sense in terms of major transportation routes and nearby resources, but those reasons are far weaker today. Since air conditioning has made southern climes much more attractive, northern city residents could benefit by coordinating to all move south together. This isn’t done.
  • Genre Sharing – The more folks who like a genre of music, the more examples of that genre they can each enjoy. This suggests coordination gains from acclimating folks to like the same few genres of music. Similar gains seem possible whenever there are divergent genres, and tastes can be influenced by what folks are exposed to. Yet governments rarely attempt such coordination.
  • Future Creatures – Familiar interest rates say we can give huge gains to distant future folks, if only there were things they could do for us. Yet we fail to enforce most terms in wills, and won’t let parents charge kids for creating them.
  • Aliens – By allowing anyone who wants to send signals to aliens, we risk hostile aliens destroying us all. Yet even though the cost to discourage such signals seems trivial, we show little interest in doing so. We also show little interest in coordinating to prevent asteroid strikes.

Now we might not always expect to see successful coordination in these areas.  But we might at least expect to see many attempts at such coordination. If governments exist to coordinate, why do they show so little interest in attempting to realize such gains?

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  • Cyan

    Some of your posts have the pattern “why doesn’t agent Q take sensible action X?” But it’s a waste of time to ask the question if the mere fact that X is sensible is not obvious to agent Q, so it would be worthwhile to point out reasons why it should be obvious to agent Q in the post. (Especially as sometimes the sensibility of action X is not obvious even to your readers!)

  • Robert Koslover

    Or… one could let the market decide?

  • Julia

    Just to um add to stated unbiased natural of this blog…
    Quick Response:

    * Language – Since it is much easier to interact and trade with folks who speak the same language, there are huge gains to coordinating to speak the same language. National governments once devoted large efforts to internal coordination, but there is little effort to coordinate languages across nations.

    Dear God don’t make me smack you with a 10th grade history book.

    * Innovation – Since innovators personally gain only a small fraction of the social returns to their innovation, the world could gain from subsidizing innovation. Many nations and subunits invoke this rationale and pay directly for research. But there is little effort to coordinate research spending or innovation subsidies.

    Wow, tell NIH and the patent office.

    * Migration – Huge gains are possible via moving willing labor from places where wages are low to where wages are high. The attempts to realize these games seem remarkably weak compared to the possible gains.

    I didn’t realize the government… are we talking about the USSR?

    * Move South – The locations of our major cities once made sense in terms of major transportation routes and nearby resources, but those reasons are far weaker today. Since air conditioning has made southern climes much more attractive, northern city residents could benefit by coordinating to all move south together. This isn’t done.

    Are we talking about the USSR?

    * Genre Sharing – The more folks who like a genre of music, the more examples of that genre they can each enjoy. This suggests coordination gains from acclimating folks to like the same few genres of music. Similar gains seem possible whenever there are divergent genres, and tastes can be influenced by what folks are exposed to. Yet governments rarely attempt such coordination.

    Sorry, no, no. Why is there not more facism?

    * Future Creatures – Familiar interest rates say we can give huge gains to distant future folks, if only there were things they could do for us. Yet we fail to enforce most terms in wills, and won’t let parents charge kids for creating them.

    Governments tried that already. It was called f e u d a l i l i s m. I swear I have the history books and they hurt.

    * Aliens – By allowing anyone who wants to send signals to aliens, we risk hostile aliens destroying us all. Yet even though the cost to discourage such signals seems trivial, we show little interest in doing so. We also show little interest in coordinating to prevent asteroid strikes.

    Evidence? By “we” do you mean the people watching American Idol instead of reading your blog/ making decisions about astronomy funding? I’m lazy and I won’t look it up but I think the money for most of the research you’re referring to is coming from private sources while the astroid research is all government.

    • Anonymous

      That the USSR did it isn’t an argument against it- that’s fairly basic rationality. The argument that a government couldn’t pull it off due to people seeing excessive control as immoral is, though.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

        The argument, “the USSR did it” is your invention.

      • Julia

        His argument is that the government lacks the coordination to move the workforce to where it would be better used. That’s incorrect.

        The United States doesn’t do this because the laws don’t allow. I don’t see that as a failure. Our labor force is very flexible. The USSR was very effective at doing this, but I would like to see evidence its a better system.

        Most of the “failures” listed here are not failures. They are restraints we have placed on our government.

  • http://anarchyofproduction.wordpress.com Michael Wiebe

    Yes, governments, through their power of legal coercion, have the ability to organize coordination. But do they have the incentive? If we think that rational ignorance and rational irrationality are big public goods problems facing government, then we shouldn’t be surprised when governments fail to organize profitable coordinations.

  • Fnord

    Governments solve coordination problems, not knowledge problems.

    Asteroid impacts are not on most people’s radar, most people don’t have the economic knowledge to understand the problems of zoning, etc. A problem that most people don’t recognize isn’t a coordination problem, it’s a knowledge problem.

    As I said, people don’t understand what’s wrong with zoning, so they have no desire to coordinate to solve the problem.

    Language, by and large, is well coordinated within national boundaries. Certainly better coordinated than across national boundaries, which is exactly what you’d expect if governments help with coordination.

    Innovation is already helped by IP law and direct grants. Could we do more, and coordinate better? Probably. But it’s certainly subsidized and coordinated more than it would be without a government.

    Migration doesn’t require coordination, at least within national borders. Anyone is free to pack up and move to a place where jobs are more available. The fact that people often don’t should tell something about their cost/benefit analysis of migration.

    Moving south is probably not on most people’s radar, and the benefits are dubious anyway. Sure, AC reduces the costs of living in a hot place, but shipping infrastructure for food and a system of plows and salt trucks reduces the costs of living in a cold place.

    Genre sharing. Seriously? People’s preferences would be much easier to fulfill, if only those preferences were different. People don’t just not see the this problem, they would actively resist attempts to “solve” it.

    Again, I might quibble with whether future wellbeing is an actual problem, but it’s certainly not one most people think of.

    Aliens and asteroid impacts, again, are not something people think about.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    * Innovation – Since innovators personally gain only a small fraction of the social returns to their innovation, the world could gain from subsidizing innovation. Many nations and subunits invoke this rationale and pay directly for research. But there is little effort to coordinate research spending or innovation subsidies.

    Um, as another commenter pointed out, what do you think that NSF, NIH, DOE, DARPA, IARPA, and other agencies do all day long?

    Or are you complaining that these efforts are not coordinated enough because of the multiple funding agencies? Or that there isn’t coordination between different national governments? I really have no idea what point you are trying to make.

    Yes, many suspect that governments exist primarily to perpetuate and enrich themselves and their controllers…

    Why is this an either/or question?

    Like any social institution, governments act both to perpetuate and aggrandize themselves and in service of goals of more general utility. In that respect they are no different from General Motors or the Red Cross.

    The fact that governments are not perfect at coordination says nothing about the coordinating functions they do manage to execute, or that we would be better off without it being done.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

    To claim that governments totally fail at coordination- this must be your point, as the claim that governments sometimes fail is truistic – is tantamount to espousing anarcho-capitalism. If you see why anarcho-capitalism is impracticable, then you see why the claim must be false.

  • Anonymous

    Yet we fail to enforce most terms in wills, and won’t let parents charge kids for creating them.

    The kids don’t even consent to be created by them. Yet they have to suffer the distress of birth and possible risks of suffering severe pain from illness, accident or crime. You might just as well postulate a right for kids to sue their parents for these types of non-consensual abuse.

    By the way, in many countries, people do have to pay for their parents when they are in need of care.

  • Anonymous

    The more folks who like a genre of music, the more examples of that genre they can each enjoy. This suggests coordination gains from acclimating folks to like the same few genres of music.

    Universal internet access + long tail, and you already have the solution.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Cyan, politicians and advocates can go out of their way to point out and explain problems to voters. This did this on global warming, for example. Why not do it for these?
    Julia, you aren’t listening. Throwing out words like “fascism” or “feudalism” isn’t enough.
    Michael, so you postulate govts only coordinate when voters think they should, and no one can inform them of these problems?
    Fnord, why don’t nations try harder to coordinate these things with other nations?
    Anonymous, the internet doesn’t remotely solve the genre sharing problem.

    • michael vassar

      In general, I really like this post, and these seem like good responses. I don’t think that global warming is sensibly understood as the government informing voters of a problem though. More like political activists doing so.

    • dave

      There is big money to be made from global warming, so it was explained. If there wasn’t money to be made from it, it wouldn’t be explained.

      In most cases, keeping things vague and unexplained allows government insiders to exploit the system, so its no surprise things remain that way.

    • http://contrarianmoderate.wordpress.com/ Ben

      Gotta defend Julia. You asked why these co-ordinations don’t exist; she replied that they once did; that they worked terribly, to the point we have highly-negatively-charged labels for them; and that we no longer try to implement them as a result. That’s a pretty strong response.

      Government’s ability to facilitate coordination doesn’t have to perfect in order for it to exist.

    • Cyan

      Agent Q != voters. Agent Q == politicians & advocates.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous, the internet doesn’t remotely solve the genre sharing problem.

    The internet provides efficient use of the long tail for fringe tastes, while at the same time normalizing mainstream tastes globally. Music can be shared with only the incremental costs of bandwidth and the music industry’s attempts to introduce artificial scarcity and blockades. Beyond those factors, we already have digital abundance in music. Whenever one song of any genre is created anywhere on the planet, hundreds of millions if not billions of interested users can listen to it as often as they want. Considering this, I find it hard to see scarcity in music that would call for governmental intervention in consumer’s tastes.

    • http://contrarianmoderate.wordpress.com/ Ben

      I think Robin defines the “genre sharing problem” to mean we’d be better off if there were fewer genres of art, since there would then be more resources devoted to each. He’s correct that the internet does not resolve this “problem”.

      As Fnord suggests, this conflicts strongly with individuals’ preference for a variety of artistic genres, and the natural tendency towards more, not fewer genres, via innovation. If anything, the co-ordination government provides, should be to sponsor unusual genres, which they often do. See Salem’s point about Welsh below.

      • Anonymous

        But Robin’s view that there is a problem implies that there is scarcity, and I tried to bring in the concept of the long tail, combined with the internet as an efficient search and multiplication technology, to argue that we’re closer to a state of post-scarcity in music (and other digital art).

      • http://contrarianmoderate.wordpress.com/ Ben

        In Robin’s view, the long-tail is the problem. His point is that people’s obscure preferences for art create scarcity, and we wouldn’t need search and multiplication technology; we’d just all listen to the same government-sponsored radio station because we’d all have the same preferences.

        It’s a relatively crazy viewpoint, but one thing I think he’s right about is that technology won’t fully solve the problem of art scarcity.

      • Anonymous

        His point is that people’s obscure preferences for art create scarcity, and we wouldn’t need search and multiplication technology; we’d just all listen to the same government-sponsored radio station because we’d all have the same preferences.

        But… we already have search and multiplication technology, and we use it every day anyway. Why would we want a radio station instead? I think the effect here really is about numbers. If you have 1.5 billion people connected to the net, to share everything they create, even fringe interests are filled with abundance. An example is pornography and rule 34; no matter what outlandish interest you may have, I’m pretty sure there’s not only porn of it, but there’s probably more porn of it than you could find time to consume. Maybe I missed the point, but I really see the promised golden age of digital post-scarcity here. And the potential isn’t even maximized yet; there are still billions of potential artists and users who’re not yet connected.

  • Josh Burroughs

    I disagree.. I think the primary purpose of government is to protect people from each other. Most do a pretty bad job of it, but that’s pretty typical for anything done by a large group of people. Coordination seems secondary (unless you want to contort definitions to include the latter in the former). Furthermore, I don’t know exactly who you’re arguing against, but I suspect that the real point they make is that certain kinds of coordination can only be achieved by governments; this is miles away from claiming that governments are good at coordination, or identifying things to coordinate.

    Furthermore, governments are good at intranational coordination; they force people to toe the line (for good or ill). International coordination is another thing entirely: there is no worldwide government, so a lack of coordination at the highest level is exactly what you would expect to see.

    Some of your examples really fail to consider cost/benefit:

    Genre Sharing: Coordination would be achieved through.. what? A massive nationwide program to brainwash persuade people to like country music or whatever? I can’t even begin to imagine how that would be accomplished, or how much it would cost. A far simpler & cheaper solution (though still silly): subsidize musicians, music school, etc.

    Move South: Again, the costs of doing this would be astronomical, and the benefits are dubious, as others have pointed out.

  • http://whyiamnot.wordpess.com Salem

    Consider the large amount of dis-co-ordination governments engage in. For example, the UK government encouraging the use of the Welsh language.

  • spandrell

    “Or… one could let the market decide?”
    LOL!! You don’t seriously expect that an economist would think the market is a valuable institution, right?

    Anyway this post is another example of thinking of humans as equal and interchangeable tabula rasa rational autobots. Which they are not. But they don’t teach that at the physics or economics department.

  • Karl Hallowell

    I always thought the main justification was resolution of conflict of interest. One couldn’t trust particular private parties with defense of the nation or being an insurer of last resort.

  • Lord

    TANSTAAFL? Great gains entail great costs and it is by no means apparent even the net is a gain much less a net gain to everyone. If there were such gains, the gainers should be offering to compensate the rest but we see next to no such offers leading most to believe they don’t exist.

  • Fnord

    Why would you expect nations to coordinate these things with other nations? The gain in coordination that nations provide is primarily limited to coordination within the jurisdiction of a single nation.

    If coordination were easy, there would be no need for nations in the first place. Coordinating between nations (in the absence of an effective world government) is no easier than coordinating between people in the absence of an effective government. In fact, it’s significantly harder, because 1) nations aren’t a perfect mechanism for coordinating between citizens, and 2) many evolved features than enhance coordination between humans don’t help in coordination between nations.

    Perhaps a global government could produce net gains by facilitating more coordination, but governments do “enrich…their controllers at the expense of others”, in addition to providing coordination gains, so a balance is needed. And even if net utility would be greater under a world government, there are significant costs and risks associated with CREATING a government where none existed before.

  • Matthew Fuller

    A cynical example of hansonian cooperation: Hansonian cynicism implies rational voters should coordinate to cannibalize our population.

    First, if you no longer agree with an essay you wrote in 2002, then you are forgiven.

    http://hanson.gmu.edu/meat.html

    If one substitutes animals for humans in the above essay and one also has a coordination policy where old humans are eaten during older age, one can accrue vast savings which can be applied to increasing the total human population. If there is no greater good than human existence, surely creating more lives via cost savings is morally good. Sure, once has to sacrifice some lives so others may live, but think of all the new lives that will be created!

    Now, it isn’t obvious at what exact age or sickness level we should cannibalize our elderly. Future technology could push back the date to hundreds or thousands of years. That isn’t the point!

    The point is that meat eating is moral and if we could collaborate more (via agreeing what is or is not moral) we would all be able to see that cannibalism would lead to more human lives via vast healthcare savings.

    We all need to agree to having more children at a younger age since people are food for the young. Granted, we would need to supplement our diet with other kinds of food.

    Meat tastes good…what more is there to say or try to justify? I personally eat meat on a daily basis because I like it and if we could coordinate better, if we were truly rational voters, than we could eat our elderly and use that money to make more babies. I don’t see any flaws here. Life has nearly infinite value. Is there any better investment? Potentially future people are real people.

    ————-
    /sarcasm

    Personally, I do eat meat and I do it simply because it tastes good. And I don’t eat the elderly because they want to live. The truth is, its simply too hard to be morally consistent and its much easier to say moral words.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I think it would be wasteful if after I died they just threw me away rather than having one last good meal with me.

  • Roderick Sutherland

    One area of coordination might be a four-day working week of nine-hour days. Oddly, it seems to have been Henry Ford, not government, who introduced the two-day weekend.

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