Arnold Kling  

What Technology Wants

Maryland's State Pension Blues... Abolish the TSA...

That is the title of Kevin Kelly's new book. I am only about one-fifth into the book, but I wanted to share an excerpt on the topic of slums.

San Francisco was built by squatters. As Rob Neuwirth recounts in his eye-opening book Shadow Cities, one survey in 1855 estimated that "95 percent of the property holders in [San Francisco] would not be able to produce a bona fide legal title to their land."

Hernando de Soto is known for decrying the lack of legal order in the slums of less-developed countries. In contrast, Kelly sees this as a natural phase through which all cities must pass. That is, as people flock to a city, order emerges only gradually.

Another point that Kelly makes is that people come to cities to provide a better future for their children. The early arrivals put up with terrible living conditions in order to give their descendants better opportunities.

I think that this is an important issue for the Charter Cities folks and for the seasteading folks. Natural cities emerge out of the attempts of poor, isolated rural folk to join an urban network that ultimately offers more prosperity. The social engineers who attempt to create artificial cities may not really appreciate these dynamics.

So far, Kelly seems to me to be offering a very Hayekian treatment of his subject matter. He seems to think of technology as an emergent order.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

San Francisco in 1906, like Chicago in 1871 and London in 1666, got a mulligan on city planning.

disgruntled writes:

hayekians should just join the rest of the world and drop this confusing "emergent order" and "catallaxy" terminology and just call it self-organization.

david writes:

In many cities with slums, because slum-dwellers could not produce legal titles to their land, city planners often could and did bulldoze over their territory once the city became large enough to have city planners. The tendency for slums to be fire and health menaces only cheered this process along. They burn themselves down.

Order may emerge only gradually at a regional scale, but it surges over the slum neighborhoods in a centrally-planned hurry. Hong Kong, etc.

Mike Gibson writes:

I reviewed Kelly's book over at a Thousand Nations, and even though the book starts out Hayekian, underpinning Kelly's love of emergent order is the belief that orders are "inevitable" or "ordained."

His theory of technological change is flawed, as it's blind to the importance of laws, institutions and individual behaviors that are important to the promotion of innovation.

He seems to think technological change will advance irrespective of these things, even going to far as to say that the Soviets' computer industry would have fulfilled Moore's Law. As I said before, that's just nuts.

gabriel rossman writes:

What i like about the now defunct HBO series Deadwood is that it shows this process through well-written fiction. The major theme of the show is that entrepreneurs, many of them gangsters, flocked to squatting on territory that through a technicality was lawless. However once there all of the entrepreneurs, whether decent like Bullock or despicable like Swearengen, realized that they needed rule of law to protect their property and came together to form a state.

Joe Cushing writes:

I don't see why it would be cost prohibitive to create a piece of paper; or today, a database entry, for each property. Poor people don't have to squat. Building codes are cost prohibitive though. I think in the united states, poverty means the inability to afford housing that meets our building codes and transportation that meets our safety and environmental standards. Since it is illegal to spend your money on things bureaucrats say aren't good enough, you have to earn what would be a large sum of money in other places just to make it here. There are no increments between living under a bridge and having a well lit, dry, everything works, apartment that meets thousands of standards--each of which cost money to meet. If you add up the cost of a catalytic converter, air bags, and side impact crash beams, you have more than the cost of a car in India. I wonder if the average poor person would rather drive an Indian car or walk.

Hyena writes:

For me, has been the nagging problem with seasteading for a long time: the cost of seasteading is prohibitively expensive for the people who would actually gain the most from it.

Mr Cushing,

The expense comes about because someone generally owns the land the squatter is on. When the government owns it, the land becomes a tool in patronage and a large opportunity cost arises.

John S Cook writes:

There is no self-organisation in property regimes. People who don't realise how some aspects of social organisation happen often assume something magical has occurred. Property regimes work well when ordinary people can take them for granted and simply get on with other productive activity. But much of the so-called emergence occurs through learning how to resolve disputes over allocation of resources that has evolved over centuries in developed countries. De Soto's point was that it is misguided to look to people who have learned to take institutional development in rich countries for granted for policy advice for poor countries. The poor advice is attributable precisely to habitually overlooking many things that people take for granted.

Steve Sailer writes:

Self-organization in San Francisco was a lively process.

There were municipal coups in San Francisco by vigilantes in 1851 and 1856 who hanged a few Democrats to encourage the others. The vigilantes intercepted a federal weapons shipment to put themselves firmly in control of San Francisco. The vigilance committee eventually merged with the Republican Party in 1867.

Michael Strong writes:

The Free Zone/Free City approach that I'm working on is based on providing improved law (e.g. U.S. law in Mexico, or Singaporean law in Rwanda) within a specified geographical territory, and then market the improved legal opportunity to prospective residents, businesses, and investors. We are working with developers to add this improved "legal infrastructure" to the improved physical infrastructure that many developers already create and market. This strategy was exceptionally effective for the Dubai International Financial Centre,

which hired a retired British commercial law judge to administer British commercial law within a 110 acre zone.

For more see the article I co-authored, "The Legal Autonomy of the Dubai International Financial Centre: A Scaleable Strategy for Free Market Reforms,"

MernaMoose writes:


Building codes are cost prohibitive though. I think in the united states, poverty means the inability to afford ..(fill in the blank)... that meets our ..(fill in the blank)... codes

Yes, and no.

I'm one of the first to yell about inane government codes and requirements. The US is clearly out of control on this front (like, it seems, most fronts these days).

On the other hand, I've seen just enough of other countries that I'm far from convinced that we'd better off without any codes or requirements. Go visit Nogales for example, which straddles the US-Mexican border. As you peer across the fence into Mexico -- if you know anything at all about building and engineering things -- it doesn't take 10 seconds to realize, the difference between the US and Mexican sides of the border amounts to something more than just wealth. Mexico doesn't have building codes to speak of (so I'm told).

The problem isn't that we don't need any codes at all in cities. It's that we don't seem to know when to stop adding codes, once we get started. Perhaps code writers, city planners, etc etc, should be temporary contracted positions only, rather than full time appointments. We need constraints on adding to the codes.

But the central problem (my opinion) remains a lack of knowledge. Which codes help, and which are just unnecessary burdens? The answer isn't clear.

I wonder if the average poor person would rather drive an Indian car or walk.

And I wonder if the average American would want to drive on roads that allowed cars from India. Maybe they're safe enough. Or maybe, they're really not. If the brakes aren't reliable, those poor people you're talking about aren't just risking their own necks. They're risking mine too. And in response to the typical (trite) anarchist answer, assuming they don't kill me, these people have no money if I sued them.

I've lived in states near the Mexican border. There was a time, not so many years ago, when it was terrifying to get behind a truck from Mexico. They'd throw anything and everything in the back of a truck, haphazard, and then see what was still there when they got to their next stop. I've had all manner of "stuff" (including heavy steel tools and machinery, and once a complete car hood) come flying out the back of these trucks at me on the highway. Near misses all, but I believe two at least had serious potential to have killed me, if I'd been only slightly less alert.

There are now tarp requirements on pick up trucks, the police began pulling them over and ticketing them if their loads weren't adequately tied down, and the situation today is much better. I doubt you could persuade me that we'd all be better off without this new law requiring people to tarp and tied down their truck loads.

I'm clear on the fact that tarps are not free. This law imposes expenses on people.

On the one hand, we need to avoid excessive impositions. On the other hand, I'd rather not have my life held to ransom for the sake of the poorest people around that you can possibly find, in order to spare them all manner of expense -- for example, the expense of a tarp and some rope.

Poverty that is a consequence of government imposition is a crime, yes. But poverty is also not a license for the poor to impose unsafe conditions on others.

I don't know what the solution to this problem is, but I don't buy the anarchist answer. Codes are laws, and there are reasons why we have laws.

A big part of the knowledge problem, I suspect, is that which codes and laws make sense (or don't) is not a once-and-for-all judgment call. It's a moving target, as time, circumstances, technology, etc, all shift along on their normal course.

BZ writes:

@MernaMoose: methinks you might be confusing law with regulation. It's akin to the difference between slander and censorship. One might look at a group of violent people and say "the answer here is to regulate how they spend their time, so they don't hurt each other". Another is to say "the answer here is to punish the violent ones and leave the rest alone". No-one doubts that both are effective solutions, but one is more conductive to a free dynamic society than the other.

MernaMoose writes:

Well, this is far from my home turf (engineering) so there's probably something I missing here. But if I as a citizen face penalties either way, what's the practical difference between a law and a regulation?

I'm on the same page with you, on being conductive to a free and dynamic society. But the ambiguity on how best to address these kinds of problems arises because I am on the same page here.

I've lived all over the US, and it's rare that I've seen Americans in general throw things into the backs of trucks, with the reckless abandon that I've seen Mexicans do it in border states (sorry if this offends anybody but it's a simple empirical observation -- something engineers are trained to do). A "tarp it and tie it down" requirement isn't needed in most of the country, because most Americans do it anyway.

Maybe, there shouldn't have been a need for any new laws, regulations, or whatever. Seems like the police could just start ticketing people who are driving around with unsafe loads hanging out.

But an endless flood new laws and regulations seems to be the inevitable outcome of having a standing government. I don't know if there's any way of handcuffing the beast on the one hand, and still leaving it the power to do its legit functions on the other.

A question floating around in the back of my brain lately: is there some way to tie government interests directly to economic performance? Such that government agencies are highly motivated to act in such a manner as to result in minimum impedance to economic performance?

Something like, "the budget for your agency each year is x% of total tax revenues and that's it". But I think somehow that alone will never be enough. Somehow, it has to filter down to motivators at the individual level. Individual performance bonuses? Something along the lines of "business unit" bonus and performance payments like you see in corporations.

Bonus payments to government agency managers, if they can figure out how to cut costs (including staff) and still deliver the same performance?

I don't know, just dreaming out loud.

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