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Rulers, communities, and revolution

by William Easterly

enhanced_declaration_of_independence_scan_200w.png“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to [the pursuit of liberty], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

These inspirational words may have been in the mind of courageous rebels who revolted recently against tyrannical Rulers.

I’m not sure what words were on their minds, though, because some of the rebels were dogs and toddlers.

dog-and-toddler_150.pngWelcome to the Great NYU Play-In Revolution that occurred at 5pm on Sunday, June 7, 2009. A community living in a high-rise NYU housing complex rose up in revolt after the Rulers tried to crack down on such criminal behavior as kids playing with balls and skateboards in the plaza around the high-rises.

When the Official History of the Revolution is written, it will be noted that the Rulers had long been trying unsuccessfully to crack down on kids having fun. Small metal signs indicated that ball-playing and skateboards were forbidden. The high-rise community had however long ago evolved different norms – kids can have fun – and so the community ignored the signs for many years.

Local child tells anti-ball-playing
signs to get stuffed
But recently, the Rulers escalated matters — by erecting many big, expensive, glossy signs (at a time of severe financial austerity at NYU) to replace the few small cheap metal signs against fun. As often happens, the de facto power-monger operated in the shadows – some unknown official in NYU Housing (an authority unaccountable to the community) decided on the Oppressive Signs. The threat of enforcement loomed. It was at this point that the Great NYU Play-In Revolution broke out.

policeman-and-woman_200.pngAs the crowd gathered, the Rulers responded with a show of force, but ultimately backed down before the impressive show of people power.

What does this (ridiculously whimsical) example teach us about institutional rules in development? Some have had a simplistic view of institutions in development as deriving only from top-down formal rules and laws. This example and much research indicates otherwise.

First, formal rules that are incompatible with community norms often have no effect (this extends to things like trying to have registered land titles when the local community already has customary allocation of land rights, research on paper land titles in Africa confirms they have little effect on anything).

Second, if the rulers are especially oppressive they could enforce the incompatible formal rules by force, which would make communities worse off. But in a free society, the community can resist the rulers, which is part of the benefit of a free society.

Third, most rules we live by in a free society are more the product of community norms than they are of formal laws. (Fancy version: Rules emerge out of complex social interactions in a spontaneous order.) This is a good thing, as it makes the rules more responsive to local circumstances and needs. Down with arbitrary rules, up with community norms.

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  1. Matt* wrote:

    Interesting post, but not all community norms are better; sometimes they keep us in an unfortunate equilibrium. In Malawi, where the justice system is dangerously underdeveloped and dysfunctional, the typical village reaction (read: community norm) to a car-on-person accident is to form a mob and attack the person who was driving the car.

    The reason villagers do this is because there is only a very small probability the person will actually be prosecuted if they are at fault. Their reaction is understandable, but the effects are mostly negative: now most drivers who strike someone on the road immediately drive off, rather than wait around and get attacked.

    So a ‘community norm’, in response to the ‘incompatible formal rule’ of the lacklustre justice system, has led to a environment where accident victims are left to die instead of taken to a hospital, with the culprits taking off in fear of their life, not to be prosecuted anyway.

    Posted June 10, 2009 at 4:53 am | Permalink
  2. George wrote:

    Any links to research on land rights in Africa?

    Many thanks


    Posted June 10, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  3. happyjuggler0 wrote:


    Your example screams of top-down government failure.

    The local norms you describe evolved to deal with such miserable government performance. If the government did its job properly, then such a community norm would surely spontaneously evolve into something more “normal” by western standards.

    The problem comes when government tries to impose something that clashes with the “complex social interactions [that evolved] in a spontaneous order”. In this case, that “something” was lack of justice.

    Posted June 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Rachel wrote:

    I am a fan, but this was a lazy post. Mass land titling operations have been out of favor in land tenure/property rights circles of the development-industrial complex for quite some time. Registering or otherwise formalizing property rights can and should incorporate/validate customary law, and there are many approaches besides stamping out paper titles. There is certainly room for criticism among those current donor approaches, but to my knowledge the “paper titles for all” approach is a strawman that isn’t taken seriously by current practitioners and scholars, African or otherwise.

    Pointing out that a mass paper titling operations don’t work is like pointing out that ANY top-down intervention inconsistent local norms is destined to fail, which I hope any of your readers would take as self-evident.

    Would love to read your thoughts on current initiatives to formalize or secure property/natural resources rights in Africa, either led by donors or by national/regional/local administrations in African countries.

    Posted June 10, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Mark wrote:

    When norms and formal rules clash, it doesn’t always make sense to adopt the norm and discard the formal rule.

    First, you have to decide whether a significant clash between norms and formal rules actually exists.

    For example, some people might break a rule, but that doesn’t mean that the rule-breaking behavior is the norm among the population in general or among any sub-group. For example, a few people who drive faster than the speed limit doesn’t necessarily indicate that the norm is to speed. There will always be some who disobey rules or resist a new legal institution.

    Or, the rule-breaking might not be common or damaging enough to be considered a clash with the rule, *or* even the rule-breakers might embrace the rule, albeit loosely. If the speed limit is lowered by 20 kph and everybody drops their speed by 20 kph (even the speeders), then norms and rules aren’t fully in opposition.

    Second, if rules and norms clash, one has to decide what to do. The clash is a signal that the policy may contradict morality, efficiency, notions of justice, or vested interests. Often the decision regarding what to do involves a moral determination. One hopes that the decision occurs with the consent of the governed with some protection for minority interests and fundamental rights and due regard for liberty.

    But there are definitely different answers to the norms-rules clash. Many cite the example of the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. during the early 20th century as an example of needing to conform laws to norms. But there are are counter-examples. In the early 70s, the fight against drunk driving in the US and other countries was initially unsuccessful–people continued to drink and drive and participants in the justice system refused to enforce harsher laws. Society made a decision to persist, policymakers found more clever ways to implement, and today laws and norms regarding drunk driving are much more in line with a more prohibitive equilibrium.

    In one instance, U.S. voters found, after some experience, that they didn’t really find drinking alcohol to be morally repugnant. In another instance, citizens of the U.S. and other countries found, after some initial resistance, that they really did find drunk driving reprehensible.

    Bottom line: Observing a law-norms clash tells us something interesting is happening, but discarding the rule in favor of the norm is not the inevitable answer.

    Posted June 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Bill Stepp wrote:

    Community norms can’t serve as a basis for justice. After all, there are lots of bad community norms, and I’m not talking just about the racism that led to the Jim Crow laws.

    What about the community norms that endorse rent control here in the People’s Republic of New York? Or high taxes? Or any taxes, for that matter? Or drug laws? Etc.

    What we need is liberty, which means anarchy, which means getting rid of the criminal organization known as the State.

    So yes, down with arbitrary rules, but up with liberty and anarchy!

    Rothbard lives!

    Posted June 14, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  7. PA DUI Lawyer wrote:

    Mark your comment on drinking and driving laws in the 70’s is accurate, but I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that social views and laws will always become obsolete with time?

    Posted July 20, 2009 at 3:58 am | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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