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.