Sunday, December 4, 2011

Should the government standardize codes?

Yesterday I went on forestry management tour, where we saw how foresters choose which trees to preserve and which get the ax, and I ended up talking to a lefty about timber markings.

Foresters mark trees with paint or pieces of bright ribbon to identify the tree's fate with different symbols and colors. There is no universal code, so each company has its own language of timber marks.

This can cause problems like homeowners who panic and assume the "save this tree" mark means "turn me into a Jenga set" or laborers who misread the code and chop down trees that were supposed to stay up.

My new lefty friend instantly concluded the solution is for the government to draft and enforce a standardized code. I thought that would be a mistake.

Languages, such as codes, typically emerge through spontaneous order and sometimes we end up with redundancies. Boxes of chocolates have a squiggle code on top identifying the filling with lines of chocolate. Sorry Forrest, but you can know what you're going to get if you just learn to read.

The problem is the different chocolate companies have different squiggle codes. This is a coordination problem, but a small one. Workers sorting chocolates don't regularly bounce between companies and a forestry management company marks trees for repeat contractors who can learn the code. We can prosper with standardization.

Who says standardization depends on the governments help? Gay swingers developed a hanky code, where wearing a colored handkerchief in a certain pocket lets observers know what sexual acts the wearer is interested in. What regulatory jurisdiction would that fall under?

As a consumer, I see a problem with cell phone and laptop batteries being proprietary, where each model can have its own shape and there is no generic product to purchase. AA batteries are universal and interchangeable and their standardization is the result of the federal government working with battery manufacturers and major purchasers.

Since then, private industry has created standardization plenty of times. There's the Video Home Systems, the Compact Disc, the Digital Versatile Disc, the MPEG Audio Layer III, the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the Universal Serial Bus and the Blu-ray Disc. Standardization can occur

Sometimes, users don't want standardization. Linux and Mac users don't want to use the same operating system as Microsoft. Sometimes there are flaws in the accepted standard, and having options lets people choose the one they feel is right.

What if the government wrote a timber marking system that was problematic? If forestry companies were required by law, they could get in serious legal trouble just for using the best system. Imagine if we were required to speak Esperanto, the dismal failure that was designed to be a superior language. Its entirely possible the government could create a poor timber marking system that would handicap companies that adopt it.

I told new lefty friend that I'd be happy if there was a recommended universal timber marking system, and companies could ignore it at their own peril. To her credit, she agreed. If it's worth the trouble of switching over, firms will do so. There's no need to bring guns and the brute force of the law down on forestry companies that mark trees with one line instead of two.


  1. Talking during meals was prohibited in monasteries of old (I assume it still is), the monks came up with signs and signals to request certain things. It's a beautiful example of the spontaneity of language formation that you mentioned.

  2. This issue isn't that private companies can't come up with universal symbols. It's that they haven't. Is the forest industry young? What reason do we have to believe they're going to suddenly organize a particular color scheme? It's true that we don't always want standardization, or if we do we don't want it to be forced, but this sounds like an instance where there would be nothing but benefits.