Continuing Conversation...Barry Weingast on Law

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Barry Weingast on Law... Terry Anderson on the Environm...

This week, Roberts returned to a political-economy topic, law, with guest Barry Weingast of Stanford.

As always, we'd like to hear what you thought. So use the prompts below to share your thoughts and spark some conversation.

Check Your Knowledge:

1. What are the various components of law Weingast enumerates, and which are the most significant in providing stability?

2. How do Weingast and Roberts distinguish between social norms and law? How does Weingast describe "decentralized collective punishment?" What is the role of the "steward" in the creation and maintenance of law? Where do you fall with regard to enforcement and punishment?

Going Deeper:

3. Why do centralized systems predominate, despite evidence of emergent legal orders throughout history?

Extra Credit:

4. Toward the end of the episode (45:44), Roberts asks Weingast what he would do differently were he in charge of organizations trying to do good in very poor places. Evaluate the strength of Weingast's response in relation to the views of William Easterly in this episode on "The Tyranny of Experts."

5. Is Weingast more or less sanguine about the potential for violence in political regimes in this episode or in the 2013 episode he recorded with Roberts on "the violence trap." To what extent is violence ever a necessary evil? Explain.

Comments and Sharing

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COMMENTS (3 to date)
R Richard Schweitzer writes:


Now for some unbridled temerity –

Law, as a properly used word, is a definer (also often a delineator) of the observation of a particular condition, phenomenon or order. In natural and physical sciences a law defines or describes what is observed in a particular order of, and relation of, energies and matter, under particular conditions, as a particular phenomenon and in accordance with that specific order. Many such laws have been found to be incomplete definitions or less than full delineations of the relationships. Thus, definitions and delineations are subject to adjustment in accordance with changes in circumstances, means of observation or acuity of perception.

But here we are concerned with law and its “meaning” in social orders. Accordingly, social orders, in their varieties need to be considered in order to determine “what is law” in any particular social order; and, if possible determine whether there is a meaning applicable to all forms of social order.

That will take us to an examination of social orders as a phenomenon and consideration of their formation and morphologies; whether regarded as spontaneous, constructed, designed, or including within spontaneous the effects of attempts at construction or design as part of the elements of spontaneity (i.e, the responses of members of a society to circumstances and objectives as affecting its order).

By observation, social orders are composed of one or more cultures, comprised of groupings of people, who share sufficient commonalities of ideologies, interests and objectives. In turn, cultures are composed of individuals (and groupings) who share sufficient commonalities of individual motivations for the expressions of mutualities of ideologies, interests and objectives. Those commonalities of individual motivations probably arise from commonalities in the sources of the formations of individual motivation. Here we might look to the scholarship of Emmanuel Todd.

There is, of course, the matter of individuality in the variances of the effects of those sources in the formation of motivations; and in the intensities of those motivations expressed through individual characteristics.

Among the observed commonalities of individuals in groupings is the motivational need for determining some degree of certainty in the actions of the other members of a group. In sociological shorthand this is referred to as “expectations.” There are probably anthropological explanations for this source of motivation, reaching back as far as we have been able to study mankind and mankind’s dealing with a surrounding world of multiple uncertainties. As confirmation of that motivation, we need only consider the extensive and continuing efforts of mankind to reduce uncertainties. In dealing with the reduction in the uncertainty of the conduct of members of a grouping, of the culture and of the social order, order comes to be based on upon degrees of commonalities of recognized and accepted obligations of individual members that result in particular forms of conduct or constraint.

So to bring the concept of Law into its connection with social order.

Law describes, defines, but does not necessarily delineate observed social order and the relationships within it.

Legislation differs from law, since legislation is only Rules of Policy.

Rules of Policy (legislation, regulations, ordinances and their excrescences) are attempts to describe, define and delineate desired social order and the relationships necessary for it.

Order generates Law. Law does not generate order. It does not delineate relationships. Law results from the identification, delineation, reconciliation (including enforcement) of obligations commonly recognized and accepted within the social orders extant and as they change over periods of time. Those actions may occur within or without an institutional framework. Those social orders which develop an institutional framework may be regarded as having some form of Rule of Law.

It should be noted that any particular social order may be extant, developing and changing within a larger social order – such as among thieves, there may be law.

Confusing Rules of Policy (legislation, etc.) with Law, creates great difficulties when the systems and institutional frameworks that determine Law are employed to give effect to Rules of Policy. This is undoubtedly due to the problems associated with the determinations necessary to delineate a commonly accepted desired social order and the relationships within it.

We can return to the subject of "centralization" later.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The Predominance of “Centralization” –

As noted in the previous comment, Rules of Policy describe, define, and delineate desired social order. While legislation and its excrescences are included in Rules of Policy they are not their only source. The powers of Rules of Policy derive from the establishment of authority. Authority may be imposed by ideological or physical force (violence) or some combination of the two; or, in more “modern” social orders authority may be established by the passive acceptance, positive consents and even demands (often expressed through representation), of the members of the social order subject to the authority. We observe the embodiments of authority in the creation, and nature of creation, of States, both in the “natural” state and those arising in the development of particular social orders.

In the conversation, Dr. Weingast refers to the scholarship on the role of violence in the development of social orders. This again points us back to an understanding of the “meaning” of Law in terms of the circumstances of particular social order. The conversation about “centralization” or decentralization appears to concentrate upon issues of enforcement of obligations established (whether by force or consent) in a social order.

In those social orders in which authority is established by force, that force is observed to be of sufficient concentration (unitary or coalitions) which require some degree (often extreme) of centralization for it to direct the Rules of Policy within those social orders. We observe this in the case of ideological forces as well as physical forces. We also observe acceptance (not always passive) of imposed authority, which, when culturally established within the members of a social order, continue to be one of the sources for the formation of individual motivations that determine conduct and its constraints. Again, that observed condition may be attributed to ideological factors as well as physical factors, including environments.

We may then conjecture that the reason for the predominance of centralized determinations in the enforcement (as well as other facets) of the defined and delineated relationships (obligations) is correlated to the predominance of social orders in which authority has been imposed by ideological or physical force, which remains accepted by their members due to the residua of those sources which form the basis of individual motivations in those societies.

Tate writes:

I was a bit disappointed when the discussion turned towards questions of decentralized, polycentric legal orders and the question of whether they could provide stable security and law was shrugged off with a "Somalia isn't that nice of a place to live." It's disappointing that such an astute economic reasoner such as Russ Roberts would not see the problems of comparing Somalia to a lifestyle in an industrialized Western nation instead of comparing Somalia to its more similar and proximate neighbors. Roberts ought to have Peter Leeson on the show, as he has done extensive scholarship on Somalia and on how it has done better than several of its neighbors on many measures since the Somalian state collapsed.

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