Economics, Property Rights and Surfing

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144 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Aren’t all the beaches in Cali public?

    But more, or less seriously, this is a good piece. I’m not a surfer, but am a skier so i can relate some things to snow. It tells me about property rights only as far as the context is similar to other situations.Report

  2. Avatar Murali says:

    I’ll be leaving for the airport in 4 hrs and wont be back for a week. Just have to say that this is good.

    My quibble is with calling surfing norms rights. I see rights as the kinds of things that ought to be enforced by coercive bodies. But that may just be a terminological difference.Report

  3. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    I suspect they tell us a lot too, but perhaps they tell me different things.Report

  4. Avatar Jeff Wong says:

    Doesn’t surfing have a mellowing effect on people to begin with?

    You go out there to get that feeling of being One with the wave right? Isn’t the activity usually ego-dissolving?

    Fracking is probably not an inherently mellowing activity, either for the fracker or the people living near by. Perhaps if they modify their equipment to play some Zen sounds whenever any pressured gas is released…Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Jeff Wong says:


      Yes, it often is mellowing and zen-like. The zen is destroyed when twenty people of vastly differing skill and board size start competing in a small area for two or three good waves every ten minutes. Throw in a bunch of poorly socialized, high testosterone, young thrill seekers and you have a recipe for disaster.

      Surfing can be something that is highly personal and spiritual. It can also be a competitive display art where men display their prowess and athleticism, seeking higher rankings on the informal hierarchy.

      In other words, it is like a weird mix of a spiritual quest and high school.Report

  5. Avatar Steven Donegal says:

    “They emerged bottoms up from the actions of individual surfers in communication with other surfers, later codified by local surfing associations.”

    Here is a significant difference with the development of tangible property rights. Those rights were imposed from the top down to protect the property that those at the top had largely taken by force. Maybe what this tells us is that “wave rights” are not valuable enough to need to protect them from being taken by physical force.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Steven Donegal says:

      Hovering over all the “voluntary” rules of the surfers is another network of invisible, unspoken, but very real and very coercive rules;

      The waves are, in fact, a sort of property that is owned, and defended with force. The beaches and surf are public property; no one can, say, fence off a beach and say “Locals Only” and enforce it. Otherwise you will get a visit from men with uniforms and guns.

      No one can defend their property with force, even if it is being stolen; you can’t beat up a surfer who steals your wave, otherwise you will get a vist from those men with guns.

      And so on. The rules and community norms Roger speaks of are a wonderful example of humans desiring peaceful structure and cooperation, but lets not mistake the facade of “voluntary-ness” with an absence of coercion.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


        I am not sure how to respond. I think you are blending coercive adoption of rules with coercive enforcement. It is possible voluntarily to agree to rules and conventions, including the rule or convention that violators will be penalized. Buchanan wrote a book on this called The Calculus of Consent.

        Even thieves would consider voluntarily agreeing to such a society, because they gain more in protection from other thieves than they lose in ability to steal from others.Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

          You may be unsure of how to respond because I read quite a bit into your post (because I believe you intended us to, based on the last line.)

          What I read into the post (because of our previous discussions and the overall theme of this blog) was a suggestion that voluntary property rights are a better way to order society than “top down” coercive regulations.

          Which is where we part company. I pointed out that voluntary frameworks work much better when there is the underlying coercive framework to back them up.

          I don’t have the same problem with enforcement- what you call “coercion”. Voluntary norms are of course prefereable, and enforcement should be to the least degree needed, but it IS needed, quite a bit.

          But there is something else – You wrote that these rules “…emerged bottoms up from the actions of individual surfers in communication with other surfers, later codified by local surfing associations.”

          But what doesn’t? What rules or laws DON’T emerge from the actions of the people involved, and are later codified by associations?Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


            You and I are such polar opposites that I instinctively look for how I will disagree with you. I’m not sure I do here though. I agree that we need to create frameworks to back up compliance, and that having this compliance foundation allows us to explore voluntary conventions in routine interactions.

            I’m interested in hearing if the natural rights proponents agree with the bottoms up emergence concept. In other words, where I see evolved conventions, they see inalienable rights.Report

            • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

              Where we disagree is that you hold a belief in the possibility of a “frictionless” society, one where we are free to act without causing effect or impact on others. In such a world, all actions can be voluntary and all agreements be non-coercive. There are always another set of waves, or another beach to move on to.

              I just don’t hold such a belief, and have never witnessed any evidence for its existance.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:

                If you define friction as harming others, then I am pretty much against it. I believe mutual consent is a powerful tool to eliminate this kind of friction, and the study of history reveals innumerable institutional solutions and breakthroughs that have led to the prosperity of modern men compared to our recent ancestors.

                Life pretty much sucked in prior centuries compared to today, and a lot of the benefits have come from reduced friction.

                I would agree with you though that to expect all actions to be non-coercive is utopian. I just want to continue our progress.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Liberty60 says:

                you hold a belief in the possibility of a “frictionless” society, one where we are free to act without causing effect or impact on others.

                If you’re suggesting that Roger (or, probably, anyone else believes in a society where none of our actions has any negative impacts on anyone else, then I think you’re misunderstanding him (or anyone else). That’s just not what anyone’s actually saying anywhere that I’ve ever read.

                Roger’s post clearly demonstrates that there’s friction. In some surf spots the locals drive off outsiders–that’s clearly friction, but his argument is that the best response is to find a better locale to surf with, reducing the functional level of friction. Having to wait behind someone else for a wave is a type of friction–there may be more would-be wave-claimers than there are available waves at any given period of time. That’s friction, but he’s just suggesting that following the particular rules results in less friction than might occur with other rules (and that the surfers themselves are competent to devise these rules, and don’t need a top-down authority with a concern about friction coming in to devise rules for them).

                But if your criticism of libertarians–as I think is the bigger context here–is that we believe in a frictionless utopia, then you’re beginning your critique with an inaccurate premise.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


                What is your take on what types of harm are acceptable in social institutions?

                I see three classes of “harm” as not worthy of addressing, or even counterproductive to address

                The first is what I call opportunistic harm. This is the harm, caused by competition over scarce resources. It is similar to Pecuniary externalities, but perhaps not exactly the same. An example is that when I buy a soft drink from Pepsi, that Coke, and every other human on earth that would like to sell me a drink has lost the opportunity to sell that drink to me. I did not harm them, neither did Pepsi, but they lost out on an opportunity just the same. It is easy to dismiss this type of harm, but there could be people depending upon this sale. In my post the opportunistic harm is losing out on the wave to someone else playing by the same rules.

                The second acceptable type of harm is what I call harming the intolerant. It is possible for someone to have a desire for what others should be. For example, I could desire all humans to be Christians. The problem is that if they are unwilling to be persuaded, that I have no right to demand them to convert. I have a zero sum demand, and thus it is just to deny or frustrate my demands.

                The final class is insignificant harm. Things that are so slight that they are not worth addressing. A example might be the neighbor kid practicing the piano badly at 3pm. Not to be confused with practicing the drums at 3am.

                Do you know of other harms that are better off not being addressed? Do you agree with these? Anyone else care to comment?Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

                “A example might be the neighbor kid practicing the piano badly at 3pm. Not to be confused with practicing the drums at 3am.”

                Tell that to my wife who used to work 12 hour night shifts in the burn unit. Insignificance is both relative and sibjective.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

                As is respect for ones neighbor. The point is that neighbors can usually be expected to work through these issues.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Can usually be expected, yes. But impasses are reached. Not everyone behaves rationally or reasonably.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                Kazzy, I don’t think your wife counts as intolerant in that case. So in that case the piano playing at 3 p.m. wouldn’t fit into his categorization of “‘harms’ not worthy of addressing.”

                Whether neighbors can work out the issue or not is an interesting and important topic, but it doesn’t actually address his categories.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:


                Agree. What type of harm do you believe should be permissible?Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Duly noted, JH. Needless nitpicking, really. Sorry, Rog.

                A harm I’d argue against addressing is that which is knowingly and willingly self-inflicted. This may not be a “harm” at all if Roger is speaking specifically about harm done by one to another. But it is a harm that is often legislated against (e.g., drug prohibition, seat belt laws, soda bans, etc.). If this type of harm fits Roger’s broader defition of harm, I would say that it should not be addressed (again, assuming it know and willingly done).Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                A harm I’d argue against addressing is that which is knowingly and willingly self-inflicted.

                Ooohy, Kazzy’s anti-paternalism. [chuckles wickedly] We’ll make a libertarian out of him yet!Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Have I ever implied otherwise?

                I get paid to be paternalistic, for Christ’s sake! And often times I have to be far more paternalistic than I feel I need to be, and I think I need to be pretty damn paternalistic to begin with. It’s exhausting!

                As I’ve said elsewhere, the primary reason I can’t go full-blown libertarian is because I haven’t see a libertarian approach to correcting for the harms done, being done, and the legacy of past harms that were allowed by systems founded on coercion, violence, and denial of rights. Coming full circle to inequality, I’d have much less issue with the inequality that exists if it wasn’t borne out of coerced inequality in the first place.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                I don’t know that you ever implied you were, but I think that’s the most explicit statement against paternalism that I’ve ever seen from you.

                the primary reason I can’t go full-blown libertarian is because I haven’t see a libertarian approach to correcting for the harms done, being done, and the legacy of past harms that were allowed by systems founded on coercion, violence, and denial of rights.

                A question I like to ask is, “How many generations after the fact would you repatriate art looted by the Nazis?”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                I’d struggle to put a statute of limitations in place.

                It just bothers me when many libertarians (not necessarily those here) are all about property rights but get very quiet when I mentioned breached legal contracts that Native Americans are still seeking restitution for. I’m not even talking things as abstract as slavery and reparations. But pieces of paper signed by our government saying Tribe X has full sovereignty over Land Y which were ripped up the moment gold or coal or oil was found. I don’t like to paint with broad strokes, but many of these folks (who tend to have a mere smidge of the philosophical backing of most libs here) are the types that make libs look like they are about rights for some (namely rich white men) but not all. I do not apply this to you or others here… But I also don’t see you offering a solution :-). And, yes, I know that there is more to libertarianism than just property rights. But it is sort of big. And while I wouldn’t go nearly as far as I’ve seen him go at times, I do think MA was on to something when he talked about liberty being maximized through certain state interventions.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                But, yeas, as is my nature, anti-paternalism. I have no problem with (and actualky encourage) the government engaging in honest education programs that promote public health and safety. But I don’t think this should be legislated and generally speaking shouldn’t be incentivized financially. Help people make informed choices and them leave them be.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                Oh, you’re complaining about government breaching treaties? Well we libertarians will just say, “nyah nyah told you so.”

                What, that’s not a solution?

                OK, more seriously, some of these cases get real difficult because other people invested in lands in good faith, so we can no longer side with anyone without unfairly harming someone. Some years back the Supreme Court ruled that certain Native American groups in the Puget Sound area had a treaty right to gather shellfish up to the high water mark, and claims to private property (read: mostly rich whites trying to keep people off their own private shoreline) were outweighed by the treaty rights. I agree with that ruling–the cost to the property owners of a few Native Americans occasionally walking along their property down near the water is minimal. On the other hand, what do we do with the Black Hills? Yes, it ought to have remained with the Sioux, as a matter of treaty obligations. But numerous non-Sioux have invested a lot of many in good faith in that area.

                Does libertarianism have a good solution to this? Not at all (Nozick, IMO, just sort of pretended the problem didn’t exist). Do liberals have a good solution to this? I’m not in a position to definitively claim they don’t, but I haven’t heard one. That’s not to criticize liberals, but to say that I think the problem, once it has occurred, is not amenable to good solutions. So I’m not sure why it’s a very strong criticism of libertarianism. As best I can see, the primary difference here between liberals and libertarians is that liberals are more apt to wring their hands over the intractable problem while libertarians are more apt to shrug their shoulders. That may make liberals better people, but it doesn’t mean their solutions are better.

                If your answer is compensation, I think most libertarians could be persuaded that it’s pretty much like a tort case for breach of contract.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:


                Do the reparations apply to all Indians, or just those that didn’t previously steal the land from others? Who gets to decide? What about those that have thrived since the violations — does this get educated from their reparations amount?

                I ask rhetorically because you are concentrating on a zero sum game. It is a game of winners and losers, where both parties will feel they got shafted regardless of the outcome, and both sides would be willing to waste money, time, initiative and other resources trying to get the larger slice of a rapidly shrinking pie.

                In other words, you are choosing a zero sum or worse a negative sum game, and therefore you are virtually guaranteed to destroy value in taking this path. No good will come from it. The world will be a worse place overall, regardless of outcome.

                The most important decision we make is not the move we make within a game, it is choosing the right game to start with.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


                I think that’s a pretty good categorization. I hadn’t thought about it in those particular terms, but it’s at least a very good starting point.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

                The reason I ask is that even the most ardent libertarians are not suggesting a frictionless world, to use Liberty’s words. But I am not familiar with libertarians taking the issue head on.

                What kind of harm is permissible and impermissible in society, and why?

                How would you answer, Liberty?

                Anyone else care to weigh in?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                What kind of harm is permissible and impermissible in society, and why?

                I’ve usually phrased this as “what’s a ‘harm’ and what’s merely an ‘annoyance'”? (There I’m following a philosopher I once read but whose name I have forgotten who distinguished between “offense” and “harm.) But I think that’s congruent with what you’re saying, just using slightly different terminology.

                And it’s something I ponder a fair amount because I don’t think there’s a clear bright line. Some things are very clear. If you and I like to have our garage band practice on my back deck, with full concert speaker amplification, at 3 a.m., that’s clearly causing an impermissible harm to others. If we like to sit on my porch swing talking quietly in the mid-afternoon and having a cold beer, and my teetotaler neighbor objects to seeing two guys drinking beer, that’s clearly a permissible “harm” we are causing (that falls into your “harming the intolerant” category).

                But what about my neighbor’s awful green house? It could marginally affect my property value. To me it’s a permissible harm. What about people who wear perfume in public? It can trigger an allergic reaction (it can cause me to have an asthma attack, which could potentially be deadly, as I know from the doctor who told me he “thought we’d lost you”). Is it permissible to wear perfume, with that kind of effect possible? Just out in large open spaces, or in the theater? On an airplane?

                So I’d hate for anyone to think that the line is always crystal clear, or that if it isn’t crystal clear then the approach is useless. Because in truth the more humans you cram together, the more friction there’s going to be. But if we start saying all frictions that anyone objects to are regulable (and I’m not sure if that’s what Roger is implying or not), then we move from a world where everything’s allowed unless it is forbidden into a world where everything’s forbidden unless it is allowed, and I really can’t see how that would be an improvement on the friction in a more lightly regulated world.Report

              • Avatar MaxL in reply to Roger says:

                James Hanly:” I agree with that ruling–the cost to the property owners of a few Native Americans occasionally walking along their property down near the water is minimal.”

                But isn’t this backwards? Even the way you describe the situation suggests as much. Isn’t the real problem that the land was allowed to be titled such that certain property owners were given rights to land that created additional and unnecessary burdens on eaveryone else’s rights? I understand that this is an area of some debate and murkiness for libertarians. But I would think that, because of all the complications granting these special property rights involves and even legal conflict for prior rights holders (native Americans), that allowing beachfront to be titled beyond the high tide mark should have been found illegal.

                I don’t claim to be at all fluent with language of the theory of the commons, but I would suggest that the more liberal position is that creating rights to land that are more practically, legally, and usefully held in the commons is the frictionless solution we’d be looking for here. Having spent some years in West Australia in places where nearly the entire beach (I don’t recall the exact distance from high water) was unownable, it really did seem a vastly better way to handle this.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’m saying I doubt the possibility of any action being truly frictionless.
                The idea that we should be able to act as we please unless it harms others is so self-evident as to be impossible to contradict; which is its weakness.

                Because there aren’t really many such cases. Nearly all our actions occur in an environment where they have some effect- for good OR harm- on others.

                This is why I take so much skepticism of the emphasis libertarians place on voluntariness; it supposes that there is a freedom and choice that I don’t think exists.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


                Is you primary concern with the extent of voluntariness? That is, that you worry one party operates under duress? Or are you concerned with externalities?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Liberty60 says:


                But how much actual harm do you see going on with this friction? That’s what I really haven’t been able to grasp from your critique. I think the rub here–the nub of disagreement–is not about voluntariness per se, but about what kinds of frictions actually constitute harms.

                So far your arguments are left too vague for me to really know what kinds of effects you’re referring to. When my wife and I first got together, it was totally voluntary, but there may have been someone who was heartbroken to lose his chance with her. I’d call that friction, but is it the type of harm we should be concerned about?

                My neighbor painted her house a hideous shade of green–none of us neighbors likes it. Is it a harm that we should be concerned about? If I push my city council to pass an ordnance constraining the color of houses is there a net increase or a net decrease of friction?

                Or do these not bother you, but you think purely voluntary choices frequently have frictions–third party effects–that you do think are serious? If so, could you give some examples?

                I hope these don’t sound like silly examples, or ones that attacking you, or strawmen. I don’t mean them that way. I’m sincerely trying to get a handle on what types of frictions you see as being of concern, because I’m truthfully not following you on this, and I don’t really know how to respond in a meaningful way until I better understand what you’re thinking.

                What do you think of Roger’s categorization? Do you think it’s weak, or do you think there’s a great number of third-party effects from voluntary choices that lie outside that category of “non-harmful frictions”?Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


                I like your distinction between harm and annoyance.

                I also appreciate your use of marriage/romance situations rather than financial ones to portray the important distinctions in relationships and economics. I think these can often be more insightful and can be approached with a more open mind.

                I might add one more area of acceptable harm that I thought of while swimming. It is acceptable to harm someone within a larger consensual relationship. Meaning, that the consenting party accepts the good and bad of the relationship, rather than accepting the terms then objecting to the conditions. Obviously there are limits. For example, requiring sex to keep a job is pretty well accepted as being beyond the scope of a reasonable job requirement for just about any industry. Asking someone to work overtime is usually within the boundaries.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to James Hanley says:

                No your examples are fine, and I am happy to clarify.

                When I say “friction” I don’t mean harm- I only mean “effect”.

                “Because in truth the more humans you cram together, the more friction there’s going to be. But if we start saying all frictions that anyone objects to are regulable (and I’m not sure if that’s what Roger is implying or not), then we move from a world where everything’s allowed unless it is forbidden into a world where everything’s forbidden unless it is allowed, and I really can’t see how that would be an improvement on the friction in a more lightly regulated world.”

                I actually agree with this very much. Not all friction needs to be regulated, but some do.

                As to Roger’s descriptions of harm vs annoyance, I know that the legal world has spent centures litigating those definitions. Maybe one of the attorney types lurking here could help out.

                Maximizing liberty is one of the constant refrain I hear from libertarians, but it strikes me as wrong in its very DNA.

                As I mentioned in the NY soda discussion, the interaction between competing rights is a balancing of interests. This leads to optimizing, not maximizing.

                This is why I don’t have the negative view of enforcement- coercive enforcement of a reasonable amount of regulation leads to a wider enjoyment of liberty for all.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                Not to be nasty, but I still find an unhelpful lack of specifics in your response. Balancing of competing rights, sure, I can’t disagree with that, because it’s too non-specific. There’s no guidance as to where you might draw lines any differently than I do, but you give a very strong impression that you actually would draw the lines in different places–I just can’t begin to tell where.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


                Where you use the term friction, I prefer the term “wake”. The point is that as we take actions to solve our daily problems, our actions send out wakes that can affect others. These can be neutral, harmful or positive.

                My view is simply that it is a good thing to give humans as much freedom to solve whatever problems they want to address in whatever way they choose as long as they do not harm others. As long as they do not generate negative wakes.

                I believe opportunistic harm, minor annoyances and stifling intolerance are the three good exceptions to the rule. These “wakes” are acceptable.

                Do you disagree with this approach? My guess is you actually have an additional class of acceptable harms. Namely that it is ok to harm someone if someone else is helped more, or is more deserving. Thoughts?Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

                what’s harm again? is it okay if I take all your money? What if I only take all your money through a scheme to tell everyone that your groundwater is full of formaldehyde? (thus devaluing your land). What if it’s true?Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


                Good point. Deception and fraud are clearly harming another. Broadcasting the truth is harmful, but still usually an acceptable harm.

                In other words, I would not choose to live in a soviety where theft, fraud, murder, pollution and lies are allowed. I would choose to live in a world where minor annoyances, opportunistic harm, stifled intolerance, and harm caused by the truth are allowed.

                How about you Kimmi? What other harms would you allow? How would you classify redistributive harm? Taking from one deemed less needy (against their will) and giving it to someone more needy?Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Roger says:

          Roger: “It is possible voluntarily to agree to rules and conventions, including the rule or convention that violators will be penalized.”

          The issue is, who dishes out that penalty? If it’s some third-party authority, then this is less a communitarian paradise and more a bunch of kids on a playground who are complaining to the teacher that, e.g., Bobby Keeps Hogging The Ball. If it’s those doing the voluntary agreeing, then congratulations, you’ve invented a government which has declared “rule enforcement” to be one of its powers.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Steven Donegal says:


      I agree that most LAND was taken by force at one time (usually multiple times) in the history of mankind. Before we had firm property rights, land was usually under the control of those that stole it from the prior thief. I also agree that those that were descendents of the current owners — regardless of how they achieved ownership — would tend to go along with property conventions that gave them uncontested future rights to their possessions.

      I see cultural convention built upon evolved cultural convention for thousands of years. They grew out of the experimentation of thousands of societies for thousands of years. Over time we have evolved to a situation where we focus on peaceful ways to acquire rights, transfer rights and capitalize on rights. Prosperous societies have tended to resist the temptation to squabble over ownership, and instead to focus on how to improve and capitalize on property for the benefit of mankind. Most human prosperity has come in the last few centuries as good property conventions have become embedded into our culture and institutions.Report

  6. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    On the one hand, part of the “voluntary” nature of this policing is because the other alternative is the tort system; injured surfers suing one another and asking a judge or jury to decide who was at fault. It’s easier if the question just never arises.

    On the other hand, I’m sure that if people started pushing to the point where social opprobrium no longer worked, and the only way to stop them violating social norms was physical violence–pushing them away, blocking them from entering, and so on–then you’d see a lot more overt action; surfers getting beaches declared “non-public”, getting legislation passed that defined and allowed for enforcement of behavior codes.Report

  7. This is a really good post.Report

  8. Avatar James K says:

    Nice post Roger, this reminds me of Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-winning work on the enforcement of property rights through community norms.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    This is a great post, Roger (Are you the same person who posts under the Handle “Roger”?).

    I was actually thinking of something you touched on earlier today, before reading this post. You note that:
    “Surfing conventions are a perfect example of a decentralized, bottoms up, voluntary and emergent practice. The whole point is to have clear, consistent conventions, but despite our intuitions to the contrary, they are not top down. They did not originate from a centralized authority, nor is there centralized enforcement. There are no officials or cops on the water. Surfers individually or collectively police themselves. There is a rationality and functionality, but it is an emergent one, not something dictated from first principles or fundamental essences.”

    I don’t know the first thing about surfing, so I will fully defer to your expertise and concede everything is as you says it is. But, despite surfing providing a great example of conventions that are “decentralized, bottoms up, voluntary, and emergent” it does not necessarily follow that such an approach to defining and enforcing conventions is universally ideal. Now, you seemed to go far enough in saying that surfing is surfing and what works there does not necessarily work elsewhere or everywhere. So it was likely my own prior ruminations on the topic that made me make such leaps. Generally speaking, I am rarely dogmatic to the point of thinking that any one approach is universally ideal. So my question is: What are the criteria that lend themselves to a surfing-style approach to developing conventions? What are the criteria that make a decidedly different approach preferable?Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:


      Yes, I am Roger.

      My interest lies in studying cultural evolution and the potential for progress. I think that most complex problems are solved via an experimentation, or trial and error, process. Lots of competing alternatives are tried, some are kept, others are further varied, the best are copied. Of course when it comes to something like a law, it may have been tried by one of a thousand various lords or kings or town councils. Good property “rights” are the ones that proved more effective by more people over time. On a larger scale I call these decentralized or emergent, even though it was a limited top down idea at the time.

      I believe that the more complex a system, that the more changing the conditions, that the bigger the risk of failure, and the less chance of catastrophe while experimenting that the more important it is to explore decentralized, alternative solutions. However, when experimenting, it should usually be a variation or recombination of proven prior best practices, not necessarily something totally out of the blue.

      The importance of voluntary is that this minimizes exploitation. I define exploitation as someone accomplishing their goals by harming another’s. By concentrating on voluntary, non-coercive interactions, we can ensure that all parties voluntarily agreeing to participate believed it was to their benefit. I believe cultural progress builds up from win win interactions and experimentation. In some cases, what people agree to is to the rules of the game. That it would be fair if we interact under these rules and conventions, with these enforcement methods to ensure uniform compliance and this process to change the rules over time.

      Long answer, sorry. In general, I believe decentralized, positive sum, voluntary interactions are the key to most social advance and prosperity.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Roger says:

        My sister’s reading Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn” and she was just telling me about it. Anybody into it?

        My own take about man and his savagery is that self-organizing systems like surf or property rights require something resembling a civilization first, a functioning society that has some coercive power [not necessarily, but certainly including coercive force].

        That man is naturally cooperative—at least beyond the kinship level—seems to me a cart before the horse.

        One of my faves, David P. Goldman, the “Spengler” of the Asia Times, has a similar take

        Surfing in New Guinea could be interesting…Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:


          I read about an interesting related concept last month in an article on the evolution of rules and order in the wild west mining camps and stage trains. It was the concept of a “Schelling Point.” A shared worldview and set of beliefs that allow people to understand and anticipate how others will act and react.

          Here is the Wikipedia definition….

          “In game theory, a focal point (also called Schelling point) is a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special or relevant to them. The concept was introduced by the Nobel Prize winning American economist Thomas Schelling in his book The Strategy of Conflict (1960).[1] In this book (at p. 57), Schelling describes “focal point[s] for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.” This type of focal point later was named after Schelling.”

          The point in the article was that it was easy for New Englanders to arrive at a mutually agreeabble consensus on fair rules because they ha similar expectations, values and so on.

          I think this gets to the evolutionary nature of society. Schelling points evolve over time, and my guess is they can devolve too.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

        I teach young children (4- and 5-year-olds) and often watch in awe at the systems they come up with for their work and play. Of course, these do not happen in a vacuum; they are borne of the context the children have experienced to that point. Such is the same of your wave-riding friends: the whole notion of “ownership” needed to exist before a mechanism for deciding and enforcing ownership could be developed.

        Fascinating stuff nonetheless. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

          I should stop writing comments about posts I am contemplating, but seriously: Just today I was mentally sketching one on early grade schoolers, their interaction with rules and most particularly the concept of fairness. I expected to learn something when I started the substitute teaching enterprise, but I don’t know that anything was more fascinating than the socialization of that particular group. (And how much it explains adult behavior.)Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

            There is TONS of research out there on those topics and whole theories about children’s development of morality and how it relates to their understanding of fairness.

            I love to read “The Little Red Hen” story (the one where she opts not to share the bread in the end… I think some versions have altered that piece) and asked the children if they thought that was fair and what they would have done if they were her. Fascinating responses. There is a new version of that story that flips it on its head, where the other animals are seen as teaching the Hen about independence and industriousness… part of a larger series that investigates alternate morals in traditional tales.Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

              Will and Kazzy,

              I will just add that there is also a strong innateness to notions of ownership and fairness. Socialization massages and shapes these into something that is specific to each general society, but the foundations are common to us all.

              In other words, the notion of ownership is hard wired into us and is observed in toddlers and primates. We are also born with the innate ability to be socialized, and to seek to coordinate our actions into conventions and rules.

              Does this match your observations?Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


                One of the currently unsolvable questions surrounding development is the whole nurture versus nature debate. I am generally of the mind that development is a both/and, with some things being natural or inherent and some things being nurtured or taught. Exactly how much of each and what is natural and what is nurtured is hard to say. I teach 4- and 5-year-olds, by which points fundamental notions of “fairness” and “ownership” are always present, so I cannot say definitively how, when, or where these came from. I would venture to guess that ownership or, perhaps more accurately, possessiveness is natural and innate. Fairness? I’m not so sure. I would say that there is an inherent drive to settles conflicts of ownership/possessiveness, since such conflicts are going to happen as soon as there was more than one hominid. Whether that naturally leads to “fairness” is difficult to say, especially since there is no agreed upon definition of what “fairness” is. Coupled with the fact that we see many adults who lack a fundamental understanding of or desire for fairness, and it makes me wonder if this is innate. Of course, those might be folks who, one way or another, there natural urge for fairness was somehow socialized out of them.

                I will say more broadly that most children crave structure and order. The kids I teach desperately want a certain degree of predictability to the world. Because of the developmental stage they are in, where they are beginning to generalize from the specific to the broad, they tend toward an idea of fairness being equality. Being more of a believer in equity over equality, I tend to push them towards an understanding of fairness being grounded in everyone being afforded what they need, which will vary from person to person. Sometimes this will mean everyone gets treated equally and sometimes it means otherwise. So if we’re offering popsicles for snack, everyone gets one. But if one child presents a need to sit in a chair at meeting, this is not something everyone does because it is not necessary for everyone. But now I’m off an a tangent.

                To answer your question in a nutshell… I don’t know. And I’m not sure that anyone can honestly say they know either.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

                Thanks for the insights, Kazzy.

                You write… ” Whether that naturally leads to “fairness” is difficult to say, especially since there is no agreed upon definition of what “fairness” is. Coupled with the fact that we see many adults who lack a fundamental understanding of or desire for fairness, and it makes me wonder if this is innate. Of course, those might be folks who, one way or another, there natural urge for fairness was somehow socialized out of them.”

                Why do you say many adults lack the desire for fairness? Couldn’t it be that they are just operating under a different definition?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


                Are we going to follow through on the idea of writing a set of posts on fairness? I think we ought to, with some of us libertarian(ish?) folks writing our approach and some of the liberal(ish?) folks writing theirs.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Let’s not forget our conservative(ish) friends. Nor our fine feathered friends.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Yes, I meant to include the conservatives–my bad.

                I also mean that we had talked about writing on “inequality.” You threw me off with your talk of fairness, damn you.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Fairness seems like a good topic as well, either in conjunction with inequality or as a separate series.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Fairness is a fine topic (a fair one!). But I wouldn’t participate because I don’t have much to say about it. “Play by the same rules as you want others to play by” is about all I have to say about fairness. Perhaps someone else could make a good post out of that (either in the affirmative or negative), but I don’t know that I can.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

                I have been collecting thoughts around the topic of “what, exactly, is the problem with inequality?”

                How do you suggest we proceed? If it works out, it would be cool to take on fairness too.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                But doesn’t your take presume a certain definition of fairness?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                I think a project like this needs someone to act as organizer. I’d be happy to play that role. I’ll shoot Erik an email to see what he thinks, and we’ll recruit a few more people to write their views.

                I think the most important beginning question is just how thematic should we try to be? Do we just want to leave it wide open, or do we want to pose a semi-specific question, or do we want to coordinate essays on different types/approaches to inequality?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                But doesn’t your take presume a certain definition of fairness?

                My take on fairness, or my take on inequality? Probably both, but I’m not sure which you’re asking about.

                In a sense, though, my “play by the same rules” approach is such a minimal approach to fairness that I think it undermines the substance of the concept. It’s really just a golden rule approach, treating fairness as a method of behavior, rather than a substantive outcome or system of any kind. And I have trended in that direction because I have found discussions of fairness all seem leave me cold–they all seem to be full of question-begging and special pleading, to the point that I have become skeptical of whether a defensible substantive claim about fairness is really possible. Which is why I wouldn’t want to try to write about it.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Interesting. I suppose what I meant is that your approac still posits fairness as equality. There might be very fair reasons or legitimate pursuits of fairness tht require differen rules for different people, if we understand fairness to mean something other than equality. Which is why I try to avoid words like fairness. I introduced it here because it is language children know, learn, and use at a young age. But it is not my favorite word for many of the reasons outlined here.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Interesting. I suppose what I meant is that your approach still posits fairness as equality.

                Hmm, yeah, I suppose it does.

                There might be very fair reasons or legitimate pursuits of fairness tht require differen rules for different people, if we understand fairness to mean something other than equality. Which is why I try to avoid words like fairness.

                Yeah, that’s the territory I don’t like to go into, either.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Why don’t you like to go there? Too murky? Not much fruitful can come of it? In some ways, that is exactly where I want to go, largely to challenge common assumptions that people submit to without much thought. On the other hand, conversations around equality/inequality or equity/inequity might get at the same thing in a more direct manner. Of course, no matter what your stance on inequality is, someone is going to challenge it as unfair, without defining what fairness is. And there you are…Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                For the reasons I mentioned above. It never seems fruitful to me–it all seems to devolve into “here the outcome I’d personally like, so I’m going to call that fairness and then structure all my arguments in a way that leads to that conclusion, even if I have to bias my definitions and beg all my questions.”

                In a sense, the problem is that these discussion treat fairness as an objectively definable thing, when it’s probably nothing more than a human instinct, and one too vague to withstand any efforts at real precision. It’s probably an instinct born out of frustration at not getting what we want, so at it core fairness is probably just a claim of subjective grievance, and not something that’s truly generalizable. (Is there any process, structure, or outcome that someone can’t claim–with some degree of persuasiveness–is unfair?)

                I’m just not sure there is a there there.

                And, dammit, you’ve tricked me into writing more about fairness than I wanted to. But by my own definition, you did nothing unfair.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Is that unique to fairness? Can’t the same be said of “moral” or “ethical” or “right”?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Is that unique to fairness? Can’t the same be said of “moral” or “ethical” or “right”?

                I think so. I don’t much enjoy talking about those things, either.

                My college created an institute for ethics, and the director–who’s a friend of mine–would like to weave ethics throughout the whole of the college curriculum. I shudder at the thought. I cover ethics in two courses: in Research Methods I talk about the ethics of human subjects research and how the students have a professional obligation to follow it (not too hard for me, since it’s predominantly, although not quite wholly, a “do no harm” standard), and in Political (Strategic) Behavior I tell them ethics isn’t relevant to the class, and my response to any “Isn’t that unethical” question will be, “Probably. So?”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                My reply seems to have been gobbled up by the iPad…

                Anyway, I asked something along the lines of…

                Do you not believe that there are things that are right or moral or ethical or fair? Or just that attempts to define, identify, or describe those which are tend to be fruitless and question begging?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Do you not believe that there are things that are right or moral or ethical or fair? Or just that attempts to define, identify, or describe those which are tend to be fruitless and question begging?

                1. If it’s voluntary, it’s fair.

                2. If you’re (truly) willing to play by the same rules, it’s (probably) fair.

                If it’s fair, it’s right, moral and ethical enough for me. After asking philosophers the distinction between morals and ethics multiple times, the concepts still don’t make sense to me.

                All of this could be a result of my lack of sufficient intelligence. Or my lack of patience with things that are non-concrete. There’s a reason I like teaching research methods instead of political philosophy, so I recognize this could all just be personal cognitive bias.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Interesting. I’m not going to pretend to have answers to these questions. But I appreciate the dialogue.

                Of course, when you say, “All of this could be a result of my lack of sufficient intelligence,” you know that you are outing yourself as a Democrat person, right? At least based on some of the “research” thrown around in that convo…Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                Well, I did used to be a registered Green…Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


                Fully acknowledged that folks may be operating under a very different definition of fairness. When I think of folks who don’t desire fairness, I am thinking of extremes. Much criminal behavior, it seems to me, is borne out of a complete disregard for fairness. Folks who genuinely live by a “life is unfair, deal with it mantra” (which are decidedly fewer than folks who say this, as many say it but don’t truly believe it or accept it or desire it) might fall into this category.

                Again, this might just be me failing to accept their definition of “fairness”, though I struggle to see how such things fall under even the broadest possible definition.

                Of course, now I’m completely boggled on what “fairness” means. Which is probably the sign of an amazingly thought-provoking post.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:

                I would suggest posing a large open question. That is why I suggest “What, exactly, is the problem with inequality?”

                The question can be answered in a myriad of ways, including the answer that it is not a problem at all. I’ve been collecting ideas on the “problem” (or not!) of the rich getting rich at the expense of others. Of the rich abusing their roles as citizens of democracies. Of rent seeking activities. Of the absolute level of poverty compared to prior eras or other locations. Definitional trends of income. Systemic institutional sources of poverty. Behavioral causes. Taxation vs income fairness. And the issue of class mobility.

                Each of these and others are of course worthy of a post or two from different perspectives.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

                That’s pretty much the question I was thinking of. Nice and broad, so there’s a theme but we can take different approaches. One could also throw in inequality of power outside the economic concept, or unequal protection of the laws.

                So there’s Roger and me (to steal a phrase)…who else would like to join us? I definitely think either Elias or Jesse or both should contribute. Is there a self-described conservative commenter who’d like to join in? And I can see if Tim Kowal would like (and has time) to participate.

                Anyone who wants to contact me directly about this can do so at my first initial last name at

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:

                Wardsmith seemed interested, but was working up something on HOAs firstReport

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

                Is Jason available? And Murali?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


                That’s up to them, and obviously they’d be welcome. At some point we might have to say “too many libertarians,” so we can keep some balance, since I’m not proposing this as a “libertarians tell the League how it really is” type project. (But heck, if enough libertarians volunteer, I’ll sit back and let them do all the writing.)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

                I meant to add to that last comment that there’s probably some upper limit on the set of posts as a whole at which it becomes repetitive and further contributions don’t add enough marginal value, or split up attention so much that individual posts don’t get enough discussion. I’m not sure what that number is, but my gut tells me that more than 5 or 6 would get into that territory, unless they were all really distinctive.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Roger says:

                If there’s going to be a symposium on something like “What’s wrong with inequality?” I will find it difficult not to contribute. I can post at my side blog if it’s too annoying to have yet another front-page post.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

                I’d suggest we make a “Week” of it (or three days, whatevs).

                The only posts will be on Topic X. You want to write about something else? Wait until Thursday or submit it as a guest post on the appropriate sub-blog.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


                Great. You’ve probably thought more about it than I have, anyway. I’ll let you and Roger (and whomever else wants to contribute as a libertarian) take the libertarian lead. Perhaps I’ll try to find a non-libertarian angle where I can get some purchase, or maybe I’ll just content myself to get the ball rolling and hide in the background.

                Erik’s on board (thanks, E.D!).

                Jaybird—That might be interesting. Of course that would ultimately be up to E.D. So any suggestions folks have like that, hope E.D. notices, or that I do and I bring it to E.D.’s attention.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:

                I think the suggested topic of the week idea is cool. I would not recommend prohibiting other topics, just in case someone finds this topic uninteresting. I wouldn’t limit the number of posts at all either. It is a real broad topic, and the crowd will let us know when they are bored of it or tired of fighting.

                I’d suggest letting it rip for the first time and perhaps adapting our approach afterwards, rather than before.Report

  10. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    You see what he said? Sometimes the system doesn’t work!

    Quick, somebody get a government! The market’s failed! We clearly need wave socialism, it’s the only rational way!Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Also, what happens if the outsider is a member of a minority group? How do we ensure that the local surfers are genuinely enforcing usage levels that promote safety and enjoyment, and not just being racist towards haole?Report

  11. Avatar David Ryan says:

    Stink eye.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to David Ryan says:

      Surprisingly effective punishment.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Roger says:

        If I had a criticism of your great peace, it would be that you did not focus on it enough. I am contemplating a post on how libertarianism requires a great deal of judgmentalism (among other things).Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Will Truman says:

          What do you mean by judgmentalism? Or do we need to wait for the post?Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Roger says:

            That would be my question, too.

            If you mean something like “the capacity to predict how other people are likely to act (within some broad parameters) and thereby to form expectations in dealing with them, as well as expectations for how norms violations will be resolved,” then this isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

            Hayek argues that only societies that incorporate significant elements of spontaneous order are at all good at doing this sort of thing. The appearance of chaos that sometimes arises is dispelled on reference to command economies, where, paradoxically, it’s a good deal harder to anticipate how other people are likely to act, and where it’s generally impossible to predict how norms violations will be resolved.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Roger says:

            I mean that if we don’t want the government to judge acceptable and unacceptable behavior, we have to. Because when culture does not address problematic behavior, a governing body has to. Without the social pressure (judgment) of Stink Eye, more formal rules would be required. With prosecutions and material punishments.Report

      • Avatar David Ryan in reply to Roger says:

        Effective because it’s backed up by threat of violence, or at least it was where I grew up and learned to surf.Report

  12. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I spend every minute possible up in Marin County when I’m out that way. Watching the surfers off Dillon Beach is a great pleasure. It seems to be a form of dancing, seen from the shore. I ski a fair bit, which is about as close to flying as I’m likely to get but surfing, well…. around here, I watch eagles riding the currents aloft in the ocean of air. Much the same.

    Well written. Write more.Report

  13. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Could it be that mankind is generally more disposed to be a good sport and cooperate with his fellow man when he faces a common danger? It’s generally when we’re all comfy and out of danger and feeling terribly satisfied with ourselves that we get selfish.

    I sailed on the Chesapeake for a few years. The Chesapeake is tricky sailing. Not very deep and a gust of wind would bring up unpredictable waves. There were troublemakers out there, speedboats especially. I’d see people out on the water, obviously intoxicated, making life miserable for everyone. But among the sailors, I never saw much of that sort of thing.

    Never liked Rawls, though I get the idea in principle. Rawls was always peeking under his veil. If there’s to be any fairness in life, it will arise from the certain knowledge that we are not alone, that danger is shared, that doing something stupid in the water will get people badly hurt, starting with the Stupid One, and it’s a long way to shore.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

      > Could it be that mankind is generally more disposed
      > to be a good sport and cooperate with his fellow
      > man when he faces a common danger?

      Yes. In fact, if the common danger is surmountable, people unite up like crazy. It’s when the common danger seems perniciously insurmountable that the survival of the fittest comes out.Report

  14. Avatar James Hanley says:


    I can’t praise this post highly enough. It’s perfectly congruent with the classic economic work on the origin and development of property rights, as well as–as James K notes–being precisely in tune with the work of Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues. In fact I think I’m going to forward it to them; I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.

    In reference to some commenters’ critique that the system only works because it has the larger enforcement mechanism of the state to back it up… I think they’re confusing two separate things. The first is whether such a system that is embedded in a larger top-down system will be affected by that higher system (and possibly benefit from it), and whether it in fact needs that system (only works because of that higher level system). Just because a system is in fact embedded in a higher level system does not prove anything about whether it only can function within that higher level system.

    The question I would ask is how the bottom-up system relates to the higher-level top-down system? How often do surfers resort to the higher-level system, and in what circumstances? Does that higher-level system actually back-up and support (even if only indirectly) the bottom-up system, or does the possibilty of resorting to it hinder the effectiveness of the bottom-up system? I.e., is it more the case that surfers are more likely to go along with the local informal rules because conflict could lead to law enforcement/tort cases, or does knowing that they can always resort to law enforcement/torts lead more surfers to flout the local rules?

    Those are the crucial questions for understanding the relationship between the bottom-up and the top-down system. The claim that this bottom-up system can only work well because of the top-down coercive system is simplistic; a claim requiring justification and explanation, not a statement of demonstrated truth.

    Kudos, Roger. I’ve been waiting for this post, and it’s every bit as good as I hoped.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

      Thanks James,

      To answer your question, I believe there is virtually zero higher level back up enforcement to surfing conventions. David, please chime in if you disagree…

      Law enforcement and the tort system are not effective nor are they really necessary. Part of this relates to the inherent risk of stealing a wave. As the conventions are set, the thief who is in front is in position to be “accidentally” injured. The thief thus is both the negligent and the injured party. The rules are kind of self policing.

      The other thing is that surfers kind of step off the grid when they paddle out. Cops would have to have boats and a means to communicate with surfers to do anything, and since surfers police themselves, there is no call for the higher order. Nor is enforcing wave rights a big enough issue to worry about.

      Localism can be subtle enough to evade higher order enforcement. You just run in or threaten to run into someone “accidentally”, or they return to their car to find it mysteriously vandalized. Sure you can call the cops, but they would probably suggest you choose a different beach, dude. I guess the cops from “Wired” could set up a sting operation, but my guess is they have real problems to deal with.

      The top down system has almost no effect other than stopping outright acts of physical assault. But as explained, these are totally unnecessary or redundant.

      One other proof point, surfers often operate in remote, lawless locations. To the best of my knowledge, these conventions work for the most part there as well.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

        That’s pretty much what I expected. The “it only works because there’s a whole system of laws on top of it” suggested by at least once commenter struck me as overly simplistic, not attuned to the detail of the situation.Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to James Hanley says:

          There are of course plenty of situations in life where voluntary social norms require no higher level backup; few people pick their nose in a crowded elevator, and the cops aren’t often called upon to police the situation.

          However, are you suggesting that no one who enjoys surfing would like to rope off a beach and call it their own? No one would ever do that, absent police coercive power?

          In this article, beachfront property owners in Malibu fight to keep the public from gaining access to public property at the surfline. In this dispute, it is only the coercive actions of the legal system that prevent such a thing from happening.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Hanley says:

      As I said above, I think the issue is that whether the system is top-down or bottom-up, it winds up being the same system, because that system provides a necessary constraint on usage of the resource. Whether it’s “social opprobrium” or not, there’s always the implicit threat that We’ll Go Get The Cops And/Or Sue You.

      Where the libertarian ideal comes in is the idea that the system could form bottom-up; that a group of completely independent users could find a limited resource, judge for themselves the level of usage which promotes sustainability, and enforce that level without needing to have a framework imposed prior to beginning usage. That is, there’s no Ministry Of Surfing that measures beach size, wave frequency, number of dead horsehoe crabs and such, and calculates the exact number of surfers that can be in the water at any time.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to DensityDuck says:

        whether the system is top-down or bottom-up, it winds up being the same system,

        The research on the subject of rule-making suggests otherwise.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Hanley says:

          I think I should have said, “it has the same effect”. i.e., it limits the number of surfers currently in the water so as to promote safety and enjoyable surfing.

          I guess the real issue is, “what happens when someone doesn’t care that you hate him?” The system Roger describes assumes, at its core, that someone who is overlty disliked will voluntarily leave. What if they take the attitude of “screw you guys, I’m here till I’m forcibly removed, and I’ll be as big of an asshole as I want”?

          See, for example, blog comments sections. Also, online games, where predatory play is endemic (there are online games whose communities–and, therefore, value–have been destroyed by a few players who go out of their way to be as awful to others as possible.)Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to DensityDuck says:

            I think I should have said, “it has the same effect”. i.e., it limits the number of surfers currently in the water so as to promote safety and enjoyable surfing.

            Oh. Yeah. I’d agree with that.

            As to your question, that’s certainly possible, but I’m not sure the on-line analogy works, because so much of what makes that behavior frequent on-line is the anonymity, which limits others’ capacity for really effective reprisals (being called a fishing libtard online doesn’t really hurt my feelings–if it’s done by commie-dems, then I can even wear it as a badge of pride, eh?). F2F is much more personal, which has much more emotional impact. And as Roger said, such a person is likely to find their car vandalized. No matter how big an ass someone might want to be, they’re unlikely to be willing to put up with repeatedly having their tires slashed, headlights smashed, paint keyed, and so on.Report

  15. Avatar Steve Flaeck says:

    I have to disagree with this. Surfing property rights are not efficient. First, they do not encourage the development of surf spots or their discovery and dissemination. Waves are not difficult to produce and there are a number of places in Southern California, most notably Chevron Reef, which are the direct result of human intervention. (In fact, Sunset Blvd. looks to be wholly the result of the artificial promontory there.) So while it may divide extant waves effectively, it utterly fails to create new ones even though it easily could. It also fails to defend water quality at all, an excellent reason to never surf south of Sunset in LA. If surf property rights were effective, they would have both increased the number of spots and defended water quality better as the natural result of the higher value of the waves.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Steve Flaeck says:

      So…people made property rights-equivalent claims to surfing areas, and the market responded by finding creating new surfing areas that other people could use?


      It didn’t do anything for water quality? See the earlier discussion about whether or not this takes place in the context of a larger government. If private citizens were permitted to take responsibility for the beach areas and sue polluters, then there would be an improvement in water quality. As it is, the county owns the beach and the county is busy with Other Important Things for the forseeable future.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Steve Flaeck says:


      Interesting feedback. I guess my response is that the problem surfers are trying to solve is indeed how to divide up extant waves. If waves got so crowded that people would be willing to pay for the privilege, then I can envision a different set of conventions developing, including the creation of new waves. I hear Kelly Slater has invested large sums in building future wave machines. There are also some artificial ”waves” at the Wavehouse in San Diego.

      I think trying to solve pollution issues for two thirds of the earths surface may be beyond the scope of your daily surfer. It may be a problem they care about, but it is a very different problem in scope and solution set. What are you suggesting?Report

      • Avatar Steve Flaeck in reply to Roger says:

        If surf property rights were robust, then the value of the waves would encourage the defense of water quality lest it destroy that value. If people built surf spots actively, this would become very clear, I think. “2/3 of the Earth’s surface” doesn’t matter in this, as you well know the concentration of pollutants off Venice or SaMo is far higher than off Malibu, for example. Local, not global, concentration is important.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Steve Flaeck says:


          I guess I would agree that if another set of conventions was as good in every way as the current ones, AND contributed to the solution of improving local water quality, then it would be better. Do you have a suggestion?Report

  16. Avatar Kazzy says:


    What happens if, in another area, a different mechanism for distributing waves arises, one that is voluntary and bottoms up and effective, but entirely different (or different enough) from the one described here that, should the two systems interact, problems would ensue?

    If this is impossible… if the system described here is universal, than I wonder how bottoms-up it truly is. If that is the case, it may be that some small subset of the entire surfing population genuinely arrived at the method from the bottom up but it has since been imposed and enforced top down?

    As a non-surfer, the best analogy I can come up with is pick-up basketball. There is a general understanding how who has “next” is determined. This is pretty universal… at least everywhere I have played in America. And while it may have been arrived at organically and voluntarily, at this point, there isn’t much choice but to adhere to its mechanisms, unless the entirety of a group decides on a new system and no outsiders come mid-game. In my lifetime (all 28 years), the system has always simply been. I have no idea how it came to be, who developed it, how it spread, or if it is even the “best” system. But it works, for the most part, with many of the same warts described here (particularly a built-in advantage for better players to get more court time).Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:


      There are, of course, regional variations in the rules of pick-up basketball, although they are at the margin rather than the core. That’s likely true with wave-rights, too. But the universal core doesn’t require top-down design or imposition–it only requires travelers to introduce it to new regions, where, if the locals find it amenable, they will adopt it. A rule that is Pareto superior ought, by definition, to be amenable to all localities.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        Are you referring to the rules of the game itself? Or the mechanism for assigning court time? I was referring to the latter, which I have generally only seen function one way. Rules do vary from place to place but, as you noted, primarily at the margin.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

          OK, I was referring to the rules of the game, but I think it extends to the rules about “property rights” to the court. It’s quite possible everyone has settled on that (except for controlled access courts where reservations can be made) because it truly is the Pareto superior rule. It’s still not top-down; it just sticks because it’s an equilibrium outcome–nobody can do better by unilaterally choosing a different rule.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

            Game rules are generally adapted from the official game. However, there are many unwritten rules, the primary being you can only call an offensive foul under the most egregious of circumstances, and picking a fight is generally preferred on such occassions. I wonder where that came from…

            More importantly, I think I’m starting to get it. A good rule is a good rule. The mechanism of how it came to be matters less, those different mechanisms may tend to lead to better rules.

            I do wonder, though, if some of the status quo rules are really good or are just so ingrained as to be accepted or might be good for an already empowerd segment of the population such that they can continnue to promote a rule that works to their advantage. Coming back to basketball, the “Who’s got next?” system greatly favors better players. Win and you keep playing. Keep playing and you get better. Get better and you win. Rinse. Repeat. If the scrubs made a system, it may be more equitable. Of course, then the court might be used sub-optimally. But I doubt the scrubs are thinking, “This system rules!” They are more likey thinking, “This is what is and I doubt anyone is going to listen to my attempts to change it so I’ll just go with it.”Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kazzy says:

      Alternatively, it’s like putting a quarter on the console of the Street Fighter II machine, when two people are playing, to show that you’re “next” in line and the player who loses should step away.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Is that universally recognized? I’ve seen that done on pool tables but never really saw it in arcades, not that I spent much time in them.

        It’d be interesting to chart the many apparent bottoms-up type mechanisms and research their origins. Using the arcade example, it is entirely possible that one arcade somewhere created that rule, top-down style, and it simply became universally accepted as industry standard and only really appears to be bottoms-up. Or would that still qualify as bottoms-up?Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kazzy says:

          I think, as James points out, that it’s a good rule that–once explained–takes hold because it’s superior to “stand around and hope that people recognize you’re waiting in line and not just watching”.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

          I’ve seen that approach in arcades as well as with pool tables. I doubt it was a rule imposed by an arcade, because I’ve never seen it on a posted list of rules, either in an arcade or a pool hall. But even if it was imposed top down in one or a few places, it’s “travel” to other places that didn’t have the rule is still bottom up. Conversely, if it began as a wholly bottoms up rule, an arcade owner might adopt and enforce it formally if conflicts became a problem in his/her arcade. A good rule is a good rule, and presumably people will adopt and follow it, whatever its origin.

          It’s not a perfect rule, though. I could never tell my quarters from anyone else’s, and I had a tendency to forget whether I was second or third in line. Anyone paying attention could easily have scooped me of my turn.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think there is local variety and defacto experimentation.

      When crowds are real small, sometimes we start taking turns. In addition, sometimes, someone will shout out to give the wave to a beginner, especially to pretty girls or kids.

      I agree that a bottoms up process can become locked in as a convention. Once enough people start driving on the right, it makes no sense to drive on the left. A great part of the benefit of conventions and rights are that they allow us to anticipate the actions and intentions of others. They facilitate human interaction.

      Surfers do travel and intermingle extensively, so locally superior solutions can easily be discovered and spread verbally or behaviorally.Report

  17. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    It would be interesting to see how surfing norms for property rights would operate if faced with a class break.

    Right now, as Roger points out, there’s a ton of beachfront and only a small section of it is coveted by the surfer clan. The boogie-boarding clan and the scuba clan and the waverunner clan and surf fishing clan and the swimmer clan all have no particular interest in that section of resources.

    Why contest with the surfer guys if they only want a small chunk of the beach and your activity doesn’t require that same resource?

    So you have two self-selections that make it optimized for a bottom-up approach: a commonality of the pool of surfers and a relatively secure sequester from outsiders with strongly divergent resource desires.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


      Excellent point. Surfers are only a small subsegment of beach enjoyers. I did not mention that there are lifeguard rules at crowded beaches that divide the beach into surfing and swimming zones. There are places where surfing is prohibited, and these operate top down. I believe surfing is illegal in Chicago city limits, for example (Lake Michigan). Probably some kind of Obama, community organizer legacy.Report

  18. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Roger great post and well worth the wait. Sorry I didn’t comment sooner but had a family reunion to go to and am only now getting (somewhat) back to normal.

    Don’t know if this video was already linked but didn’t get three lines into your OP before I was thinking about it. Property rights, surfing and coercion, lots of coercion… 🙂Report