Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Standards, IV: Lack of Standards

We’ve been looking at standards, what they are, how they apply, even why we should have them.  Today we look at the sort of thing that happens when you don’t have standards, or you remove them, i.e., drift (or jump headfirst) into relativism.

Standards are not something many people worry about, or even think about . . . until they don’t exist.  Part of this is the natural habit people get into of just accepting the way things are as, well, the way things are.  “Mommy, why is that?”  “Because.”

Perhaps it’s easiest to explain what can happen with a lack of standards by example.  Take, for instance, a road sign that says “SPEED LIMIT 55 MPH.”  There are at least ten different standard systems in that phrase:

·      The Roman alphabet

·      Algebra

·      A day of 24 equal hours

·      The English language (which has a number of standards built in to it that we won’t get into)

·      Accepted spellings of terms in English

·      Standard meanings of those terms

·      A base ten number system

·      Hindu-Arabic numerals

·      A standard English mile of 5,280 feet (and all the other measures that go into a linear foot)

·      Everybody driving on the same side of the road in the highway system

Taking away or using a personal, private standard for any one of the bulleted items results in instant confusion, even chaos.  For example, using a day of 12 equal hours makes the speed limit 27½ MPH in the 24-hour system, while a day of 48 equal hours makes the speed limit 110 MPH in the 24-hour system.  And a mile?  The original mile was based on 1,000 paces of a Roman legionnaire (miles = 1,000), making the Roman mile closer to a kilometer than to today’s English statutory mile.

The need for clear standards is why even today people use Troy weights for precious metals.  It has nothing to do with the city of Helen, Paris, Achilles, and that gang.  It has to do with the French city of Troyes, the site of one of the four great trade fairs of Champagne in the Middle Ages, and one that anybody who was anybody in trade had to attend, or lose a lot of business.

Contracts would specify that the good or service to be delivered was to be to the value of so many ounces of gold or silver of the weight of Troyes.  The gold or silver didn’t change hands — different areas used different coinage systems, anyway.  A penny or denier from one place might not be the same as that right down the road.  They needed a standard weight and measure of value.

That’s what a contract — a mortgage or bill of exchange — was for; and much safer to carry around than gold or silver, too.  A thief who stole a bill of exchange couldn’t do much with it, while the merchant or banker could get it replaced by obtaining a copy of the contract retained by the other party.

What changed hands were the goods for which the parties contracted — but that had to be measured in terms that both parties recognized as standard.  Without that standard, a dishonest person could take advantage of an honest person, while two honest people could be convinced that the other was a liar and a thief, even when both were being completely honest.

That is why governments got into the business of setting, maintaining, and enforcing standards — all standards.  As society’s sole legitimate monopoly over the instruments of coercion, and a non-producer of wealth, the State is presumably a disinterested third party to transactions, with nothing to gain or lose by setting the standard.


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