Larry Solum Makes the Wrong Point

I respect Larry Solum's Legal Theory Blog for the work it does pulling together a great deal of information about developments in legal theory. Except for the endless jabbering about the latest backs-and-forth about originalism, I find it a valuable resource and a helpful guide to the flood of work out there.

I wish I could train myself not to read his editorial comments, but unfortunately, he interweaves them quite closely with his summaries and explanations. Unfortunately often, there's something in them that sets my teeth on edge. Not because it's unfortunately political, but becuse it's political and unsupported.

Take, as my prime example, his post today about storage capacity on his university's server. Larry is constantly running up against his 20 MB quota, since he gets 2-5 MB of email a day (mostly attachments). He's offered to pay for more, but that's not an option. Putting these two facts together, he goes off on a rant about "command and control," concluding: "When a private good is made free, the piper must be paid."

I don't even know where to start.

  • 20 MB is ridiculous. I have a 500 MB quota at my (free) hosting provider and a 50 MB quota at school. Institutions other than the University of You Suck avoid this problem in a time-honored way: having high enough quotas that very few people ever complain about them.

  • Of course, no one is forcing Larry to keep his mail on the server, either. I download my mail to a laptop that travels with me. It has a 30 GB drive. Problem solved.

  • Nor, for that matter, is anyone making Larry use university email. Even if he wants to use his University email address, he could have it forward to some other provider and read his mail there.

  • "Sending >500KB attachments is forbidden by the Geneva Convention." (-NTK) There are other ways to distribute files than as email attachments.

  • From the perspective of the university, it's mildly offensive to start pricing out such things as email based on willingness to pay. Would the university let professors bid on their choice of office? Would it let the students willing to pay the most have first choice for getting into closed classes? These things are "private goods," too: rival and exclusive. But it seems offensive to the basic values of an educational institution to monetize them. There's something profoundly egalitarian about our notion of an academic community, something that extends even to the idea that the rich don't get more email quota than the poor.

  • University IT departments don't let users pay more for extra MB because it's not their job. The billing, negotiation, and customer support involved are more hassle than they're worth. The university has chosen to have uniform quotas, rather than a market system, as a matter of convenience and economy. It would be inefficient to institute an internal market in quota. A very smart man named Ronald Coase said something about this; in his terminology, the University of You Suck is a firm.
  • To generalize, I would say that the usually-more-sensible Larry is suffering from a delusion common to economic libertarians. Having made a general observation that is reasonable, when considered in the context of a society as a whole, they then proceed to assert (or, more often, assume) that it ought to be rule in every particular context.

    That is exactly the change involved in going from "I should be able to buy email storage space" to "I should be able to buy email storage space from the University of You Suck IT department." I agree with the former claim: indeed, there are tons of places happy to sell you email storage. But the latter claim is just silly, precisely because the former is so sensible.