This past Friday, October 14th, was World Standards Day, a day that honours the work of the thousands of experts involved in setting the huge range of voluntary international standards that regulate production and trade in a globalized economy. Depending on your view of globalization, it’s a day either to be celebrated or mourned.
The standards in question include various ones established by groups like the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).
I’m currently reading a very good book on just this topic, The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy, by Tim Büthe and Walter Mattli. It examines the wide and growing range of international, private (i.e., non-governmental) standards being set by groups like the IEC, ISO, and IASB. As Büthe and Mattli point out, such standards are a double-edged sword.
On one hand, they facilitate the international flow of goods and services, making it easier for companies to ship products overseas or set up branch offices in foreign countries without learning entirely new, idiosyncratic local standards. And (being established by international groups of experts) they do this without the direct participation of governments that may not have the financial or technical capacity to set such standards. On the other hand, private, international standards don’t bring benefits equally to all: not all companies are equally-well equipped to switch from older national standards to newer international ones, and some countries’ internal regulatory regimes make the switch even harder. And regardless, as Büthe and Mattli point out, adopting new standards always brings costs, such as for training, redesigning products, and even paying licensing fees for proprietary technologies.
It seems appropriate, at this juncture—while the Occupy Wall Street movement is a) lamenting the nature of government-industry interaction, and b) deciding whether it is or is not part of the anti-globalization movement, to give some serious and well-informed thought to the desirability of regulatory regimes that are both non-governmental and international.