The Case Against Compulsory Universal Standards

Regular reader Kevin Corcoran has sent me yet another short essay, this time on why requiring that all charging cables comply with the same standard is a really bad idea. I particularly like his last paragraph, which really drives the point home by asking us to imagine what would have happened had such a standard been imposed any time in the past.

Here’s Kevin:

I’m a tech nerd. I enjoy new gadgets and gizmos, and I enjoy reading about the development of these things. So it caught my eye when I saw that a few Democratic Senators (Including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, of course) are pushing to have the government enforce a universal charging cable standard.

What draws the Senators’ ire is that Apple has two different charging cables in its lineup. Most non-Apple devices, like Android phones and laptops, use USB-C. And many of Apple’s products, like their MacBooks and some of the higher end iPads, also use USB-C. But the iPhone and many other devices use Apple’s own Lightning cable. The Senators have divined that This Is The Wrong Way To Do Things, and want to force Apple to put USB-C on all of its devices.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of Apple’s proprietary cable. I would have preferred that it had switched entirely to USB-C a while ago. USB-C can charge devices faster and transfer data faster and having to carry two sets of cables around if you’re traveling with multiple devices can be a minor hassle. That said, I think the Senators are totally in the wrong here.

First, having a legally mandated standard for charging cables is a surefire way to stifle innovation. Smartphone ports and chargers have gone through several stages of evolution since they first came to market; this process would not have been helped if from the beginning companies needed to get government permission to try a new standard, or if they were all required to use the same standard all at once. Had that been the case, I suspect ports and chargers today would still be in the state they were 10 years ago. Second, using older standards is a common cost saving mechanism for budget devices. Android phones have been using USB-C as a standard for a while now, but until recently it was very common for low end budget phones to use the older Micro-USB standard as one way to save on hardware costs and sell to consumers at lower prices. Not only would universal standards slow down the rate at which we’d get new technologies, but also they would limit the ability of tech companies to use older standards to offer lower cost options to consumers who have tighter budgets.

Looking back, I can’t see any point in the past where it would have been a good idea for the state to come in and point to a specific technological development and say, “This right here – this is where all companies and consumers need to be, all at once, going forward.” It’s easy to see why that would have been a bad idea in the past, because here in the present we also know of all the successive improvements that have been made since then that might have been thwarted by such a move. There’s nothing magical about this moment that would make a universal standard in August 2022 a wiser move.  The Senators and others who think they can determine otherwise for consumers everywhere are indulging in Hayek’s fatal conceit.

Now, here’s me, DRH, with my additional thought.

It’s understandable that Bernie Sanders would advocate such a coercive proposal. After all, recall the statement he made in 2015:

You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.

He’s right that you don’t need 23 underarm spray deodorants. Only one will do as long as it’s the one I want and the rest of you be damned.

Or sneakers? I have plantar fasciitis in my right foot and I’ve finally found a pair of sneakers that seems to be making it better, not worse. The brand is Altra. The sneakers cost me about $130. Does my spending money on it mean that some children are going hungry? No. To say that, you would have to believe that my next best choice for the $130 is to spend it on feeding children. It’s not. But whatever I would have spent it on, it’s my money and there’s a company out there producing something I badly want. More choices are generally good, not bad.