Paul L. Caron

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Hemel & Hamilton: Coordination, Conflict, And The Laws Of Time

Daniel J. Hemel (NYU; Google Scholar) & Matthew Hamilton (Ph.D. Candidate, UC-Berkeley), Coordination, Conflict, and the Laws of Time, in Research Handbook of Law and Time (Frank Fagan & Saul Levmore, eds. 2024): 

The laws of time—the rules and conventions that determine how we organize our calendars and set our clocks—play a central but often underappreciated role in structuring our daily rhythms and social interactions. This chapter explores the evolution of the laws of time across countries and across centuries. Drawing from the game-theoretic literature on coordination, we present three models—a pure coordination game, an assurance game, and a “Battle of the Sexes” or “Bach/Stravinsky game”—that capture different aspects of time-related lawmaking. We then apply these models to five case studies that evince both coordination and conflict over the laws of time: the transition from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in early modern Europe, the emergence of standard railway time in the 19th century United States, the global adoption of Greenwich Mean Time, the century-long struggle over daylight saving time, and the ongoing controversy over “leap seconds.” These case studies both elaborate and complicate the game-theoretic models, demonstrating the utility and limits of game theory as a framework for understanding complex social phenomena.

We go on to appraise time’s lessons for law and the social sciences. First, the study of time sheds light on the subtleties of the relationship between law and power. The seemingly neutral laws of time often produce non-neutral distributional consequences, reflecting and reinforcing political, military, and economic power. Yet we also find that otherwise-powerless groups sometimes prevail in struggles over clocks and calendars, while international standards for time do not simply reflect the impositions of the most powerful nation-states onto the less powerful. Second, the study of the laws of time helps us to untangle the relationship between national identity and international society. Nation-states sometimes seek to articulate distinct identities by adopting non-standard time conventions—but even in those cases, international society shapes the ways in which states express their distinctiveness. Third, the study of the laws of time offers insights into the nature of network effects. Alongside the classic network-effect story, in which network standards become more attractive as they become more widespread, we show how network standards sometimes prompt social and religious groups to adopt nonstandard time conventions as a means of maintaining group cohesion. We conclude by comparing the laws of time to the laws governing other measures, such as length, mass, and temperature. While the metric movement has brought other measures to a state of long-term stability throughout most of the world, we identify particular features of time that are likely to make it a perennial target for reformers and revolutionaries.

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