Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Debunking: Community Standards

Robert A. Heinlein once noted that the human race can be partitioned into those who seek to control others and those who have no such desire. Granted that that's only one of the possible partitions, nevertheless it's an important one. It bears directly on today's cant phrase, how such things as "community standards" arise, and how they become accepted despite the fraud upon which they're based.

In any group of men, there will be a percentage whose members:

  • Desire to impose certain of their preferences upon the rest; and:
  • Possess the time, energy, scale of priorities, resilience before criticism, and persistence in the face of opposition to have a good chance of making it happen.

Empirically, that percentage in American communities seems to hover in the single digits, usually as low as 1% to 2%. Within that small group there will be a distribution of characteristics, most important among them persuasive power and power of personality. Those at the top of that distribution will tend to dominate the others, and will mobilize them into a cohesive political force. Once that force is in motion, it will normally succeed in its endeavors, despite its small size.

How this comes about has been made a study of its own. It's a variation on special-interest political dynamics: the array of forces and tendencies that allow numerically small interest groups to impose their agendas on a larger population nearly all the time.

In conventional political analysis, we see that the successful interest group always possesses the following attributes:

  • Its agenda is very short -- one to three items -- and perfectly coherent.
  • Its members are passionate about that agenda and willing to contribute heavily toward it.
  • Success in achieving its goals brings direct, personal satisfactions -- sometimes tangible, sometimes not -- to the members of the group.

Interest groups outside government that seek to sway public policy do so by public relations, lobbying, and by bloc voting. The lobbying is, of course, reinforced by the group's ability to sway a substantial number of votes: first and foremost those of the group, second those of the general public who are persuaded by the group's PR efforts. In a region closely divided on "basic" ideology and issues, officials and aspirants must respect the power of such groups; the 1% or 2% of the vote they might sway could be the margin of victory...or defeat.

The one notable difference between the "conventional" interest group and the sort of group that strives to set "community standards" is that the latter isn't necessarily trying to sway the government. About as often as not, it seeks to become the government.

When a group introduces some set of rules as a proposed "community standard," the reactions of the wider community range from essential disinterest ("Doesn't affect me in the slightest") to passionate approval or opposition. A typical distribution of opinion might look like this:

  1. Indifferent: 80%
  2. Mildly interested in either direction: 10%
  3. Passionately in favor: 3% - 7%
  4. Passionately opposed: 3% - 7%

Yes: the indifferent will always the numbers, at least.

The rules in question might pertain to zoning, or to construction regulations, or to what sort of businesses will be permitted in the community, or what goods and services the community's businesses must, may, and must not sell. What matters most to the outcome is how effectively the group can marginalize the passionately opposed. None of the other members of the community matter.

Community segments 1 and 2 are largely immune to the proponents' PR. Their participation in the process that decides the question will be thin and its impact randomly distributed. Segment 3, the passionately-in-favor, are assets to the proponents, and likely to participate at a high percentage. However, their voices and votes could be overwhelmed by the passionately opposed. Minimizing the influence of segment 4 is therefore the proponents' most important task.

The proponents of the "community standard" don't always win the day, of course. Much depends upon the size of that opposed group and just how ardent it is to see the proposal defeated. But the really interesting aspect of the thing lies in the distribution itself:

How can a set of rules to which 80% of the community is indifferent be a true "community standard?"

It's been said, in many contexts, that "20% gets you 80%." Perhaps the most common form is "80% of the results come from 20% of the workers." Indeed, in politics and political interplay, the figures are more likely to be 95% and 5%, owing to the immense importance of public relations and the money that makes such campaigns effective.

At any rate, just as with other special-interest groups that attempt to sway public policy, a group that seeks to make a "community standard" will have influence out of proportion to its actual size, and for the same reasons. It will carry the day against its opposition when it can marshal its supporters and dishearten, delegitimize, or otherwise neutralize its opponents. But when it wins, it will have succeeded in imposing the passionate desires of a numerical minority -- usually a very small minority -- on the far more numerous persons and institutions of the community.

And thus we get everything from curb rules to blue laws.


daniel_day said...

How can a set of rules to which 80% of the community is indifferent be a true "community standard?"
You call it "indifferent", the busybodies call it "willing to accept". In the vain hope that the busybodies will be satisfied and shut up. This encourages other would-be busybodies.

m_reichert58 said...

I'm sorry to enter this blog. But I was directed to here by finishing a book you wrote "Freedom's Scion"
Is there more to follow?anks
Please help?
Papa Mike

Francis W. Porretto said...

No apology needed, Papa Mike. Freedom's Scion is the second book in a trilogy. Which Art In Hope is the first. The third, Freedom's Fury, should be available at about this time next year. And my sincerest thanks for your interest!