The law of the observant herd

June 22, 2005 | Affordable Housing, History, Primer posts, Program administration, Program design

When we design affordable housing programs, what assumptions should we make about the behavior of program participants? 


Back in the fourth century, a major theological debate erupted between two schools of thought about man’s nature: was man fundamentally good, or was he fundamentally a sinner?



“God give me chastity — but not yet!”


Followers of St. Augustine (354-426) argued that since we are all children of Adam’s fall, we are all sinners from inception.  As such, we must be presumed evil unless guided by a firm set of moral scriptures.



If we’re so innocent, why are we fig-leaved?


Against that, the British monk Pelagius (?-430?) proposed that man is basically good (needing no divine intervention) —





— and if left to his own devices will find the right way. 


Theological scholars, please do not brickbat me — the above is a crude paraphrase of impassioned learning far too complex for my poor sinner’s brain and far too lengthy to quote here.


The feud between Augustinians and Pelagians carries throughout history.  Pelagian principles found an entirely different expression in Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) thirteen hundred years later (“man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”).  Closer to home, Goofus and Gallant, those archetypes of dentists’ offices, fought out monthly highlights with suitably uplifting resolutions.


Well, Augustine and Pelagius can rest easy in their graves or heavens, for I have found the synthesis of their dialectic. 



“Hey, dialectic sounds Marxist or Hegelian!”


I call it the Law of the Observant Herd.



We’re very observant …


The law of the observant herd


In any large body of people, the herd adopts its behavior only after first observing how the system treats saints versus sinners.


Saints: those who do right whenever they can.  10% of the population.

Sinners: those who do wrong whenever they can.  10% of the population. 

The herd: everybody else.


In this terminology, saints are pure Pelagians. 




You’ve met them throughout your life.  They pick up other people’s litter.  They report cash income on their tax returns.  They call waitresses’ attention to the extra glass of wine not listed on the check. 


Sinners you have met also:




They cut in airline security lines, ‘forget’ the two extra bottles of hooch bought in Curacao, pocket the five-spot that fluttered to the supermarket floor when you failed to stuff it into your wallet, ask the cabbie to inflate the receipt. 


Sinners, you note, are neither thieves nor crooks — indeed, they rouse themselves to righteous wrath if you so suggest, or sneer at goody-two-shoes if you look askance at their fiddles.  “That’s the system,” they say, in effect exculpating their behavior with the implicit logic, It’s not wrong if the system lets me get away with it.


All of this is crucial to affordable housing programs, which measure success using Benthamite utilitarianism: the greatest good of the greatest number.




In affordable housing, everyone involved, but most especially the families and households that are our customers, is both:


  • A beneficiary, someone whom we are trying to help. 
  • An economic actor, whose motivation and behavior are critical to our cost containment and cost-effectiveness


Beneficiary mindset emphasizes Pelagian charity; economic activity thinking focuses on Augustinian enforcement. 


And the crucial breakthrough insight — you may send my Nobel Prize here — is that most of us have both Pelganian and Augustinian instincts within us, and both sets of incidents in our pasts, so we want programs that meet observant-herd design parameters:


Affordable housing observant-herd program criteria:


1.       Reward behavior we like.

2.       Punish behavior we dislike.

3.       Publicize rewards and punishments (so the herd can observe!).

4.       Respond instantly to behavioral changes within an individual.



“Isn’t there some amnesty program?”


I’ll develop examples in future posts, but for now, here are some further gnomic utterances whose truth I know because they derive from the Law of the Observant Herd:


Program design


1.         Turn all outcomes into numbers because numbers are convertible into money (which is the universal portable motivator).  Want an athlete to care about something?  Tie it to contract money.


2.         Rules you don’t enforce are worse than useless.  On this depends who wins or loses the staredown contest with a three-year-old.


3.         Fuzzy boundaries are bad boundaries.  Nobody argues a field goal in football or basketball.  Everybody argues goaltending (basketball) and strike zone (baseball). 


Program administration


1.         The most powerful signal is the first impression.  If you want things to change, they change at moment one of day one.  Waiting never works.



“There’s a new sheriff in town.”


2.         Consistency is the sine qua non of administration.  Emerson is always misquoted, for he said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  In program administration, there may be foolish rules, but consistency is never foolish.


3.         Immediacy is the better half of consistency.  Delay and irresolution are themselves among the most powerful signals of inconsistency.


4.         The best sinner to punish is the egregious one.  Take down the leader and the herd suddenly pays attention.  When the Romans captured a Gallic town, they quartered the chieftain and mounted his limbs and head atop their main gates — pour encourager les autres, as the French put it.  To encourage the others.  More recently, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer has consistently demonstrated the chastening value of the megaboss takedown:



Think this will get their attention?