Yesterday we asked the eternal question, “Why Have Standards?” Today we start getting down to basics, and ask “What Are Standards?” Yes, we answered that in part yesterday, but we need to expand on it a bit in order to get to the point we’re eventually going to make in this series. Yes, there’s a point to all this, believe it or not.
Legally speaking, it’s pretty simple, unlike some legal concepts. As Black’s Law Dictionary has it, a standard is “[s]tability, general recognition, and conformity to established practice.” It’s also “[a] type, model, or combination of elements accepted as correct or perfect.” (Okay, it’s also “[a]n ensign or flag used in war,” but that’s not our concern. Today.)
We’ve heard something like this language before, in discussions about social justice. Social justice is the particular virtue directed to the common good, specifically, to the institutions — social habits — that constitute the environment we call the common good, within which human beings as political animals and moral beings carry out the business of living through the application of individual and social ethics.
In other words, the common good is the environment within which people become both good people and, because it’s social, good citizens. The act of social justice ensures that there is no conflict between being a good person and being a good member of the community. If there is a conflict between being a good person and being a good member of the community, people are supposed to get organized and remove the institutional barriers preventing people from being both good citizens and good people.
Thus a standard is, in a very real sense, an institution. This is both in the sense of having been “instituted” by duly constituted authority, and also being a “social habit,” i.e., something that everybody in that society agrees on. Both of these senses of standard are fully consistent with the legal definitions and with the virtue of social justice.
Having standards is thus really, really, really important. It’s so important that people almost always delegate setting and enforcing standards to the State, society’s only legitimate monopoly that controls the instruments of coercion, e.g., the police, the law courts, the prisons, the tax system, and so on.
Standards simply cannot be left to chance or expedience. People have to know where they stand, if only to know where they are. That’s why We, the People delegated the power to set standards to the federal government in the person of the Congress. It’s right there, in Article I, § 8 of the Constitution.