I am, by nature, fairly libertarian: a live-and-let-live, laissez-faire, and keep your dad-gummed government out of my dog-garn business sort. Sadly, you’re more likely to find an atheist in a foxhole than a libertarian in local government today. If constant, intrusive intervention in the lives of your neighbors sounds like fun, however, this job is for you. If absolute, unquestioned authority backed by the exclusive use of force to exert your will gets you wired; you’ll fit right in.
If, though, you think that’s a problem, we need to talk. If you think that problem comes from politicians who are slimy, power-hungry leeches on the backside of society, you’re wrong. Politicians are slimy, power-hungry leeches. That’s true. But the intrusive, government-in-your face thing? Sorry, that’s on you. The single most shocking thing at City Hall is just how far people are willing, even eager, to go into their neighbor’s business. Got an elderly gentleman down the street who’s having trouble keeping up with their yard work? Don’t get together with your neighbors and help them. Call Neighborhood Services and have them cited immediately! The kid next door wants to sell warm lemonade and bad cookies? Call the cops! The single mother across the way who’s struggling with her rebellious pre-teen? Get DCS in here immediately and take that kid away!
Sadly, that’s exactly what we’ll do.
Government isn’t in the business of helping people, it’s really only equipped to tax, regulate and punish. The tough part is that, often, there’s actually a pretty good reason for the punishment – or at least one an awful lot of people agree with. The weed, dirt, and debris display in your elderly neighbor’s yard may well be preventing the family across the street from selling their house for a fair price. The yard sale cookies could be today’s Salmonella Special. The troubled teen may be a whole lot closer to snapping – with truly tragic consequences – than any mother ever wants to admit. There are good reasons we have (most of) these laws on the book in the first place.
That doesn’t make using them on our own citizens any better. One of the toughest things for any elected official to do is to say “no”. It’s especially hard when what you’re being asked to do is simply follow the law. But good governance relies on discretion every bit as much as justice does. Simply put, there are times when the law may be right, but applying it is far from just.
This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. When it comes to local government, both sides are equally willing to interfere in your life. Eager, even. It may be about different things, but the instinct is the same; action – even action that has significant negative consequences for the individuals involved – is strength. Failure to act, even when done so compassionately, is weakness. Fortunately, there’s an easy, two-step fix to this problem:
First, remember that the people who live next to you – they are you. They aren’t strangers. For the most part, they’re decent human beings. The toughest part of working at City Hall is realizing just how far away from that understanding we have all gone. It’s seeing how much of a sense of community we’ve lost over the years. Rather than reporting that elderly blighter, help them. Instead of calling the cops over some lemonade and cookies, take a walk over there and talk to them, talk to their parents. Have the courage – and it takes real courage – to sit down with the mom whose kid is out of control and have an honest conversation. Treat your neighbors like neighbors.
Second, elect Foxhole Atheists. Elect people who say “no” a lot, even to their friends. Elect people who won’t reflexively choose to exercise the levers of power, but instead look to solve problems directly, who believe in the power of community, not control. Remember that every single thing government does involves the use of force, and be afraid of any politician who doesn’t understand how dangerous people who are willing to reflexively use force on others really are.