Sunday, November 27, 2011

Saving The Strawmen From Further Beatings

Acairfearann thoughtfully provided the following in response to Part III of my Concord Bridge or Fort Sumter series:

Interesting, but I am not sure about the validity of the statement 'those who don't need to be ruled'. Obviously, there are many people who don't need government as a large bureaucracy. But, the phrase implies to me, and I may be misreading it in which case my apologies, that 'rule' is a negative which has no benefit to the individual. The problem with that is that any sort of cooperative, social action, which is the sort of action that allows the development of human society, requires the community to agree upon rules. And at some point your interpretation of the rule and your friend's interpretation is going to be different. Or for that matter the best way to build the bridge, best place to dig the well, the irrigation channel... And someone is going to have to decide, because constantly flipping a coin to make critical decisions creates an element of risk that tends to discourage activity in the long run.

'Rule' isn't just about negative punishments, it is also about agreed upon standards to create a society, be it neolithic Scotland or 21st century cities.

This is a tired argument and an old argument - I suspect one could find Plato using some form of it to justify the need for philosopher kings. It is an argument claiming the desire of people to be free ultimately leads to a dystopian chaos - Acairfearann has replaced Thunderdome with a coin toss, but the conclusion is the same - life becomes nasty, brutish, and short. It is an argument which cannot be refuted often enough or strongly enough.

What prompted my response however, were the examples of the kinds of rules Acairfearann fears would be lost in the inevitable anarchy. After over a quarter century in the field of civil engineering, I am familiar with regulations regarding bridges, ditches, and wells - both the rules themselves and the reasoning behind them, and Acairfearann's reasoning is exactly backwards - these standards are both the cause and result of people's desire to be free. The threat to the stability provided by these agreed upon standards comes not from those who do not need to be ruled, but from those who must rule.

Even the most cursory investigation of state, county, and local building, and development codes reveals some general themes:

First, those who administer and enforce them generally understand they are providing a service contracted by, and paid for by the citizens of their jurisdiction. When I call requesting information, whether from a local building inspector or county engineer, they call me back, send me copies of the records I request, or direct me to someone who can answer my questions. In short, they act as stakeholders who realize my work creates value, and thus, they also benefit from facilitating rather than hindering that work.

Secondly, local design and development codes represent hard earned knowledge. They are examples of “small e" empiricism and it is probably not too much of a stretch to say every item in the regulations represents a lesson learned from a flooded property, collapsed house, or a person sick, injured, or dead.

Additionally, the more local the authority, the less opportunity for rent seeking. There may be requirements for how far from the property line a house can be built, but nothing which says only Joe's Surveying Company has the magical measuring devices to tell if a building is conforming to code.

Further, the real consequences of violating the rules far outweigh the statutory consequences. If you construct your well too close to your septic system, you will be subject to fines, or the cost of moving one or the other. But these burdens are nothing compared to the impact on your health.

Finally, all of the above presume competence. The local officials and staff who administer the various agencies take for granted the people they deal with are capable of reading, understanding, and complying with the regulations. Plans are reviewed beforehand, and projects inspected afterwards on the assumption the work was performed in good faith and any problems can be discovered and fixed.

Acairfearann, the people responsible for enforcing the standards of the locality where you dwell consider you competent to arrange for building a home, excavating an irrigation channel, and for all I know, constructing a skyscraper, but do you know what you are not competent to do?

Buy light bulbs.

That is not my opinion - I'll bet you could manage it, and everyone in your town probably thinks so too, but the good people at the U.S. Department of Energy believe that given the choice of what kind of light bulbs to buy, you'll blow it, and they have the power to make you only buy what they approve.

Oh, and by federal statute, you are utterly incapable of deciding how much water your toilet should use when you flush it.

And, of course you do not have the faintest clue of what you should eat. Why, if left to your own devices you would shove any old thing into your mouth.

Actually, that last one is kind of interesting. Apparently California law enforcement, with the support of the Food and Drug Administration, raided a store which was selling people who wanted it, raw milk. It was originally reported to be a SWAT operation, but further reporting confirmed it was only a run of the mill; police kick the door in and arrest everyone inside, kind of raid. And I am also certain if someone in the store had twitched at the wrong time, they would have shot to death in an entirely different way than a SWAT team would have done it.

On the other hand, it does show there are people who, when they reach a certain level of authority, acquire a "do it my way, or I'll send men with guns to your house" attitude.

There is a
Gresham's Law of laws - bad laws drive out good. Once people who we do not know, cannot reason with, and who do not care whether we live or die, have taken over our lives and the decisions which used to be ours alone to make, we are loath to surrender the remaining scraps of freedom do anyone even if they be our neighbors and no matter the potential benefit.

Acairfearann, do not take counsel of your fears. Not needing to be ruled is not the same as not wanting rules and people's desire to be free enables rather than inhibits the development of stable prosperous societies. And know this: if you are reluctant to allow yourself and your neighbors to make what decisions you deem proper and necessary, there are people with guns who will gladly take that burden from you, but good luck getting it back once it has been surrendered.

No comments: