Freedom is greatest within restraints and boundaries. Sure, on some slippery slope with no constraining adverbs, this seems contradictory, but we recognize daily that minimal, enforceable and enforced, laws provide predictability, enable true freedom. Would my freedom be enlarged without the first limit society imposes as I leave my house: driving on the right? Seinfeld’s Kramer attempted to “free” the lanes but caused chaos. I cheerfully accept it because it simplifies more than limits; I go over my grocery list or laugh with Limbaugh; someone more productive might create a poem or solve a physics problem. Without limits, we would be on guard, slow to a crawl, choose a tank, hoping, as my brothers put it, to be the shearer and not the shearee in an inevitable collision. I remember a homesick Iranian engineer telling us still he didn’t want to return – here drivers stop at red lights, even alone at night; there, every intersection was a free for all. Too much order suffocates but with too little concentration is difficult.
Property rights are the bedrock on which our independence is built. A trust society internalizes some constraints. I want to live where we don’t need house keys and car keys can be left in the car. Another’s property is assumed so firmly to be theirs that no one even has to suppress desires. I may expect too much, require a still distant level of internalization. If the locus of responsibility is personal, individual and we share that value, we all become adults, all become responsible. But every night the opposite is argued (not very seriously: few are convinced that stealing Nike shoes or Gucci bags feeds starving children) by protesters. When the St. Louis couple described marauders pointing out rooms the “peaceful protesters” intended to occupy, the couple were frightened by barbarism.
But laws are pointless if not predictably enforced. Buying and selling property is defined in legal records; we assume an implicit contract – that the government will back those deeds. A city government that gives the right of one citizen’s property to another – even for only a weekend’s pillage – betrays its responsibility and that contract. That is far more of a betrayal than the rioters’. The city itself, its government, sheds centuries of custom and law.
The complicated feelings of renters toward landlords or government tenants include varying degrees of respect. Leases and the power of the local government to back both renter and landlord rights is fraught with complexity but also reassurance. The purpose is to bring peace of mind to both by defining and clarifying duties and rights. My friend describes the contracts she reissues each year to her renters as a defense of standards in an increasingly standardless world. She asks of her tenants and they of her a respect for each other’s property, each other’s rights. Her affection for Sowell, Himmelfarb and Prager doesn’t surprise. They speak not only of honesty and order, but also what leads to joy and peace. Expecting prompt payment of rent is balanced by her tenant’s expectation that if needed a plumber or roofer or electrician will be called promptly, paid cheerfully. Lives with good landlords and good tenants are predictable and pleasant. Such lives are surely richer and freer than those of the charming protesters in St. Louis.
I wouldn’t want by force and privilege to take another’s house, for what peace would there be in such possession when the next year “privilege” and “power” might change? Of course, other’s houses may be attractive, but they are not mine – they are not what I worked for, saved for, they are not what I chose and reworked to meet our needs. Our house is, above all, ours. Once it was others and it may be yet others. Property is not trivial. Without property rights we are often less able to express our implicit rights, those of our Constitution. It is not just or really most importantly a matter of dollars, though money is important. Our homes become both shelter and perch from which we voice opinions and faith, offer hospitality and sympathy, reinforce values and taste, raise our children. Much of the fervor for the second amendment is recognition of its role in protecting property, both enabling other rights. Expressing ourselves – our opinions, our faith – is harder if our homes are not our castles.
One of the more irritating revelations of the last months has been that some elected officials do not see duties in their contracts – only power. A mayor sympathetically addresses some citizens (those with political power and privilege as well as the power of bats and lasers and bricks): “Sure, tear up the houses and the businesses over there, or over there, or really everywhere; we won’t stop you.” Taxes become extortion, not a freely entered transaction with services rendered by both and values shared. The idea of the government as our servants, of we as their employers becomes farcical. An unjust application of laws tells us who is privileged: it is certainly not the shopkeeper expected to pay a full year’s taxes before being issued a permit to clean the rubble of a business long nurtured but, rather the privileged rabble who produced the rubble. Such chaos and injustice and unpredictability leaves citizens with little energy or ability to innovate, create, produce. They are too busy just trying to keep steady in a tempest. Treading water becomes an achievement.
Our city government is not perfect but it is good. The utilities run smoothly and aid comes quickly, the garbage is picked up by people who are competent and have a sense of humor, but above all, we feel safe on our property. We neither fear nor disrespect our police and the court system tries (whatever dilemmas human nature throws at it) to achieve justice. But watching the news each night, I feel I should knock on wood when concluding this way. How long can that be our view of our city, state, nation?