Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sense and Sensibilities

In April I appeared on a panel to discuss the Ashby High Rise project. You can hear the audio by clicking here. The audience consisted largely of upper-middle income home owners from nearby neighborhoods. They became very angry and upset when I said that they were using the coercive power of government to impose their values on others.

Their reaction was consistent with what I had anticipated. I expected a hostile audience, and I knew that my words were not going to win me any friends. I knew that my words would be provocative.

Judging from the demographics of the neighborhoods, I strongly suspect that the home owners are professionals. They likely think of themselves as good citizens, and they probably are in the conventional sense of the phrase—they hold a steady job, they pay their taxes, they vote, etc. They aren’t scofflaws with a string of arrests.

This is why my words provoked such anger. I was essentially accusing them of being thugs, and they could see no resemblance between themselves and some gangsta rapper. But the fact is, these home owners are spiritual cousins of the gangsta rapper, and in some ways the latter is more honest than the former.

The gangsta rapper does not hide his methods. He openly admits that he lives by the creed that might makes right, that he is justified to seize what he wants, that force is an acceptable means of social interaction.

Conversely, the home owners explicitly reject such ideas. Indeed, during the question period I responded to one question by pointing out the implicit acceptance that might makes right, and the audience responded with boos and derogatory comments. But explicitly rejecting a premise does not mean that one has rejected all of its implications.

One audience member asked me how I could be so certain of my position in the face of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those in attendance disagreed with me. He questioned how I could reject “the public good” being sought in this exercise of “police powers”. Both questions imply that might makes right.

In the former, the implication is that the number of people holding an idea determines its truth. Which means, truth is determined by a vote and the majority can then impose “truth” on the minority. In the latter, the government’s police powers can be used to impose certain values upon the entire community. In short, the questioner was saying that a vote will determine how government coercion will be used.

Of course, the questioner did not put it into those words. He hid behind terms like “public good”. I was not so accommodating, and stripped his euphemisms to their essence.

For these upper-middle income home owners, my words shook their sensibilities. They are not accustomed to being equated with thugs. But thugs they are.

This group has sought government action to stop a development they do not like. Unlike the gangsta rapper who will simply pull his gun and demand that his desires be met, the home owners sought to use government as their proxy. But using a proxy does not change the nature of the action, nor does it absolve one of responsibility for the ideas advocated. (Similarly, hiring a hit man does not absolve one of the murder.)

This is not a class issue. This is democracy in action. This is the majority imposing their values upon the minority. This is one group of individuals using the power of government to prescribe the actions of others. That a majority supports such steps does not change that fact.

The United States Constitution was written to limit the powers of government and protect the rights of individuals. Our Founding Fathers established a republic, not a democracy. The Founding Fathers recognized the right of each individual to pursue his own happiness. Gangs do not, no matter the number of members or the auspices under which they act.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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