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Thursday, December 1, 1994

A Matter of Principle: The Real Enemy of Liberty

Mr. Bidinotto is a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest and a long-time contributor to The Freeman. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback. Please see this month’s Notes from FEE for details. 

Recently, my family and I moved. Not far—only about nine blocks. That didn’t make it any less of an ordeal, however. It took us five exhausting days and nights, and considerable expense, to truck everything to our new house.

Packing up and moving to a new home is emotionally wrenching and physically grueling. It’s especially difficult if you love your old residence, as we did. It was a big house on a tree-lined street. It had lots of dark oak throughout, a charming dining room, and a finished attic that held my library and office. In addition, we had many fine neighbors who organized annual parties and clean-up days for our block. And our mortgage was outrageously low.

So why did we move? The deciding factor was the mounting threat of crime in the neighborhood.

Break-ins, thefts, and vandalism, once rare, were on the rise. A wonderful Victorian place at the end of our block, vacant for some time, had in recent months been systematically stripped of its chandeliers, beveled glass windows, and fireplace mantelpieces. Today it’s a boarded-up eyesore. Last summer, a block away, a youth arrested repeatedly for arson set his own apartment house on fire. A few nights before we moved, the young couple across the street scared off a prowler trying to force entry in their home.

All this was eroding neighborhood morale. Attendance at our latest annual block party was poor. Some neighbors had given up and were neglecting their own houses and lawns. Families with children-.-the bedrock of any community—were either relocating or talking about it.

The trend was unmistakable. So with great regret we bailed out, evicted from a home we loved by the threat of predatory crime.

Viewed statistically, crime is horrific enough. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that there are some 34 million personal and household victimizations annually—a figure that doesn’t even include commercial and business crime. Moreover, our streets and communities are far less safe than they used to be. In 1960, only 161 violent crimes were recorded for every 100,000 people. By 1991, there were 758 violent crimes per 100,000 people. In other words, in just 30 years the violent crime rate, per capita, has nearly quintupled

But statistics can’t capture many of the other costs criminals impose on society. Consider, for example, the waste, disruption, and pain this single move has inflicted upon my family. Start with the loss of a home we loved and neighbors we treasured. Then there were the costs of locating, purchasing, mortgaging, and renovating a substantially more expensive home in a neighborhood with much higher property taxes—costs that will amount to many tens of thousands of dollars over the years. Add to this the physical demands and economic impact of the move itself; the time lost from work and other pursuits; the hefty price tag of reinstalling utilities at the new home; the outlays for everything from new furnishings to new business cards and stationery and a new kennel for our dogs (kept largely for security—another hidden cost of crime).

If you add such expenses, and many not mentioned, to similar costs borne by millions of other citizens, you’ll get a tiny hint of the enormous impact crime is having upon all aspects of American life.

According to the polls, crime is the number one concern of the public. Yet curiously, the problem has gotten scant attention from most proponents of the free market system. To read libertarian journals, you’d get the impression that the only crime problems are those artificially created by intrusive government regulations and the illegality of drugs. In the absence of such interventions, some argue, crime would largely disappear.

This naive perspective is utterly demolished by the outstanding essays which I have compiled for the newly released FEE volume, Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility. People don’t commit crimes because stupid laws “forced” them to, any more than because any other aspect of their environment “forced” them to. Criminality is a matter of freely- chosen values; and today’s crime wave is the result of decades of assault on our most basic cultural and moral values.

Why have so few inside the free market and libertarian camps come to grips with the crime problem? I think because many of them tacitly maintain a double standard about violations of individual rights.

Free marketeers typically posit government per se as the “enemy” of individual rights and liberty. Of course, an unlimited state certainly can be the worst enemy of individual rights, as the bloody history of this century grimly attests. However, in their eagerness to denounce governmental violations of rights, these same individuals ignore the very evils that governments were established to eradicate: individual violations of rights.

Some years ago I wrote about the plight of Simon Geller, an elderly radio station owner then threatened with cancellation of his FCC broadcast license on the grounds of programming content. This was an unconscionable instance of attempted plunder, and violation of the man’s First Amendment rights, by federal officials.

But I have also written extensively about the far more common plunders and predations imposed upon innocent victims by ordinary criminals. Consider that during 1992 alone, there were an estimated 12,211,000 personal thefts and an additional 14,817,000 household thefts.

Were these actual violations of property rights by criminals any less real or devastating to their victims, than the threatened violation of rights that Simon Geller faced from FCC bureaucrats? Then why treat governmental violations of tights as somehow far worse than private violations of rights?

As our Founders knew, government does have a legitimate role: to respond forcibly against any initiation of force or coercion. But many proponents of laissez faire, habituated to viewing government as “the enemy,” can’t bring themselves to admit that there is, indeed, a place for vigorous government intervention: intervention against private violations of individual tights.

To acknowledge the full scope of predatory activity in modern American society, free marketeers would have to concede the need for a tough, ambitious governmental response. Yet to acknowledge any justifiable role for government flies in the face of many libertarians’ utopian fantasies about “market alternatives to the state.”

For too long, the free market argument has ignored the very real value concerns of the public. Americans typically feel irritated and exasperated by politicians; but by contrast, they feel profoundly frightened and threatened by criminals. What are they to think of those who magnify government evils but minimize private ones—who try to convince them that their rights and liberties are far more jeopardized by the local postman than by the neighborhood pedophile?

The public tightly finds this disproportionate and silly. The free market case loses all credibility when its advocates dismiss Americans’ very real and immediate fears, while magnifying those that remain more distant and even hypothetical.

Typing these words with battered fingers, surrounded by unopened boxes from an exhausting move, helps put things back in proportion. It was not the government, after all, but crime, that caused me this unwelcome disruption.

All violations of rights are equally evil. And the real enemy of liberty is anyone—public or private—who would violate individual tights.