All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1989

Perspective: Little Tyrannies

For many Americans who are dedicated to personal freedom, the steady growth in the size and power of the federal government is a prelude to tyranny. To counteract this trend, many advocate the principle of “states’ rights” or variations on the theme of “local control.” The assumption seems to be that individual liberty is less likely to be eroded by government officials who live near their constituents.

But this assumption is invalidated by the facts of daily life. In many cases local governments in their zeal to promote the “common good” have become the willing instruments of tyranny against the individual. As a result, a visit by one’s local building inspector can be as devastating as a knock on the door by an IRS agent. I can cite examples from my own experience and the experience of others in my own relatively small California city:

A few weeks after I purchased my newly built home, which is situated on a comer lot, I started to erect a six-foot fence at the sidewalk on one side of the house. I was promptly visited by a zealous emissary from the building department, who informed me that I must cease building the fence immediately because I didn’t have a permit. He told me I had to prepare a plot plan of my property and a drawing of the finished fence, sub-reit this with a fee to the building department, and wait three weeks for the planning commission to meet and pass judgment on my proposal. I asked what would happen if I just continued to build the fence, and the conscientious fellow told me I would be fined and “forced” to remove all building that had preceded the meeting of the planning commission.

Outside the city limits a vacant field at a busy intersection became an informal bazaar where people sold everything from knives to oil paintings. All of this was with the permission of the property owner, who charged a small fee from her informal vendors. When county officials discovered what was going on, they ordered the peddlers to leave because the field wasn’t zoned for commercial activity.

In this same city a motel owner erected a hand-painted “Welcome” sign on his motel. A neighbor complained anonymously, and it was discovered that the motel owner had never submitted an application to erect the sign. He submitted one after the fact, but the Design Review Board turned it down because it added to “visual clutter.” The city ordered the motel owner to remove the sign.

Had any of the above property owners not complied with local ordinances, they would have been fined or jailed or both. These local governmental agencies had turned ordinary, innocent, and basically productive pursuits into criminal activities. Variations on these scenarios are being repeated daily in towns and cities throughout the country.

Government as protector of an individual’s right to live and work in freedom has been replaced by government as enforcer of rigid and arbitrary standards of esthetics and behavior. The great despotisms of the world are just larger versions of these little tyrannies.

—Wilma J. Moore

Santa Rosa, California

What If. . . ?

The other day I sat down to read the newspaper, as I usually do in the morning. As soon as I read through the first section, I knew it would be one of those “what if . . . ?” days. Every now and then i’m agitated by those kinds of thoughts—what if I were in that situation? Maybe you’ve had them, too.

Well, on this particular day I was reading about strikes, and quotas, and South Africa, and the West Bank, and the Contras, and Congress granting aid and giving money to this and that place and passing a law for something or other. Suddenly some tremendous “what ifs . . . ?” hit me. What if the U.S. government didn’t try to save the world with dollars; and what if politicians didn’t keep passing legislation to cure problems they caused in the first place?

I ventured on to the rest of the paper and through the day I was preoccupied with my “what ifs . . . ?” What if our military worried only about protecting us from foreign aggressors, rather than trying to defend the rest of the world? What if we were totally free to trade with less developed countries, exchanging much-needed capital for inexpensive labor services to raise living stan-dards in Third World countries, rather than watching Congress create “foreign aid” from tax revenues and public debt? Or, for that matter, what if foreigners could freely invest in the U.S. without the problems and restrictions of protective legislation? And what if the string-pullers on Capitol Hill finally realized that almost every time they get a bill passed, it’s just one more restriction on some citizens? Sure, it might benefit a limited constituency or pressure group, but who does it hurt? Let me tell you, I was on a roll . . . and I hadn’t even gotten to the deficit.

That was some “what if . . . ?” day I had. Yet, I think the bottom line for all my “what ifs . . . ?” is that I believe raising living standards and producing needed goods is an economic matter, not a concern for politicians. Living by basic, simple principles of economics makes for a stronger, healthier, and more fruitful society than any num ber of politicians can conjure up. Somehow the idea that someone in Washington can tell me how to work, what to eat, and who to do business with better than I can tell myself just doesn’t set right. But, maybe there’s something I missed and those people have a corner on what will happen in the future.

Unfortunately, my “what ifs . . . ?” probably will stay with me a long time, because I would like to understand why people choose to support political expediency and promote government interference in economic affairs. I would like to understand why people don’t see the benefits of principled economic activity on the market and vote for the limitation of governmental activity. So, I’ll keep reading the paper in the morning and struggling with my “what ifs . . . ?” and I’ll keep dreaming of my greatest “what if . . . ?”: What if we were left to hash out our own economic fate?

—Carl Helstrom

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