All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1992

Three’s a Crowd

Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he wrote this article, is now a writer and historian, specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.

My landlord, Luigi, is a tiny old man from Italy. He speaks poor English, and likes to make jokes that nobody can understand. No one who lives in his building would deny that he is cheap. The plumbing and electrical systems in the building are ancient, and though they work, he patches them together with chewing gum and spit. It took him almost five years to admit that the water-heating system needed to be replaced. The mailboxes are ancient, too small, and at least a few are broken and cannot be fixed.

Yet, the building is not a slum tenement. Tt is clean, neat, reasonably well kept, and a decent place to live.

My apartment is on the top floor. Because of this I usually get the least heat. The second year I lived there, Luigi installed storm windows for my apartment, without a request, since he knew that to heat my apartment properly he would either have to raise the building’s thermostat too high for everyone else, or make my apartment more heat efficient. He made the most cost-effective decision, which was perfectly acceptable to me.

Last winter, I was working at home when I got a telephone call from Luigi. He was in a panic. Since his English is so bad, I had trouble understanding him. Something about my complaining about the heat.

I didn’t know what he was talking about. The heat, never great, is good enough. I don’t have the time or interest to complain if the temperature in my apartment is 68 degrees instead of 72. Why be petty about these things? Luigi does the best he can.

Eventually I was able to learn from him that someone had called the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s heat and housing complaint telephone line, using my name, and had complained that the heat in my apartment was too low. To Luigi, this could mean fines, government inspection, and endless hassles.

I hadn’t complained. If Luigi did not provide me with adequate heat, I would take the issue to him directly. This had always worked in the past. It got the plumbing fixed, and it got my apartment painted on time.

Luigi told me that a city heating inspector would visit me, and he begged me to deny the complaint. “Sure,” I said.

When the heating inspector came, he had an official clipboard and an official “I’m here to save you” attitude. He asked me a lot of questions, some of which I considered none of the city’s business. Even though I told him I had no complaints about the heat and had never called the Housing Department, now that he was there he felt he had the fight to pry into the situation. Eventually I got him to go away.

I was offended by this third party’s interference in my personal affairs. What business is it of a government agency how much heat my landlord provides?

Worse, I was disgusted that some unknown third party could cause so many problems by calling the Housing Department in my name. I was reminded of Orwell’s 1984 (as well as Soviet Russia), where people could report on their neighbors simply because they didn’t like them.

My lease is a contractual agreement between my landlord and me. When I moved into this building, I agreed to pay him rent for the space, and he agreed to provide heat and maintain the building. I did not make this contractual agreement with the New York City government, nor with any other third party lurking about trying to save me from myself. If I couldn’t get my landlord to give me heat, I would move out. No one makes me live where I do.

This points to the fundamental problem with government interference in our private lives. Many human interactions take place between two people, face to face. By asking the government to police the situation, we bring in a third party whose interests and motives are not linked to the problem. In addition, by giving power to such a third party, we remove responsibility from the two main parties (in this case, my landlord and me).

If tenants sit back and expect the government to protect them, too often they will find themselves abused by landlords. No government has the resources to police every contractual agreement. This has to be the responsibility of the individual citizen. Or as it used to be said, “Let the buyer beware.”

When I was a child, it was considered bad form to run to my parents for help when I had an argument with friends. To whine, “He hit me!” was not a solution. I was taught that we must learn to resolve conflicts peaceably among ourselves.

For our society to function in a healthy manner, we must abandon this notion that a third party (i.e., the government) can resolve our differences. This notion allows each of us a convenient escape from responsibility. Like little children, we go running for help, whining, “He didn’t give me enough heat!” “He was racist, and called me names!” “She didn’t rent me her house!” “He harassed me!” And on and on.

We must deal with each other, face to face, and not run for help. Most human interactions don’t require interference by the police. Two people, with respect and common dignity, can usually settle their differences if left alone. And in a free society, if they cannot settle their differences they usually go their own ways.

Or as Thomas Jefferson said, “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”