I once had a neighbor who called the police on the family living next to her. This family was not accused of a heinous crime; no children were at risk, no abuse was happening, and nobody was blasting Taylor Swift at 3 a.m.
The neighbor was reporting that the other family’s weeds were too tall.
While it’s true that the vexatious vegetation was longer than socially acceptable for a residential area, the reliance on law enforcement to address the perceived problem provides an anecdotal illustration of how government intervention erodes community.
While individual rights are important, community is as well. We are social creatures, and our interdependency necessitates that we work with, and live near, other people. Government exists essentially for this purpose — in theory, at least, to help keep the peace between each person.
But relying on government to solve our problems for us effectively entails enlisting a third party to do what we should do ourselves. Calling the cops over large weeds forces a wedge between neighbors who could resolve their conflict directly and personally, thereby removing a barrier between them. Enlisting law enforcement only adds another one.
Consider the relationship between a husband and wife. As any married couple knows, conflict and disagreement will occur. Now imagine how ludicrous it would be for the husband to hire an attorney to mediate any dispute, only speaking to his wife through legal counsel. This would alienate the wife, weaken the relationship and undermine the marriage.
If we care about healthy communities where we support, interact with and live peacefully among one another, we have to shoulder more of the societal burden ourselves, directly, rather than pushing it onto a third party agent to handle on our behalf.
Additional examples may help clarify my point. Federal, state and local governments spend almost 1 trillion taxpayer dollars each year on welfare-related programs, creating a massive bureaucracy that takes money from some people to redistribute it to others. This indirect reallocation of wealth separates the recipient from the “giver” (a term that must be put in quotes, of course, because these are not free-will offerings).
Contrast this arrangement against situations where the giver and recipient know one another. The recipient is accountable for his or her actions, and is incentivized to not waste what is given. The giver sees the impact of his or her offering, and gains satisfaction from being able to improve another person’s life. This voluntary reallocation of wealth brings them together, creating a bond that is mutually beneficial.
A person on the “dole” has very little accountability and isn't incentivized to become independent. And taxpayers do not see the effects of the money taken from them, thereby resenting the system and those it purportedly serves. This grows government and helps some people, but in the aggregate it erodes community by depriving us of the social benefits of helping one another more directly.
This example was illustrated most tragically in the recent fight over where to place a homeless shelter in Salt Lake County. As various locations were proposed by government officials, residents in those areas banded together to shout, effectively, “not in my backyard.” Photos from the various town halls highlight the anger and vitriol that surfaced throughout the process; government control of the situation had pitted neighbors against one another.
One can hardly look at these “communities” during the site selection process and see any resemblance of community.
What if, instead, church leaders, local officials, business owners and others formed an independent working group to pool resources and conduct outreach, to persuade their neighbors to step forward and help? What if voluntary efforts were prioritized over mandates from the government?
What if we helped one another, rather than waiting for the government to do it for us? Then, perhaps, we might have more vibrant communities reflecting civic virtue, integrity, compassion and kindness — the values most of us want to instill in our children.
Let’s show the next generation of Utahns how it’s done by putting our shoulder to the wheel more often, rather than defaulting to enlisting the government’s assistance. Too often, the intervention of the state creates more problems than it solves.
Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute.