Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who's Your Nanny?

We hear a lot of complaints these days about how America is turning into a "Nanny State." The staggering number of laws, rules, regulations, ordinances, and legislation that our society generates can make it feel as though our lives are being manipulated and suffocated by the government.

Take, for example, the plethora of zoning regulations that exist in most of our municipalities. Here in Arlington, Texas, we have laws governing every sign, from garage sale signs to billboards. Grass gets regulated - both the illegal kind, and the stuff that grows in your lawn (and you're really in trouble if they're both the same thing.) No matter how old your house is, zoning ordinances govern what materials you use if you need to construct an addition.

A neighbor up the street wanted to build a new garage on the very back of his brick house.  Even though the addition wouldn't be visible from the street, however, the city insisted he use brick instead of wood siding. The homeowner got signed agreements from all of his neighbors approving of the siding, but no; the city insisted on brick, because that was the code. What wasn't in the code was the fact that since the house was several decades old, the customized brick originally used for its construction is no longer available. So the garage actually looks stranger with the closely-matched brick than it would with appropriately-painted siding.

At least we can't see it from the street!

Laws are Born from Somebody's Bad Behavior

Upon first glance, it all sounds so silly and intrusive, doesn't it? Good grief; if you're paying your mortgage and your taxes, what right does the city have to tell you what your house can look like? Especially an improvement that won't be seen from the street? And aren't they nitpicking by confiscating innocent garage sale signs by the side of the road?

Yes... and, no.

One of the reasons cities like Arlington have so many zoning codes stems from the discouraging reality that not everybody is interested in maintaining their property. Not everybody has the requisite common sense to draw a correlation between personal responsibility and infringing on the general population's sensibilities.

After all, most reasonable people know what adequately-manicured lawns are supposed to look like. We don't like signs plastered everyplace, or under-used RVs and boats languishing on front lawns. Civilization as we know it won't come to a screeching halt if your Christmas lights stay up all year long, but your ambivalence about neighborhood aesthetics won't do civilization any favors, either.

Will it?

Here in my old central Arlington 'hood, a number of us - and yes, I'm included - have grown weary of people moving in to our aging houses and, through their ambivalence, proving why zoning laws are necessary. Oddly enough, the elderly and less-financially-robust of us aren't the ones neglecting their property. No, the eyesores are owned by people who simply don't care. Not that we're an exclusive enclave by any means. But neither do we want to get as dumpy as other neighborhoods near ours have gotten.

Just because we're a solid middle-class subdivision doesn't mean we don't expect certain standards to be kept. Do you really think nobody's going to hear the whinnying of the horse you're hiding in your backyard? Why do you think we get upset about the engine you've got dangling from a tree in your front yard?

Seriously. This ain't Arkansas.

Sometimes, There's Value in Conformity

The greatest argument for building standards and codes involves the preservation of property values, which of course, benefits both the homeowner when it comes time to sell, and the city in terms of taxes it can collect. And just as home sellers in your neighborhood compete with homesellers in other neighborhoods, cities also compete for economic viability. Some people sniff at codes as merely tools to enhance the snob factor of a community, but the basic financial benefit of codes can't be ignored.

But would we need all of these rules, regulations, and codes if everybody subscribed to the same set of expectations within a given community? Think about it: All it takes is a few people who lack accountability to spawn all sorts of laws meant to bring them in line with basic standards.

And it's not just neighborhood livability that all sorts of laws have been designed to protect. If this essay has sounded like so much intolerance, rigidity, conformity, and foolishness to you, then consider the bigger picture here.  Are you frustrated by the myriad regulations governing Wall Street, our aviation industry, and the foods and medicines we consume?  What if businesspeople acted with integrity on behalf of our entire society and didn't try to cut corners?  How many protections would our government be compelled to create then? If industries could rely on their participating companies to operate ethically and self-police themselves, by how many fewer laws could they be bound?

We Lose Freedom When We Disrespect Others

Our Nanny State hasn't evolved solely because a bunch of bureaucrats have succeeded in crafting job security for themselves. Do you really think most politicians like being squeezed by their constituents who are advocating for or against something that used to be unregulated? Sure, most all cultures have hyper busy-bodies agitated over things they think should or shouldn't be done for all sorts of reasons, and you'd probably throw me into that group.

But you have to admit it: with human behavior being what it is, the Nanny State has taken the place of personal responsibility.  And not just because our government has lusted after that role.

The practical side of me thinks many of our laws, rules, and codes should be unnecessary. But the cynical side of me suspects that those same regulations are probably necessary, considering how spoiled, selfish, calloused, and greedy many of us are.

If we all took greater responsibility for the way our lifestyles and choices impact those around us, we could enjoy far fewer laws, regulations, and even taxes.  Unfortunately, the more that trust within a society erodes, the more protections people feel they need to mitigate that loss of trust.  It's the same with gates and fences - freedom to roam gets restricted by gates and fences when you make a habit of trespassing.

As it is, somebody has to protect you from me. And me from you.

That's where we enter... the Nanny zone.
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