Friday, October 23, 2009

The Laws of the Uncivilized

Some time ago, my local newspaper published a letter to the editor calling for harsher treatment of people that kept dogs that harmed or threatened others. The writer suggested an escalating scale for repeated offenses. The severity of the suggested punishments, the writer felt, would provide a disincentive to owning a dangerous dog in a residential area.

Another reader responded to the letter, stating that additional laws would not bring the civility that the letter writer craved and that the proliferation of such laws was itself a measure of how uncivilized we have become.

That response sounded familiar. It kept running through my head until I finally googled for it and I found this article by Walter Williams. He writes:
“A civilized society's first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions and moral values. Behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. The failure to fully transmit values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of the so-called greatest generation.

“Behavior accepted as the norm today would have been seen as despicable yesteryear. …

“Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we've become.”
I note that some of this article was quoted by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in his LDS General Conference address a few weeks ago.

Addressing Incivility
I agree that the proliferation of laws intended to induce civility are actually a measure of our incivility as a society and that such laws will not ultimately make us more civilized. I think there is probably plenty of variation in concepts of what the ideal civilized society would look like. Even if we could share a common vision of this, the question of how to deal with the immediate situation would still have to be addressed.

The respondent to the letter writer further stated that if his neighbors were intent on keeping dangerous dogs, he was confident that he would be able to use his legal concealed weapon to dispatch such animals if they proved a threat. He suggested that others likewise arm themselves in order to ensure a civil society.

I have no problem with people responsibly carrying a legal concealed weapon. (Responsible parties would not include people like the guy that accidentally shot a toilet in a Carl’s Jr. to pieces in Centerville, Utah last January, as reported in this D-News article.) But the ‘civilized’ society imagined by the letter respondent doesn’t sound very civilized to me.

I’m not sure that turning everyone into a gun slinger is the answer. I’m having difficulty imagining what the letter respondent thinks I should do when my kids want to go outside to play. Hopefully he wouldn’t think that it would be appropriate for me to arm my children, but maybe he thinks that I should either act as their armed bodyguard or else should hire such a service to watch over them.

Or maybe he thinks that I should just be prepared to hire a lawyer to sue anyone whose dangerous dog gets out, as if the proliferation of lawyers isn’t just another symptom of the societal illness he already diagnosed.

Dog Story
These are not rhetorical questions. We live in a lovely middle class neighborhood. (No McMansions here.) There are lots of families, so there are lots of children at play during certain times of day.

My wife used to go walking in our neighborhood early in the day. One day as she walked, a neighbor had let two large dogs (Boxer breed) out into the unfenced yard to relieve themselves unattended and unleashed. This is illegal in our city. Completely unprovoked, the dogs charged down the street and viciously confronted my wife.

Sensing real mortal danger, my wife did everything she had been taught about dealing with such situations. She avoided looking the animals in the eye and stood silently. Still, the dogs approached her with lowered tails, barred teeth, harsh growls and barks, and menacing body language.

Finally, the owner came out of the house to bring the dogs back inside. When he finally called the dogs back, one trotted toward him. The other turned toward him, but then turned back on my wife, who had not moved a muscle, and lunged at her. It turned out to be a false charge. The dog was letting her know who was in charge of the situation.

Since that time, my wife has not walked the neighborhood much. The police had a chat with the dogs’ owner and issued a warning, but the situation left my wife rattled.

Reality vs. Idealism
I suppose that if my wife were like the letter writer, she would arm herself to go out walking. But I think that even an expert marksman would have difficulty successfully shooting and disabling two vicious dogs at close range before one of them had him.

I believe that when we choose to live in a residential community, we accept certain limitations on our behavior in order to optimize conditions. Such restraint ultimately garners more benefits for us than would acting out our whims in an unbridled fashion. The question is how to deal with those that refuse to impose such necessary restraint on themselves.

While no amount of law making and compliance enforcement can create a civil society, this does not mean that we can stand idly by while a few wreck the community for all. Nor does it mean that becoming a self appointed compliance officer will remedy the situation.

If internal moral values and cultural sanctions do not cause people to refrain from behavior that poses unacceptable risks for their neighbors, it is necessary to implement policies that create disincentives to such behavior. I know that in the ideal libertarian utopia, these kinds of coercive restraints would be unnecessary. But in the real world where we live — a world where some people seem to think that owning vicious pets in a residential area is a good idea — they appear to be necessary.

Yes, I know that this kind of thing leads down an awful slippery slope, but does anyone have any truly feasible better ideas?


Charles D said...

"If internal moral values and cultural sanctions do not cause people to refrain from behavior that poses unacceptable risks for their neighbors, it is necessary to implement policies that create disincentives to such behavior."

Now if we could only get Congress to take this attitude with the Wall Street banks...

Scott Hinrichs said...

I think that many politicians take this concept way too far, taking such an extreme view of what constitutes unacceptable risks to one's neighbors that they perpetuate the nanny state. They see themselves as our mommies and daddies rather than as our representatives. (To be sure, many members of the electorate welcome this.) Also, there is a significant difference in implementing such things at the local level as opposed to a state or federal level.

Charles D said...

It seems to me that the nanny state is typified by the government covering the losses of bankers and insurance companies and manufacturers when they go belly up because of dumb decisions and fraud. Dean Baker, the economist, has described this well.

If the government through some magic became "of the people, by the people and for the people", then we the people could use it to make our lives better. That after all, is the reason governments are formed in the first place.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Indeed, privatizing gain while socializing costs is typical of the nanny state.