Who gets to do what, to whom, and why?

By | January 21, 2013

nodrama4In the context of today’s inauguration of another four years of the current administration, with a virtual guarantee of more years of irreconcilable arguments about who in this society gets to do what to whom, and when, it might be reasonable to drop back a few and reconsider the basic premise of this kind of governance. In particular, the concept of “federalism”, under which your behavior is subject to various forms of coercion or license depending on geography, ought to be reconsidered. Our world is now characterized by rapid travel, total communication integration and feedback, and a large degree of global cultural homogeneity. What we call “states” and “nations”are entirely arbitrary constructions, most often derived from long-forgotten political wheeling and dealing. They ought not to be empowered to oppress their residents even if some considerable fraction of the residents agree that they ought to be so oppressed. The whole idea that one’s privileges as a citizen are subject to review and differential control based on the sole variable of “physical residence” in a particular place on the globe ought to be subject to serious critique. The residents of Minnesota have no ability or authority to constrain the residents of Indiana or even California – why should they have that ability with regard to residents of Minnesota?

We have come as a nation to realize that for certain basic human rights – access to education, travel, etc. – there are national standards of decency that trump the ability of states to create barriers to their implementation. But for an endless range of less visible citizen choices, alternatives are still arbitrarily constrained by states and localities for no visible reasons. Part of the cost of living in any place, it seems, is the acceptance of behavioral do’s and don’ts prescribed and proscribed by some fraction of the residents, often those entirely dead. By what twisted political logic does this make sense? Why should one’s decision to establish residence at any particular set of geographical coordinates be constrained by the political prejudices of one’s neighbors? Even worse, why should the political prejudices (AKA “community standards”) of one area be allowed to be imposed on residents of entirely different areas (as has happened with pornography prosecutions in a number of cases)?

It’s all to easy to dismiss these kinds of regulations as arbitrary stupidity perpetrated by stupid officials. But the fact is that each of these little exercises of administrative stupidity cost untold amounts of resources and civic aggravation, at a time in our history when we really can’t afford to waste so much. Public evisceration with a rusty ice cream scoop as a penalty for the exercise of official stupidity might possibly deter such actions in future. But might it not be better to go to the source and drastically reduce the power of local citizens to oppress their brethren and sistern in most matters of public and private behavior? The fact that behavior on one side of a state line is legal and on the other side illegal has long been a subject for amusement. Perhaps it’s time that we stopped being amused and seriously examine the political and social premises on which such absurdities rest.