For some time, I have been pitching a schema that relates society, economy, and polity. The goal of this device is to explore ways of keeping issues away from the polity, as small government advocates have been proposing.
In Grants Pass, Oregon, I may have found the limiting case. To the embarrassment of Oregonians who live up north in the Willamette Valley, this piece was published in the New York Times. I’d like to reflect on it a little. My plan is to look at the way it is being characterized by several participants, who are quoted in the story. Then, I would like to put it on the small government grid and see how it looks.
The story, in brief, is that Josephine County, Oregon has not taxed itself to provide what are often called “law and order services.” For our purposes, that’s a sheriff’s department, enough deputies to do the work, and a jail to put people who need to be put there. The recent levy would have raised Josephine County’s property taxes from $0.59 per $1000 of property value, Oregon’s lowest, to $1.48 per thousand for the next three years. It failed.
This brings the manpower of the Sheriff’s office to a total of one (1) and makes the jail unusable for most of the usual purposes. Some of the residents of the county like that just fine. Some others are troubled by it. It does sharply raise the question of what government is for and what the alternatives are.
Let’s start with Sam Nichols and Glenn Woodbury. They serve on “citizen crime patrols.” These are vigilante groups, I imagine, since they have no authority. The group they represent, Citizens Against Crime, says that the county’s financial troubles are having two distinct and beneficial effects. The first is that they are strengthening the community. I’d guess that means that the armed citizens who patrol the community feel very good about each other and it may mean that the people they protect feel good about them as well. The second is that this do it yourself law enforcement shows that, in fact, the job can get done without any increase in property taxes.
Except for the uneasiness I feel which led me to use the word vigilante, I’d have to say that these two claims sound good. Let’s look at some other perspectives.
Keith O. Heck, a county commissioner, said he fears that the county could break apart into balkanized camps of self-government, each on its own lookout, if a fix to the problem is not found soon.
This fear is completely compatible with the satisfaction of Citizens Against Crime. A county is an official unit of government. Within the county, the “balkanized camps” Heck is worried about are exactly the same as the “communities” Sam Nichols and Glenn Woodbury are serving. In this vision, every “community” arms some of its members and protects those members against other groups. By that means, the county is balkanized into groups that are not only self-governing, but fully armed.
The question arises, however, of what to do with people you catch in the middle of an attempted burglary. Do you shoot them? Do you wait until they try to escape and then shoot them? You can’t put them in jail because the jail is closed. And that’s just burglary. How about public order?
“We have homeless people sitting in the alleyway — they drink, urinate, defecate, fornicate — whatever they can get away with,” he said. And a ticket or citation from a police officer? They laugh and stay put. “They don’t care — they know there’s nowhere to put them,” he said.
That’s from Jack Ingvaldson, the owner of the Grants Pass Liquor Store. Presumably these activities are violations of public order. In Portland, they would be warned a couple of times and if it continued, they would wind up in jail. But then, we still have a jail in Portland
“I hold my breath, every day, for everything,” said Sheriff Gil Gilbertson in an interview in his office, where images of John Wayne lined the walls.
At grocery stores in Grants Pass, stopping and citing shoplifters — sometimes with whole carts of beer or food in tow — have become part of the daily law enforcement routine.
The one Sheriff’s deputy available for general calls in Josephine County might not be at every grocery store that is being robbed. They will not likely continue to watch as “whole carts of beer or food” leave their stores without having made the customary stop at the cash register. What’s next? Armed guards at the groceries? Shooting shoplifters? Remember that you can’t arrest them, because there’s no place to put them.
What to do? I have been using a model in which the social arrangements we make (the society is the blue oval), the economic arrangements we make (the economy is the green oval) and the political arrangements we make (the polity is the red rectangle) are shown together. The goal of small government fans is to keep issues successfully in the society and the economy. You keep them there by preventing anyone from appealing to “outside forces,” i.e., the polity.
As applied to the Grants Pass situation, it means that people who want these crime issues to remain in the non-governmental areas—that’s the society and the economy in this chart—need to find a way to prevent appeals to Sheriff’s Office. That means that people will need to prevent violations of community norms. No one will be hanging around the liquor store getting drunk, urinating, defecating, and fornicating because doing that would violate community standards of behavior. In every strong community, those internalized standards are the first line of defense. That hasn’t worked in Grants Pass according to Mr. Ingvaldson, so he just might appeal to the government to deal with the issue, particularly if potential customers are afraid to come to his store. So this problem is not contained within the society; it is appealed to the polity where there are laws and the necessary funding to enforce them.
No one will deny, I suppose that, the sale of groceries is a part of the economy. Economic problems like watered stock, noncompliance with contract demands and, of course, theft, could be dealt with by the merchants themselves. This is precisely how the saloons were run in ten thousand western dramas of which the Virgil Cole series by James Patterson are my current favorite. Virgil is hired by the owner of the saloon to keep order. When threats don’t work, Virgil shoots someone and they throw the body out into the street. And it doesn’t require any tax dollars. The saloon owner provides the means to protect his own space and his own profits.
If they can’t do that in Grants Pass, they will have to appeal to government to do it. This is, again, a loss for the small government proponents because the issue escapes from the economic sphere and gravitates to the polity, where authority resides and where tax dollars are spent.
Even a small government enthusiast might conclude that Josephine County has gone too far. While it is true, as these theorists always say, that things are better when they are handled closer to home—meaning the society, where standards of decency prevail, and the economy, where contracts are honored—even they will have to say that things are not being handled at all and the time for bigger government has arrived.
The idea is that people who want issues to remain in the non-governmental areas—that’s the society and the economy in this chart—need to find a way to prevent appeals to government. That means that people will need to prevent violations of community norms. No one will be hanging around the liquor store getting drunk, urinating, defecating, and fornicating because doing that would violate community standards of behavior. In every strong community, those internalized standards are the first line of defense. That hasn’t worked in Grants Pass according to Mr. Ingvaldson, so he just might appeal to the government to deal with the issue, particularly if potential customers are afraid to come to his store. So this problem is not contained within the society; it is appealed to the polity where there are laws and the necessary funding to enforce them.