Liddick: Social justice |

Liddick: Social justice

I have a friend who lives in a community with a homeowners’ association. Let’s call him Tom. He always swore he would never live in such a place, where one’s ability to paint one’s house chartreuse or hot pink was constrained not only by a robust helping of good sense, but also by written agreements which took into account the fact that one’s avant-garde fashion sense could have a deleterious effect on the neighborhood. He always maintained that his house was his property, to be disposed as he saw fit.

Then the state of West Virginia moved in next door, and deposited 20 years of detritus in the front yard. Tom rapidly developed a sense of the necessity for regulation, particularly when confronted with people who refuse to regulate themselves.

This refusal to comport with even the remotest likeness of social norms, traditions or customs is one of the standard variations on the Problem of the Commons: the profligate use of a public resource (a decent view, in Tom’s case) for private benefit, without regard to the claims others might have on the same resource. It is also a case of a concentrated interest (West Virginia’s desire for an uncluttered house, perhaps) being more compelling to action than a diffuse interest (the neighbors’ desire for a view unsullied by trash). Absent action by government – yes, a HOA is a species of government – this sort of abuse will worsen and spread, as everyone seeks to seize as much as they can of a diminishing resource. Eventually, there’s nothing left.

A variation of this problem occurs when government itself provides a “commons” in form of a “safety net.” Before the twentieth century, individual welfare was not seen as a function of government and even when the progressive era made it one, reticence at being seen as a charity case stayed many from accepting public assistance. Over time this sense of pride has dissolved to the point that one’s situation is no longer seen as being one’s own responsibility. Instead, blame others: parents, teachers, colleagues, Wall Street, Greedy Bankers, Congress. And when all else fails, George Bush.

Straightened circumstances no longer provoke the question “what can I do to better my situation?” Instead the immediate concern is how deeply one may insinuate one’s hand into the pockets of others in order to satisfy one’s desires. Done individually, this is called robbery; done under government auspices, it is known as “social justice.” In this case, the government, which should be a regulator of the use of the tax-revenue commons, is actually the chief means of its despoilment.

At their base, both of these problems share a single cause: the infinite nature of human wants, and the unwillingness or inability of some to accept limitations on their appetites while our political leaders willingly stoke the increasingly popular persona of the state-as-open-handed-nanny. The latter is behind the proliferating spectacles of bankers, oil executives, politicians – a regular cavalcade of those formerly known as Masters of the Universe – standing in circles, each one pointing to the left and crying “twas him!” when the question of fault arises.

Yes, these are hard times. Not so hard, perhaps as those at the end of the 19th century, when the unemployment rate was 20 percent, for five years, or in the 1930s, when government policies likely made the Great Depression deeper and longer. But hard times. Whether they are hard enough to justify Jared Polis’ willingness to pillage my wallet to buy vegan meals for schoolchildren who could not otherwise afford them is another question. And why the resources of those who are productive, successful and prudent are subject to raids by governments intent on granting benefits to those who are none of these remains something of a mystery. As is what will happen when the goose that lays these golden eggs is finally cooked.

More than a hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt announced the arrival of the progressive era with the comment that we needed “new ways of doing things” in response to radical changes in our country at the end of the nineteenth century. Considering the parlous condition of our current economy and the divisions implicit in perpetuating social divisions through confiscating assets from one class to buy the votes of another, it might now be time to consider new approaches once again. A return to limited government and constitutionalism, for example.

What a radical concept.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at Also, comment on this column at

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