Thursday, March 8, 2018

Public Places, Public Spaces

     As time passes, I find myself more and more at odds with more and more of the doctrinaire statements issued by libertarians and libertarian organizations. A friend once opined that it was natural – that “we all get more conservative as we get older.” That does seem to be so, but it might not be the sole reason for my migration away from what I once held to be a comprehensive sociopolitical ideology.

     Most recently, I found that I was troubled by a statement, from a well known libertarian outreach organization, decrying a proposed law that would make the public wearing of “saggy pants” a ticketable offense. Its argument (such as it is) is “Who has the right to tell you how you should wear your pants?” If we leave wives, girlfriends, and public places out of the equation, the answer would seem simple. But perhaps things are not quite that simple once public places are dragged into the question.

     Laws about public dress and conduct go back several centuries at least. Many of them appear farcical to modern eyes. Several states once criminalized the wearing of pants by women. That certainly wouldn’t fly today. But other laws, such as laws that prohibit indecent exposure, remain on the books just about everywhere in the U.S., whether or not they’re enforced to any degree.

     Now, longevity is no determinant of justice or utility. However, it does suggest a direction in which to probe. That direction is one that troubles the pure libertarian greatly. It arises from the very existence of public property: yet another matter to which the pure libertarian is opposed.

     I once had a friend, a young woman I’ll call Jane, who was given to talking uninhibitedly about her paramours. (Why she did so to me remains unresolved. It might have been because there was absolutely no possibility of my ever becoming one of them.) At one time she told me of one whom she valued solely for his talents in bed. They spent almost no time together other than in the sack.

     “And you’re okay with that?” I said. “Don’t you ever feel a little used?”

     Jane shrugged. “It comes and goes.” She smirked. “Like Jeff.”

     As you can see, Jane was not without a sense of humor. But there was a certain insight in her witticism. We all come and go. Not the way “Jeff” did, of course, but in our daily lives. We travel hither and thither. We go to church, to work, to lunch; to the grocery store, to Pilates class – why anyone would want to be like him, I’ll never understand – to various social gatherings, and, hopefully, back home again. All this coming and going requires access to routes of travel.

     It doesn’t stop there. We all shop, now and then. Online shopping excepted, we find that our experience is most convenient and agreeable when stores are clustered into shopping centers or malls. That necessitates a certain quasi-public space around those stores: not precisely public, but possessing an implied right-of-access like that of literally public places.

     Public places aggregate us, willy-nilly, into collectives. They will always have rules about public dress and deportment. As I wrote last September,

I’m an individualist when I deal with individuals;
I’m a collectivist when I discuss collectives.
I’m a believer in individual liberty and justice for all.

     And so I shall remain.

     There are many things wrong with the profusion of public property as we know it today. Indeed, one of the libertarian’s most ardent desires is that public property should be minimized, if not eliminated altogether. Yet the complications that would arise from that state of affairs are considerable: not necessarily insuperable, mind you, but certainly yet to be resolved. However, while we must endure a scheme of ubiquitous public property, there will be laws about what will be tolerated from persons who traverse or use it.

     I’ve spoken of “connectedness problems” on many occasions. There’s a deep and intractable connectedness problem in this matter of public spaces and public deportment. As long as the former exists, so will laws about the latter. The need might even transcend the issue of public versus private property.

     A society in which the individual cannot conduct his affairs without being offended, harassed, or assaulted cannot retain cohesion. It will disintegrate at a rate proportional to the degree of defiance exhibited toward the prevailing sense of what’s proper. Norms about public dress and conduct are mandatory for that reason.

     An example: I hold that prostitution should be legalized. Yet I favor laws against solicitation in public places. Individual freedom matters. So do public standards of decorum. When individual freedom can be made compatible with public order in the interests of social harmony, there is no reason not to arrange for it.

     The fusionists have argued that this is always possible – that we can have both individual liberty and public order. I tend to agree. At least, I’ve heard no counterexamples yet.

     The thinking above is the logical development of the core ideas presented in this long essay. It also finds expression in this piece, which is more relevant today than ever. I’m willing to discuss cases, but not if I must endure name-calling, derision, or contempt. Do your thinking before you hurl your epithets.


Linda Fox said...

Oh, Thank God! Someone not overly prudish also thinks that mandating at least minimal covering of the privates in public is a good thing.

The last thing I want to see, when seated at a restaurant table, is someone's who-haws dangling in my face.

Glenn Stone said...

The owners of the mall should have the inailable right to set the rules of deportment on their property.
In a neck breaking change of topic.
What do you think of box diagrams as an aid to teaching young skulls ful of mush how to code 'PROPERLY'.sneer quotes from an 83 ye ar old assembly language programmer who loved to write jumps to the middle of code just to save a few cycles.i think I wrote a self modifyIng program that is lurking somewhere only to emerge..
It takes a heap 'o homin' to make a pigeon toed.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Well, Glenn, as a former assembly-language and microcode slinger, I'd say that "young skulls full of mush" are probably a total loss from the get-go. I was once responsible for training young software engineers, and I discovered that many of them had never learned how to think. They couldn't sustain a line of logic for more than two or three seconds without haring off into the weeds. I was only able to salvage a minority of them; what became of the rest, I cannot say and, in all candor, don't care to know.

The great problem in the software arts is how pathetically unprepared are most who come to it. The ability to think linearly -- to conceive of processes, decisions, and mandatory consequences -- is a prerequisite. It's why most of the top performers in the trade came to it from some other field -- a field in which they had to learn how to think.

I could go on, but this isn't the proper place for it, so I'll spare you.