The unguarded life is unsustainable

Guard thyself.

Americans are learning a powerful lesson right now. A community of public trust isn’t the natural state of things, especially not at the complex level inherent in modern urban life.  It depends on the constant supervision of qualities our society has been busy making fun of and rebelling against for at least the last 45 years.

Here is the example that got me thinking about it recently.  Victor Davis Hanson wrote last week, as he has several times, about the rampant property theft in his area of California.  People come onto his property uninvited in order to scope out the equipment he has installed on it, and then come back later to steal the stuff.  Nothing can be left out unattended.

He lives in the Central Valley, where illegals roam, farms have been failing due to the artificial drought imposed by state and federal water policies, and unemployment is higher than almost anywhere else in the nation.  I’ve driven through the area on Highway 99; although I don’t know the situation of his particular property, the principal impression the traveling driver takes from Selma, California (which passes fleetingly on the way to Fresno) is of farmhouses set close to widening country roads and a lot of suburban encroachment on a once-rural landscape.  This pattern – extension of the suburbs into farmland, the chopping up of farms and the loss of a rural lifestyle – is recognizable to a very large number of Americans, I think.  Certainly it is to me.

The rural-suburban intersection is a vulnerable spot, and particularly so in a southern-border state.  Urban concentrations of some size are required to attract people to what Hanson correctly calls a “parasitic” lifestyle.  And a rural environment close by makes a handy redoubt for it.  One of the chief features of the rural side is the light footprint of law enforcement.  It’s usually the province of the county sheriff in such areas, and sheriff departments notoriously lag population development in funding and size.

The question for people in Hanson’s position is really whether to look to the urban model for relief, or to the traditional rural model.  In the urban model, police are relatively plentiful and a short drive away.  This doesn’t result in perfect protection, by any means, but property crime will routinely get attention from law enforcement, including follow-through and attempts at deterrence.

In the rural model, by contrast, the local citizens think about crime and their relation to law and order differently.  Whereas an urban dweller who hears someone outside her window calls 911, the rural citizen – very often at the behest of her dog – gets her shotgun.  In many cases, the rural citizen will induce the intruder to run away merely by pressing the slide release to chamber a round, which makes a very identifiable noise.  Rural dwellers are no more anxious than their urban confreres to kill or wound property thieves; they know, however, that active deterrence is a necessity out where no one can hear them holler.

It occurred to me, reading through the original Hanson post and the comments, that America has reached the stage at which even parts of our rural community have forgotten the utter ordinariness of taking their own security precautions.  The old-fashioned perspective on this was not dictated in the past by the accidents of distance from law enforcement, or specific crime waves.  It was part and parcel of a philosophy, in which the sanctity of a citizen’s life and property were foundational elements of the culture, not artifacts of state policy.   A self-protecting posture was simple prudence, predicated on an idea of the citizen as the basic unit of society.

The family functions as society’s first and most basic authority structure, and the citizen’s relation to his property is the basic model of the human phenomenon of property.  In the American philosophy, the individual citizen is the “principal.”  Property exists at all because he has earned and obtained claim to it, in a voluntary process from which he and his fellows derive benefit.  It is not conferred on him by the government; government is his agent in regularizing his title to it.  Inherent to the responsibility of property is protecting it, and in this, too, the government is an agent, and not the principal.

In an urban or urbanizing setting, it’s easy for people to forget this idea.  We come to think there is no alternative to what the police are willing or able to do to protect our property.  We think of the unguarded life as normal, and of crime as a city problem that makes police necessary, rather than as a human problem that makes precaution and vigilance necessary.

But an Arcadian vision of the American past, in which farmers never had to worry about crime or human predators, is a myth.  When people in less-populated, rural or quasi-rural areas have to take their own security precautions, that in itself is not a sign of civilizational breakdown.  The breakdown, if there is one, will be evident if the people as a whole don’t appreciate and quickly revert to their inherent right and responsibility to protect themselves.

There are certainly big things wrong with America.  If our borders were secured better, the problems in Hanson’s county would not be nearly so pressing.  If our cultural institutions had not been dedicated for the last half-century to demonizing and tearing down the traditional arrangements of society, which discourage the development of a criminal underclass, we would have a more effective societal attitude about crime today.  These things are unquestionably important.

But it all starts with how each individual citizen sees himself in relation to survival and property.  Do we have an inherent right to defend both?  Or do we only have the options the government is willing and able to make available?  If we don’t have the former, what is the basis for defining the latter?  Why protect life and property at all?  If the individual is not meaningful enough to justify protecting himself and what he has, then on what basis does the government undertake to do it?  And if we let the government define the extent to which we are to be protected – this far, and no farther – what does that make us?  In what relation to us does that put our government?

Citizens who fend for themselves approach the whole proposition of government with a moral certainty about their worth and authority that a less self-reliant people cannot know.  And when it comes to fixing the big problems that contribute to the bad patterns in the San Joaquin Valley – insecure borders, the effective promotion of illegal immigration, the corruption of society – a weak, importunate citizenry will not force a high-handed government to change its character.  That kind of citizenry will instead sell more and more of its discretion over itself to an ever-larger government:  the “liberty for security” bargain, which destroys both.

In the project of guarding ourselves, government is a practical arrangement, not a god dispensing favors.  We cannot live an unguarded life indefinitely:  a life in which we do not have to understand the ubiquity of predation and take precautions against it.  When we have torn down one societal retaining wall after another, the predation is more and more likely to show up on our doorstep.  Guarding what we have spent a lifetime working for is not an unnatural burden; it is simple responsibility.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.


19 thoughts on “The unguarded life is unsustainable”

  1. Another line of defense in rural communities (also in well organized urban communities) is “the neighbors” who can dispense penalties for bad behavior that the law can’t touch. An instance from a small town in Wisconsin: An older man dated and then married the rebellious 18-year-old daughter of a leading citizen, People thought there was something wrong with this, but they were willing to give him a second chance. Then he was seen hanging around the high school after dances. Suddenly his boss terminated his job and his landlord evicted him. The town was troubled with him no longer.
    Or as a MIssourian told me about a former neighbor, “He was always showing up with expensive things all of a sudden. So people started making it hard for him and he moved out.”
    This kind of community defense has been widely condemned over the last thirty years; now urban police departments are trying to recover it by means of exhortations and “community meetings.” Yet still opposition to illegal immigration is condemned as bigoted or completely impractical.

  2. Police aren’t the answer, they’re just another gang, one subsidized by the taxpayers, as anybody that follows the news at all realizes. There probably isn’t a police or sheriff’s department of any size in the country that hasn’t recently had serious corruption issues. And this isn’t anything new, as Lincoln Steffens documented over a century ago. The contemporary problem is a law enforcement effort patterned after the military, with military issue clothing, weaponry and tactics, where individuals that haven’t been charged with a crime or even arrested can be executed on the spot. If that’s what it takes to secure our property, in addition to the incarceration of more people than ever before anywhere, then what’s the use? Our civilization, such as it is, has failed.

    1. hey chuck, why stop there? maybe it’s not just our civilization. maybe the whole idea of civilization is absurd.

      police do wrong so often because there’s no justice in this world and the idea of justice is foreign from the hearts of men to the extent that men can not agree as to what justice is.

      all authority is arbitrary and illegitimate. societal prohibitions are baseless. nothing is malum in se.

      hope that cheered you up, chuck.

  3. Megatron agrees. Thomas Sowell has written in the same vein and this eloquent survey would make him proud.

    Is the “unsustainable” in the title of the piece a poke at “Agenda 21” and “sustainability?”

    Lincoln Steffens had nothing but contempt for your hardworking average American who he felt was responsible for “the problem” because he tolerated it. On the other hand, Steffers had pure love for the wicked and evil men who take by force and do not allow for law or procedure. Whatever Steffens said, I would take with a grain of salt. Many of the criticisms of his time were valid but he wasn’t a progressive like Theodore Roosevelt. He was a progressive like today’s progressives, who, if they gain power, having only respect and energy for destruction, will bring that near immediately. Creation, persistence, and goodness is too hard for them and their warped natures.

    1. Are you saying that Steffens created his descriptions of the nefarious activities of big-city police departments out of whole cloth? What I’m saying is that there is a long history of criminal police misconduct that continues to this day. Just one example of literally thousands:
      Another particularly egregious case:
      This one might be the worst of all:

      1. No, Chuck, by all means I’m not turning a blind eye to police corruption. But I know from personal experience of the effectiveness of police. They are not just another gang. That is truly an unkind and untrue description. But I can understand the fear or the sentiment you express especially if one has been a victim of their abuse.

        Megatron hasn’t always been law abiding and done some prison time. It turned out to be a very “rewarding” experience. Megatron found out that a criminals only true code is selfishness and to experience concentrated ugliness as he did gives one a new respect for those who set themselves against it. Who do the “bad guys” fear? Who is it who locks them up? Yes, there may be a lot of corruption but even through that corruption the job gets done. It is a truism that police and criminals are cut out of the same cloth. Perhaps that is some of it. My little resistance is that when I’m at Dennys or Bob’s Big Boys Hamburgers and I see a peace officer, I buy them lunch and thank them for their service.

  4. In about 1980 we were out walking one day and encountered our neighbor, and old farmer, coming down the path between our two properties. “Hello neighbor,” he said, as was his custom. Then he noticed my glance at the rifle he was carrying. “I heard a couple of shots down in the woods and I’m on the way to check out what’s going on. It’s not hunting season.”

  5. Another time we bought some hay from another neighbor. After his son and I loaded the hay, I went into his living room to pay the old man. Found him sitting in his easy chair with a .45 semi auto pistol sitting on the side table next to the chair.

    The event above and this one told me all I needed to know about why burglary and property crime were exceedingly uncommon in our close in exurb to Phila, whereas in Norristown it was a common occurrence, and moreso in the city.

  6. I am surprised at your indignation at this sort of behaviour. If I recall, you are on record at labelling stolen property as “disputed”, and stealing as mere “disputing”.

  7. What a fantastic essay. Beautifully written (as always) and especially timely. I’m forwarding this one far and wide.

    1. very nicely written, but not always cogent.

      ——But it all starts with how each individual citizen sees himself in relation to survival and property. Do we have an inherent right to defend both? Or do we only have the options the government is willing and able to make available? ——-

      the disjunction is specious and rests on confusion of legal rights with rights held prior to consenting to join in a democratic government.

      the answer is BOTH and that there is that the government does not deny our right to self-defense AND has the obligation to defend our lives and property for us. our self-defense rights only conflict with the legal obligation of the government to defend us when agents of the government is actively engaged in conflict against those transgressing against our lives and property or when we misapply our actions and claim self-defense inappropriately.

  8. Perhaps the most basic thing here is that there IS a difference between good and bad people. That is the basic failure of our current “common wisdom”. Good people should be allowed to shoot bad people at small provocation.

        1. I once spent an hour discussing preventive detention with Hannah Arendt. She pretty much held that bad people were alike.

  9. Bob cagle may be a moby. The phrase “good people should be allowed to shoot bad people” is not something the average conservative would say. Certainly it doesn’t express a conservative position.

  10. not sure about that moby thing.

    does that mean that Bob is acting like a giant president in Helperin -speak?

    and I agree that Bob’s not expressing a conservative position, he does sound a lot like people who mistakenly think themselves to be conservatives but are really tea-totalitarians.

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