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.