Friday, April 22, 2011

Laws for Thee But Not for Me

I’ve been renting a room here in the DC area while looking for a larger place for the family, who will join me this summer. The woman from whom I’m renting has been unemployed and out of luck for a long time, and cannot pay her own rent without filling up all of the beds in the apartment. So she rents out my little room, and she rents out the master bedroom, and she sleeps on the sofa. It’s not an ideal arrangement for me, God knows, but it allows me to rent month-to-month without living someplace truly horrifying.

Right now, my roommate/landlady is sleeping in the master bedroom, because once again, one of her tenants has walked out on her. I’ve seen it happen twice; apparently, it’s happened six or seven times. They come in—kids, mostly, but not exclusively—needing a place but not being able to put up a month’s rent as security along with a month’s rent to start. So she allows them to pay half a month in security. She lets them move in without signing a lease, because it takes her a while to get her act together. They stay three weeks, four weeks, long enough to accrue some debt. And when she starts asking for them to pay, and she finally gets a lease put together, they disappear. They string things along as far as they can, then they get in a screaming match with her, telling her she’s a bitch for daring to ask them for money. Then they bolt.

So it’s hard to get too upset, or to take it too personally, when I face intense scrutiny in my own home search. Fair credit equals poor credit these days, and my situation over the past eight months has left me with only fair credit. Property managers are looking for any excuse to say No to me when I file an application, and they can always find an excuse, because there are a lot of people out there looking to rent. Whatever I might say about myself, whatever pleas I might make, whatever assurances I offer or recommendations I gather…none of it matters. There is no trust.
It’s Passover this week. I remember staging a play, back in college, which featured a musical re-enactment of the Exodus which culminated with the giving of the 10 Commandments. The chair of the theatre department was watching a rehearsal with me one day, and he guffawed (in a very jowly, middle-aged, Irish Catholic kind of way) about how only a Jew would stage a scene where a bunch of people sing “Freedom! Freedom!” while being handed a set of laws.

Among the political so-called conservatives, it’s been fashionable for at least a generation to talk—or scream—about how government is the enemy. We hate regulation. We hate laws. Government is intrusive. Just leave us alone. They act as though Congress passes laws for their own amusement, or creates regulations out of a love of bureaucracy. They see no connection between their actions—our actions—and the actions of the people placed in positions of authority. In this, they are no different than school children who don’t do their work and then ask their teacher, “Why’d you give me an F?” And they’re no more mature.

Law doesn’t just happen. It happens in reaction to behavior. Regulations are not birthed with a business. They are created in reaction to a business’ lack of ethical behavior.

It’s Passover this week. We celebrate the escape from oppressive slavery and begin a countdown that will take us, eventually, to a celebration of the Giving of the Law. Ten laws: ten commandments. Have you taken a look at them, lately? You should. And you should ponder this question: if we—all of us—could live by those laws—just those laws, but really live by them—how many others would we need? Not many, I think.
But can we live by them? Do we live by them? There are only 10 commandments, but the Torah actually contains over 600 laws, rules, and regulations that help define, explain, and enforce those original 10. So I guess our inability to live by the 10 became evident pretty quickly.

We need laws and regulations to protect us from each other, and that’s the plan and ugly truth of it. And we need protection from each other because we will not behave. The industries that beg to have regulations rolled back? They do terrible things, almost instantly.

Why will we not behave? Because we no longer—most of us—live in abject fear, cowering in the shadows. We are not afraid of retribution from the gods. We are not afraid of the secret police knocking down our door. We are not afraid of what will happen when the local priest hears about our behavior. We are free.

Free from what? All of the above. Free to do what? Whatever we please.

The density of our laws does not depend on the political party we vote into office. It depends entirely on how we, as a society, define “free to do what?” The more constraints we place upon our own freedom, as individuals within a culture, the fewer constraints must be placed on us from without. We can constrain ourselves out of fear of heavenly punishment, or we can constrain ourselves because of a social contract and an ethic of working together and helping each other. We can make up all kinds of systems and structures to teach our children to hold back, to limit themselves, to constrain themselves, for a greater good. That’s what civilization is all about.

So the cop is in the head or the cop is on the beat. The cop is not absent; that’s anarchy, and as attractive as anarchy may sound to college students, it never lasts. Never. People can’t stomach it for long. The cop will return. He always does. If you haven’t internalized him, expect him at your door. Control yourself or you will be controlled, eventually. Because while we love our own freedom, yours scares the hell out of us.

As long as our culture holds Absolute Appetite to be its greatest good, and teaches its children to Want and to Take without limit or consideration, we will have a net of laws and regulations thrown over us. Because, like I said, we trust ourselves but not our neighbors. We’re not completely insane; we know, deep down, where Absolute Appetite will lead us. And even if we didn’t care about that, we know that there are finite resources, and that all people cannot have all things. So unless we want to live in Hobbes’ jungle, where the strong take and the weak hide, we need laws.
Laws for other people, of course. For them. Not for us. We’re fine.

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