Little Boxes Made of Ticky-Tacky
It is fascinating, when it isn’t just depressing, how often the things people want lead to exactly the things they don’t want. The other day I was reading G. Gordon Liddy’s book of conservative nostalgia, When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country. He paints a sunset picture of former times when America was free, farmers could fill in swamps without violating wetland laws, and guns were just guns. People were independent, had character, and made their own economic decisions. The market ruled as it ought, and governmental intrusion was minimal.
The picture is accurate. I lived it. I wish it would come back, but it won’t. That was a world certain to kill itself. I wonder whether Mr. Liddy understands this—that the freedom he craves leads inevitably to the modern world he, and I, detest. The problem is the fundamental difference between a farmer’s filling in a swamp on his land and a remote corporation’s buying of the entire country for purposes of its own and not the nation’s benefit. Both are exercises in economic freedom.
What happens is that, in an independent-minded rural county full of hardy yeomen, the density of population grows, either nearby or at distant points on each side. A highway comes through because the truckers’ lobby in Washington wants it. Building a highway is A Good Thing, because it represents Progress and provides jobs for a year.
It also makes the country accessible to the big city fifty miles away. A real estate developer buys 500 acres along the river from a self-reliant, character-filled owner by offering sums of money that water the farmer’s eyes.
First, 500 houses go up in a bedroom suburb called Brook Dale Manor. A year later, 500 more go up at Dale View Estates. This is A Good Thing, because the character-filled independent now-former farmer is exercising his property rights and because building the suburb creates jobs. The river now looks ugly as the devil, but worrying about that is for wackos.
At Safeway corporate headquarters, the new population shows up as a denser shade of green on a computer screen, and a new supermarket goes in along the highway. This is A Good Thing, exemplifying free enterprise in action and creating jobs in construction. Further, Safeway sells cheaper, more varied and, truth be known, better food than the half-dozen mom-and-pop stores in the county, which go out of business.
Soon the mall men in the big city hear of the county. A billion-dollar company has no difficulty in buying out another character-filled, self-reliant farmer who makes less than $40,000 a year. A shopping center arrives with a Wal-Mart. This is A Good Thing, etc. Wal-Mart sells everything—cheap.
It also puts most of the stores in the county seat out of business. With them go the restaurants, which no longer have the walk-by traffic previously generated by small shops. With the restaurants goes the sense of community that flourishes in a town with eateries and stores and a town square. But this is granola philosophy, appealing only to meddlesome lefties.
K-Mart arrives, along with, beside the highway, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Roy Rogers, and the other way stations en route to coronary occlusion. Strip development is A Good Thing, because it represents the exercise of economic freedom. The county’s commerce is now controlled by distant behemoths to whom the place is a pin on a map.
This is A Good Thing. The jobs in these outlets are secure and comfortable. The independent, character-filled frontiersmen are now low-level chain employees, no longer independent because they can be fired. Their new circumstances illustrate the rule that centralized power trumps rugged individualism every time. The local control of the past existed not because of the American character but because technology did not yet allow centralization.
A third suburb, Brook Manor View Downs, appears. The displaced urbanites in these eyesores now outnumber the character-filled etcs. They are also smarter, have lawyers, and organize. They quickly come to control the government of the county.
They want city sewerage, more roads, schools, and zoning. The latter is not unreasonable. In a sparsely settled county, a few hogs penned out back and a crumbling Merc on blocks do not matter. In a yuppie ghetto of quarter-acre manors, they do. Next come leash laws and dog licenses. The boisterous clouds of floppy-eared hounds turn illegal.
Prices go up, as do taxes. But the profits of farming and commercial crabbing in the river do not go up. The farmers and fishermen are gradually forced to sell their land to developers and to go into eight-to-fiving. Unfortunately you cannot simultaneously be character-filled and independent and be afraid of your boss. A hardy self-reliant farmer, when he becomes a security guard at The Gap, is a rented peon. The difference between an independent yeoman and a second-rate handyman is independence.
People make more money and buy houses in Manor Dale Mews but have less control over their time and so no longer build their own barns, wire their houses, and change their own clutch-plates. Prosperity is A Good Thing. Its effect is that the children of the hardy yeoman become dependent on others to change their oil, fix their furnaces, and repair their boats.
The new urban majority are frightened by guns. They do not hunt, knowing that food comes from Safeway and its newly arrived competitor, Giant. They do not like independent countrymen, whom they refer to as rednecks, grits, and hillbillies. Hunting makes no sense to them anyway, since the migratory flocks are vanishing with the wetlands.
Truth be told, it isn’t safe to have people firing rifles and shotguns in what is increasingly an appendage of the city. The clout of the newcomers makes it harder for the locals to let their weapons even be seen in public. The dump is closed to rat-shooting.
The children of the hardy rustics do not do as well in school as the offspring of the come-latelys and are slowly marginalized. Crime goes up as social bonds break down. Before, everyone pretty much knew everyone and what his car looked like. Strangers stood out. Teenagers raised hell, but there were limits. Now the anonymity of numbers sets in. There’s no community any longer.
And so the rural character-filled county becomes another squishy suburb of pallid yups who can’t put air in their own tires. The rugged rural individualists become cogs in somebody else’s wheel. Their children grow up as libidinous mall monkeys drugging themselves to escape boredom. The county itself is a hideous expanse of garish low-end development. People’s lives are run from afar.
What it comes to is that the self-reliant citizen’s inalienable right to dispose of his property as he sees fit (which I do not dispute) will generally lead to a developer’s possession of it. The inalienable right to reproduce will result in crowding, which leads to dependency, intrusive government, and loss of local control.
I’d like to live again in Mr. Liddy’s world. Unfortunately it is self-eliminating. Freedom is in the long run inconsistent with freedom, because it is inevitably exercised in ways that engender control. As a species, we just can’t keep our pants up. But it was nice for a while.
Fred Reed’s writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Harper’s, and National Review, among other places.