Andy Taylor on the Coercive Power of the State

Andy Taylor? Readers with long memories may remember that he is the character played by Andy Griffith in the long-running eponymous television show from the Sixties (the good bit of the Sixties). As sheriff of the town of Mayberry, Andy is responsible for maintaining order -- no, that’s not quite right: the townspeople are responsible for maintaining order. Andy is simply a sort of boundary marker. He represents what Walter Bagehot might have called the impressive side of the social contract. He has a sidearm. He rarely wears it. It’s usually at home, unloaded, hidden on top of a china cabinet. He barely wears a uniform. That’s to say, his uniform is homey, not scary.

Why? Because he wished people to trust and respect him and not fear him; he was an authority, not an authoritarian figure. His sidekick, the lovable but bumbling Barney Fife, likes the paraphernalia of police garb. Andy lets him wear a revolver, but it has to be unloaded. He’s allowed to carry one round of ammunition in his shirt pocket.

Why this little trip to Mayberry? Our five-year-old daughter has been delighting in the show (and so has our fourteen-year-old son, though he is shy about admitting it). The life it portrays, including the relationship between the townsfolk and the police, is not all that different from what I remember growing up in Maine. My wife reports that it’s pretty similar to the way the police were regarded in her South Shore town near Boston.

And today? Last week in this space, I reported the sad news that my friend Kenneth Minogue had died suddenly at 82. Ken was an expert anatomist of the deformations imposed by liberalism upon liberty. In his last book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, Ken noted the irony that “while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them.” Tocqueville, among others, saw this coming and filed it under the rubric “Democratic Despotism.”

It’s not, as Ken points out, a merely abstract problem:

Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things.

Like what? I work in New York these days, home of the Nanny-in-Chief, the Plutocrat-in-Charge-of-Everything, the oleaginous Michael Bloomberg, so the list I could compile would be long and doleful. I’ll leave that for another day. For now, I want to share a note I received yesterday from a friend who has a house in Effingham, Illinois, a charming spot, not, I reckon, all that different from Andy Taylor’s Mayberry. It's full of friendly people and a picturesque lake surrounded by pleasant homes.

“This weekend,” my friend writes:

I took 3 of my grandchildren jug fishing (tie string to a milk jug, attach a hook and bait and set them in the water, come back hours later and bring in the fish). This was a first for my kids. We left about 9:00 p.m., and after setting out two of the jugs we got stopped by two officers from Illinois Department of Natural Resources (appropriately shortened to DNR). They were going to do a safety check. They had guns, dressed as Gestapo, and had bulletproof vests.

First they said my boat DNR registration was expired. The sticker on the side of the boat said 2013, but apparently it expired on June 30 and because of “budget cuts” the state did not send out a renewal notice this year. There was enough money, however, to hire these two guys to patrol Lake Sara on Saturday night.

None of the adults had a fishing license, but we told them that it was the kids who were doing the fishing and they didn't need a license. Oops, shouldn't have questioned them: they asked for my boat license and registration.

I said I had it at home and asked if I was supposed to have it with me on the boat. They said that I wasn't required to keep it on the boat but that it helped. They asked for my driver's license and I told them I didn't have it with me. They asked for me to work my horn, which did not work, never has. They asked if I had a whistle. I didn't. They wanted to see my throw preserver, which luckily I had. Then they asked to see the life preservers which I had. Then the fire extinguisher, which luckily was charged.

They said that they could not enforce the codes of Lake Sara, but that one person told them that jug fishing could only be done down at fisherman's cove, where we weren't. He added that another person said you could jug fish anywhere.  But only the kids could put the jugs in and take them out. They then called some state number and made sure that the boat was registered to me. So someone was manning DNR phones on Saturday night.

After 45 minutes, they gave me two warning tickets for the lack of horn and registration expiration. Of course now it was 10:00 p.m., the kids were scared and exhausted, and no more jug fishing for them.

But [irony alert!] I am so thankful that I am now safer.

There are several worrisome things that my friend’s experience illustrates. One concerns the increasing militarization of the police in this country. Do we really want these latter-day Gauleiters swaggering about the joint with their preposterous uniforms, minatory attitudes, and an amount of firepower more appropriate to a battlefield than a small town? (“Ah,” quoth our masters, “everywhere is a battlefield today.”) There was a character in the television series Hill Street Blues, a city police department employee who had a military-garb fetish. He like the boots-jodhpurs-and-belt-across-the-chest look. He was a slightly comic, slightly dangerous, wholly pathetic character.

Now our police and other official agencies are full of such characters. What are we going to do about that? Acquiesce or resist?

My friend’s note also illustrates the larger point that Ken Minogue made. He quotes that bit from The Servile Mind I quoted above, and adds Ken’s conclusion:

Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by "freedom," and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state.

So two goons from a state-funded acronym get duded up in scary uniforms, strap on some heat, and terrorize the local kids and their grandparents: “Remember the first time we went jug fishing, grandpa, and these scary men came up and ruined the evening?” Thanks a lot, pal.

What do we have here? One thing which you should never forget: your tax dollars at work.

And here's a prediction: you will be seeing more and more intrusions of this sort. Sooner or later, it will move from intimidation to tragedy: "I had to shoot the kid, he was reaching for his pen knife." There’s only one thing that can stop it. The people who elected the bozos who allowed this apparatus of intimidation to form must be the people who stand up and replace them. All of them. Now.