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Friday, June 19, 2009

Reconciling Liberty and Order

Reconciling Liberty and Order: The Spanish Model

One of the main struggles of any civilization is reconciling liberty and order. Many societies have neither while others weigh in too heavily on the side of order. If a culture has an excess of personal freedoms it often comes at the expense of the rule of law. In a lawless society those freedoms are only for a select few, the powerful and wealthy in most occasions. If a country’s charter places an exaggerated price on order it devalues personal liberty. This denial of personal freedoms almost always means a harsh infringement on an individual’s right to expression, assembly, and the right to criticize authority. The best societies agonize over this struggle; the worst cultures can’t be bothered with liberty.

The Spanish approach to this dilemma is probably quite a bit different depending on the area of the country. There are many aspects of this balance between ideals here in Valencia that I recognize from having lived in Greece many years ago. It may be a pan-Mediterranean approach to the concept. After living in Greece for three years it was a bit odd to return to the United States and once again have to follow the rules a little more closely. Perhaps a story is in order.

I rented an old house in Greece that I had to fix up quite a bit for it to be habitable in any way. I spent several days cleaning up the place and afterwards I had quite a large pile of trash to haul away. The thing was, I didn’t know where to haul it. Instead, after having a few beers with one of my best friends at the time, we decided to burn it all right there in the back yard. Who would complain about this in Greece? We had seen lots of neighbors doing similar things. As the flames rose on our junk bonfire we realized that what we failed to consider in this operation was the fact that there was a police station right across the street from the house. Sure enough, a cop walked the twenty steps from the station house to the gate of my yard, gave a greeting by way of a grunt or two, and then retreated back into the station. We thought that he must be going for his citation book but instead he returned a few minutes later carrying a broken chair. He asked if he could add it to our raging fire.

Had we done something like this in an American city I’m sure we would have been Rodney King’ed and sentenced for the rest of our youth (and deservedly so, I would add). We have laws to protect us from hooligans who would build a bonfire in a residential neighborhood across from a police precinct. We also have laws for a lot of little things that will annoy the hell out of you if you have ever lived somewhere not quite as orderly. I mean, what do you mean I can’t drink a beer at the beach? What sort of puritanical bore came up with such a law?

We truly are hysterical on the subject of alcohol in America. If there is one area where we need to ease up a bit on the yokes of order it is our attitude about booze. How could anyone come up with the stupid notion that an 18 year old can enter into a contract that is binding for life, or enter the military yet cannot drink a glass of wine for another three years? All we have done is create a very unhealthy relationship between booze and adult society. Either an 18 year old is an adult or she isn’t, and guess what happens when you treat people like adults? They act like adults. Enough said on that topic.

On the other hand, there are many areas of Spanish society where I would love to see a little firmer hand played by the authorities, namely with regards to motorized vehicles. The Spanish love of anarchy plays itself out in a very deadly fashion on the roads and highways here. Motor scooters seem to be the least bothered by the rules of the road. This is a problem that is easily remedied with a length of piano wire stretched neck-high across a few strategic intersections. If that seems a bit drastic then how about writing a few traffic tickets?

I got a severe chewing-out by a policeman the other day for riding my bike on the sidewalk as I was approaching the entrance to Turia Park which is one long bike trail. I told the cop he should walk a half a block to an intersection at which I take my life in my hands every time I am forced to cross it. At every change of the light at least three cars speed through the cross walk at great peril to anyone who happens to be crossing. He actually told me that if I didn’t like it I should take the bus. This is in a city that has spent a fortune on bike paths yet only 1.6% of the residents use a bicycle to effect daily transportation. I have been hassled on several occasions—both in Seattle and Valencia—on my bike when I wasn’t being an asshole at all, I swear.

There are other examples of an absence of the rule of law in Spain that Americans might find difficult to tolerate. It is almost impossible to arrest someone for petty crimes here. Nonviolent theft seems rather rampant because if it is less than 400€ it isn’t considered a punishable offense, at least you won’t receive jail time. I have never been robbed but I seem to be among the small minority who are able to claim this status. On the other hand, we criminalize things like loitering in America—a concept Spanish people are not capable of grasping. “Getting arrested for hanging out? What do you mean?” I think a good compromise would be the northern European countries, like Holland, for example. Drugs laws are much more lax which means fewer people in prison. Jailing someone for anything less than a violent crime seems a bit harsh to me. How about we punish drug offenders by taking away their driving privileges? That seems about the correct response. Or how about we garnish their wages? No job? We give them a job and then we garnish their wages. I think someone would think twice about committing a crime if they had to work at a crappy job for reduced pay as punishment.

Once again, I think it is in our best interests to look deeper into other societies to see how they have dealt with some of the problems that plague modern day America. Instead we seem to fall back on the moronic reflex of declaring ours the greatest country on earth and allowing our societal ills to fester. The worst option is what is often proposed by conservatives. They want us to return to failed policies of the past or continue with ideas that have not worked for decades. Of course liberals are also guilty of taking this tack. I mean, how much longer can we continue in our War on Drugs? I suppose forever. Forever is a long time to do the wrong thing.