Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On the Religious Use of Public Land

I like it when Penn Jillette and Glenn Beck get together and talk. It's always a textbook model of how to have a civil conversation. When you spend a bit of time listening to the two of them actually explaining their points of view, it pretty clear that Beck isn't the frothing conspiracy nut that he's often made out to be; and Jillette isn't the sort of anarchist that Libertarians are imagined to be, either. Both are reasonable, intelligent people.

At first it might seem like an odd friendship -- after all, Jillette is a skeptical Atheist Libertarian and Beck is a staunchly conservative Christian -- but it's clear that they have areas of agreement that overwhelm their differences. Chief among these is the firm belief that we are all free to have different opinions.

It's a difference of opinion that I'm writing about today. Penn Jillette's a Libertarian, as am I. But having the same political label doesn't mean that two people can't disagree. I happen to have a little disagreement with Jillette. Here's a bit of one of those Beck/Jillette conversations. At around 4:06, it gets to the part that I'm writing about.

Beck points out that Thomas Jefferson was proud that City Hall was used for religious purposes by a number of congregations; and, reminding Jillette that "it's not freedom from religion, it's freedom of," asks why atheists get so "pissy" about it.

From his point-of-view, Jillette describes it as "a conservative issue". Personally, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he's addressing a conservative audience. I think of Libertarianism as "classical Liberalism", and in that sense it is in some ways more conservative that modern Conservatism and more liberal than modern Liberalism. I think of it as the politics of the American founding fathers, stripped of 200 years of hypocritical accretions. But I digress...

Jillette states, "a true Conservative believes that the government should be out of as much as possible, and there should be individual freedom." (emphasis his) So far, so good. But he continues, explaining that there are as many as 300 million different views of God in the United States of America. "You can't fit all of those in City Hall," he says, "so the best thing ... we should just keep the State out of it..." 

I happen to think Beck is right here. For one thing, Jillette has a very odd definition of keeping the State out of it, which I'll discuss below. But also, he's micro-examining, and missing a bigger picture. He's ignoring the fact that he's an Atheist sitting in a room with a Christian, in the presence of a Christmas tree, and he himself is not overcome with offense. Furthermore, he's ignoring the fact that those 300 million individually distinct visions are in broad agreement on many issues, and that this broad agreement overwhelms their differences, much as Penn's agreements with Beck overwhelm their differences. He himself is 'Exhibit A' for the refutation of his own statements. Rather than 300 million distinct views, we have some broad consensus that in almost every community is easily agreed to in a town meeting. (Note that in the story Beck quoted, the objection came from outside of the community.) We have to remember that there are over 300 million different views of how a government should be run, too, but that didn't stop us from agreeing on a Constitution.

But Jillette does have another objection, less philosophical. It's "because I'm paying for that". But so am I. And so is everyone else who wishes to use the property. All of them have an equal say in what's to be done. Jillette describes concern for "individual freedom" to be the overwhelming factor, so that if even "one person in a town of 20,000" objects, then that use is prohibited.  The problem here is that he's inconsistently applying the concept of "force". 

Force is a central concept in Libertarianism, which holds that our government governs "by consent". As Lincoln phrased it, it is "government of the People, by the People, for the People". It's in this context that Jillette says, "You want to use as little government force as possible. You want as much freedom as possible". Quite right. But a public square is maintained with government resources by public consent, and force has very little to do with it. Unless you were a town founder your involvement in that property is a minimally invasive drain on taxes for upkeep (that's the extent of the "force"), and if you were a town founder, you and your compatriots didn't set the land aside by force. Most public parks are actually donated to a town or city by civic-minded individuals. But however it's obtained, a public square or park is maintained for public use. Not any particular religion's, and not to their exclusion, either. It's for all of the public, regardless of their religion.. Most days, and at most times, it's put to purely secular use. His argument decries one day in which it's used by a group of religious people, ignoring the 364 days when it's not.  

The purpose of a "Commons" (be it a square, or park, or hall) is to provide a place for people to gather. This privilege isn't limited to people of a certain type, mentality, or philosophy. It doesn't mean that everybody has to gather at once. Most towns don't build them that big anyway. Now, if you object to the use of public land for one purpose purely because of the objections of that "one person" of Jillette's imagination, then that "one person" may prevent all manner of other public action by virtue of merely being offended. "We'd LIKE to manage the forest, but Clem is offended by the very idea. He thinks forests should be left to nature." And so on. Applied consistently, this principle yields complete inaction. Obviously, "Clem" has power far exceeding his due. Backed by the use of actual government force, he can single-handedly prevent 19,999 people from using that supposedly public land. That makes it Clem's land. The public has been evicted. This is an obviously silly position to take with regard to the forest, and it's equally silly when applied to the Commons.

The principle is so bad that it cannot be applied consistently. For if Clem can do that, so can I. I may object to Government state sponsorship of Atheism. Now Clem can't use it either. Get enough of that going on, and the only allowable use of public property is none whatsoever. Of course, Clem gets upset when he's treated the same as everybody else, and argues that it's not the same thing at all.

Except it IS.

And Jillette's "solution"... that the other 19,999 citizens should abandon the Commons to go off and buy some "private" property for everybody in the town BUT CLEM to use is, quite frankly, silly. It's the silliest thing I think I've ever heard him say. With all due respect to Penn Jillette, because I like most of what he says on the subject of Libertarianism, you do NOT get to be so restrictive to so many people, and then get a pat on the back over how you championed "freedom". 

The reality of things is that this is a case of the government exercising minimal necessary force to secure a freedom. That's government's only legitimate job. The First Amendment guarantees the public a right to speech, religion, press and assembly, and and a Commons provides a place for them to exercise all of those rights. Nobody voted for that square and contributed to it with the slightest intent that its use should be highly restrictive. They did so with a permissive attitude. Certainly no one imagined all of the potential uses to which it might be put, nor could they have been expected to. Thus there is a reasonable expectation of tolerance. You might not LIKE the fact that Druids gather in the park on Midsummer's Eve. You're even free to express your dismay at how the country's going to the dogs. But at the end of your bitching you man up and realize that they have a right to it, just as you do. That's grade-school Civics.

So here's what we do as a society... it's worked for a long time and it's a pretty good system. 
  • We buy public land for the use of the public
  • We put some reasonable restrictions on it to make sure that your use of it doesn't destroy it. "Clean up after yourself." "Don't set it on fire." "Use a toilet." That sort of thing. 
  • We put up a public calendar so that the use is orderly and you don't get a bunch of scheduling clashes. 
  • And then we allow you that use permissively. We issue permits not because you need "permission", but to get your name on that calendar and keep it orderly.
  • Finally... and this is very, very important... we don't much care why you're gathering so long as you're orderly and don't screw the place up. We tolerate the fact that as citizens you have a right to use public property, the same as everyone else.

You see how that works? And you can't be denied a permit because you're an Atheist or a Satanist or a Druid... OR A CHRISTIAN... because the government flatly isn't empowered to play favorites like that. They may "make no law" on the subject, according the First Amendment. That applies equally to exclusionary laws, and it well and truly shouldn't matter where you happen to be standing at the time.

And that's be cause a "true Libertarian" does want Government out of as many things as possible. 

1 comment:

  1. You really should send the link to this to Penn you know.