We are only neighbors

How commonplace is the remark above? How obvious? We are only neighbors. You are not a king over me, nor i over you. Nor can any arrangement of equal neighbors into groups, delegations, or political forces erase the vast fact of the equality of men. A consensus of millions does not have authority to rule or dominate an opposing consensus of one. A senate enacting a law does not add to the authority of the voter any more than the postman delivering a letter lends authority to its author. We are all only neighbors.

What kind of authority does a neighbor have over another? Well, if one is taking your things, trampling your property, injuring your person, interfering in your livelihood, or otherwise invading your own life, he enters into one of the classic crimes understood by humanity, any ancient moral code, and, of course, a tiny, tiny sliver of our modern law. And of course if he is doing none of these things, if he is leaving you be, leaving you to your own devices, he is obviously not in violation of these commonsense codes, nor under any sort of authority from you. We might describe the situation as each citizen having full jurisdiction over whatever is rightfully his; his person, property, and business…and no jurisdiction over that of anyone else.

This understanding of the relations of equal citizens seems obvious, but its implication for modern government is sadly unfamiliar because we operate (as voters) along an opposite principle, when we vote for measures or officials who promise benefits for some certain group over the general public, or restrictions on the private behaviors of our neighbors, or dictates the terms of commerce for consenting parties, or any number of fields now regarded as fair game for legislative interference. All of these measures violate the principle of “neighbor’s authority,” for they are written in the old way, regarding the private domain of each citizen not as a sacred field to be defended by the law, but as matter for the improving work of the law. The neighbor’s law says, “Keep your hands on your side of the fence and we’ll get along just fine.” The king’s law says, “I’m going to put my hands on things behind your fence, because I am in authority over you.” It is a real matter of philosophical disagreement about the legitimate scope of the law that gives rise to controversies like that over the drug war or the surveillance state , but it is not a new philosophical disagreement; it is the very same controversy that arose over the Stamp Act. It is again the question of whether the government’s authority extends beyond defense against crime, and into the business of interference in private life. A homeowner is right to shoot at a housebreaker, a victim is right to mace a mugger, a citizen is right to go out with his neighbors and his rifle to meet the invaders. The question is whether the government, as the delegate of the citizens, is right to do these things, or to do more. The question is whether this Thing we have instituted is right to tap phones, demand licenses, grant privileges, seize wealth, and invade foreign lands, when we know that we would be wrong to do these things. The question is whether the words and forms of “government” can sanitize what is known to be a crime without it.

 

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