Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Lessons

HOCKEY COACH: And, well, y'know, the kids have another hockey game coming up, and some folks were concerned because it's on December 31st, but, y'know, it's okay, this has happened before, and, I mean, we're pretty good, people usually get out by around seven-thirty...

REPORTER: And that might be kind of a fun way to spend New Year's Eve!

HOCKEY COACH: Oh, yeah, I mean, what else are you gonna do on New Year's Eve?

REPORTER: (laughing) Exactly!

What else, indeed. One of the great pleasures of visiting my folks down in Rochester -- aside from extended cable and being able to watch Bill Maher's Real Time -- is the opportunity to watch local news, or at least what passes for it here.

Size -- as with firearms and male genitalia -- is relative, after all. As an enthusiastic resident of the Mini Apple, most of my colleagues think of Rochester as a small town. But I definitely know of people in the suburbs who regard it as the big city. And I have at least one friend -- who spent a lot of time growing up on her grandmother's farm, where the nearest residence was five miles way -- who would find characterizing Rochester as small to be laughable. Then, of course, there's plenty of people on the coast who regard the Twin Cities as being backwater, a hicksville in the flyover with aspirations of trendiness.

I've commented on this before -- that, as someone who's traveled the world, it's bizarre to experience such severe culture shock between two places that are barely ninety minutes apart -- to leap from the radical liberalism of Minneapolis into the (at times) myopic conservatism of Rochester. And reinforces for me my sense that the division between red and blue states is somewhat arbitrary -- that the real political spectrum is defined by population density rather than geography.

After all, look at any electoral map of the blue-state Minnesota. You'll see an island of blue, representing the Twin Cities and their environs, in the midst of a geographically wide but sparsely populated ocean of red. Most states, whether they trend red or blue, map roughly the same way.

This is something I was thinking about, as a proponent of deregulation. To take an extreme example -- like, say, my friend's grandmother, who is largely self-sufficient -- nearly any government intrusion is going to impact her negatively. In towns small enough for its inhabitants to recognize each other on sight, the community is generally elastic enough to respond to its own needs. (Please note that I'm not romanticizing -- people in small towns can be petty, small-minded, and at times startlingly cruel. Human nature doesn't change, simply because of the level at which it's organized.)

To take an example at the opposite extreme -- like, say, New York City, which packs roughly eight million people into three hundred square miles -- a fairly nuanced system of laws may be necessary just to keep its citizens from obliviously trampling all over each other. I'm not necessarily opposed to this in theory (though in practice, I have plenty of issues with the particular laws that get passed).

The absurdity emerges when a single set of laws is created to legislate the behavior of both populations. And if there's such a wide range within the individual states, what happens when you try to legislate the behavior of a country the size of the United States? That's when we start yelling at the south for electing some of the most lunatic Presidents in our history, and they start yelling at Democrats to go back to Europe.

This is why the great cause that swung me to libertarianism isn't being anti-state or anti-tax -- although, yes, I am both of those things -- so much as my belief in the dire need for decentralization. And going back to Rochester is a good way to keep grounding myself in that important lesson.