In his book Caesar and Christ, Will Durant describes the workings of some of the world's earliest fire brigades, an important development in a Rome that suffered many tragic conflagrations. Wikipedia has a nice summary of my favorite account, that of Marcus Licinius Crassus:
The first Roman fire brigade of which we have any substantial history was created by Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus was born into a wealthy Roman family around the year 115 BC, and acquired an enormous fortune through (in the words of Plutarch) "fire and rapine."
One of his most lucrative schemes took advantage of the fact that Rome had no fire department. Crassus filled this void by creating his own brigade—500 men strong—which rushed to burning buildings at the first cry of alarm. Upon arriving at the scene, however, the fire fighters did nothing while their employer bargained over the price of their services with the distressed property owner.
If Crassus could not negotiate a satisfactory price, his men simply let the structure burn to the ground, after which he offered to purchase it for a fraction of its value.
The O'Toole debate
I found myself pondering this story over the weekend while I considered how best to move on from the feedback following the O'Toole debate. You guys have been amazing and the response from "our team" has overwhelmed anything that's come from other places. Those of you that have been here a while know, however, that we're trying to reach people with this message. All people, in fact. Strong Towns is for left and right, rich and poor, engaged and not, professional and laymen. There really is no other discussion in this space that has such broad appeal.
I should not have read the comments on O'Toole's site. And I should not admit here that they bothered me as that will just fuel the ignorant. Still, as I thought about it more and more I realized that there were two things that really bothered me. First, I welcome people to disagree with me -- in fact, I have always sought out intelligent people that disagree with me -- but I really hate when people dogma first and think later. Second, I get really frustrated with people who insist on ideological purity as a litmus test for conversation. Let me elaborate on both of these.
Here's a comment typical of what we're getting from the O'Toole types:
Which I suppose brings us back to the central focus of “Strong Town” types….everything exists to serve at the pleasure of government, and for government’s benefit. Sure, some, such as Charles over here, are not exactly forthright with this, but where else could their beating around the bush behavior lead, if we were to connect the dots and actually follow through with the policy recommendations such a person made?
O'Toole said as much in the debate. Ironically, this is also a complaint I get from those on the dogmatic left. By doing the math and focusing on development patterns that keep a city solvent, I'm advocating either (a) forcing people to live in apartments or (b) kicking all the poor people out of the city. After all, if you dogma first and think later, where else could these views lead?
What I've come to appreciate is that people who think this way -- far left or far right -- look at local government way differently than I do. I've been a part of local government since 1995, either as a engineering consultant, a planning consultant, a citizen volunteer or now -- in my work with Strong Towns -- as an outside adviser. Maybe that gives me a familiarity that makes local government both (for the right) less scary and (for the left) less capable than the dogmatic would like to believe.
Local government is us
Local government is us. You and me. It's the most accessible and responsive level of government. I'll admit, that also sometimes makes it the craziest and most volatile, but I'll gladly live with that. I've seen local government officials do ridiculously stupid things. I've also seen them do genius things. I've seen them be petty and I've seen them be magnanimous. Just. Like. Us.
And I know what I'm going to say next is Civics 101 but, if you don't like your local government and what they are doing, vote the leadership out of power. I realize some cities have political machines (certainly not Lafayette) and in our handful of largest cities it is more difficult to get into a leadership position, but for almost all Americans, your city council member is a phone call, email or short walk away.
And that reveals an ugly truth: Unlike with state and federal government, those who are frustrated with their local government are actually just frustrated with their inability to convince their neighbors vote differently. O'Toole could have his libertarian utopia if he could convince the majority of people in his city to vote that way. So could you. That fact that it's not happening should be revealing.
On the second point of ideological purity: there was a time in graduate school where I was also running my own planning company here in Central Minnesota. At the University of Minnesota my professors at the (unabashedly liberal leaning) Humphrey Institute would joke that I was their token Republican. In the evenings I would attend meetings in rural Minnesota where I was accused of being part of the United Nation's plan for world government.
Same person. Two lenses. One focused too near and one focused too far.
"Something of a libertarian"
Here's the typical comment from the O'Toole crowd:
“Marohn claimed to consider himself something of a libertarian.” Riiiight. Just like people can be somewhat pregnant.
So you are either a libertarian or you are not. It's an absolute. And we can all be confident that the dogmatic thinking that gave us that line not only believes that the federal government should respect our liberty but that each father should respect the liberty of their daughter and each spouse the liberty of the other. After all, nobody has a right to impose on another's individual liberty.
During the debate, I did claim to be "something of a libertarian" when it comes to the state and federal governments. Particularly in the areas of land use, transportation, housing and economic development, I said that I find state and federal governments to be "like a bull in a China closet" and that their efforts are distorting, ultimately doing more harm than good. I also described myself as a "Mayflower Compact kind of conservative" when it comes to local government. That reference may have escaped some so let me elaborate.
The Mayflower Compact was the first governing document of the Plymouth colony founded by the famed Pilgrims of Thanksgiving tradition. It was a social contract, an agreement between people who were going to be living together in a community to abide by certain rules and codes of order so that they could prosper in common. My reference to this document was to suggest that, especially at the local level, sometimes we need to sit down around a table, figure things out and work together. That's a pretty American concept.
Even so, a lot of the dogmatic have a hard time with that. Our national political structure now forces this kind of rigid thinking down to the local level. If you are conservative, you are supposed to hold solidly conservative principles in every situation. If you are liberal, you are expected to be solidly liberal always. I find this absurd. Cities are way different than states. States are way different than the federal government. I can oppose the federal government directing funding for the sidewalk in front of my house and still be pro-sidewalk. My speech at this past CNU lays out a way to see things more on a continuum, which I think is healthier intellectually. It is also consistent with the Strong Towns approach as we've discussed it here for the past six years.
We all have biases and we all have reflexive reactions to some statements and situations. That's human. As Strong Towns advocates, let's resist the human impulse to dogma first and think later. We need to keep our minds open to the great ideas that an incremental, chaotic-but-smart approach can reveal.