“The War on Droopy Drawers” • Greg Morin, columnist
It has been recently reported (http://goo.gl/dZZ8b) that the Madison City Council is exploring a new ordinance that would criminalize uncouth couture, that is, droopy drawers. The objective of said ordinance is “…. to get … appearance to be decent” (Councilman Fred Perriman). This statement of course presumes (a) decency can be objectively defined and (b) it is the proper role of government to impose arbitrary cultural notions of “decency.” Traditionally “decency” has been directly correlated with the amount of skin covered as well as the degree of looseness of said coverings. So using this metric it would seem women wearing a hijab (traditional Muslim head and body covering) are perhaps the most “decent” people around. I’m not suggesting the Council plans on imposing mandatory hijabs, however I am curious as to what underlying objective principle affords one the ability to demarcate a point between “hijabs for all” and “down with droopy drawers” wherein “decent” lies on one side and “indecent” on the other? Other than simply the subjective “I don’t like the way that looks” of course.
Now don’t get me wrong, I personally think saggy pants look incredibly goofy and frankly can’t figure out how they can walk around like that without tripping over themselves. But just because someone finds something to be idiotic is no justification to take advantage of the monopoly of the exclusive use of legal violence (or threat of violence) that government currently possesses in order impose his or her personal preferences on society.
Does this mean we are helpless to object to things we find offensive or undesirable? No. Private property owners are (or should be) free to impose whatever strictures they desire to anyone on their property (for example restaurants commonly have minimum dress code standards, as well as the familiar “no shirts, no shoes, no service” policy). Schools and businesses commonly have dress codes. Subdivisions as a collection of private dwellings have the right to impose any such standards as they see fit for those that enter the private domain of that subdivision (it should be noted it is not uncommon to require unanimity to make changes to homeowners association covenants, thus even in the private realm we recognize it is unfair for a majority to impose their will on a minority). In short, people are free to associate with whomever they wish and to set up rules governing those associations.
So, one might now ask, “What’s wrong with government imposing these nanny-state type rules? Isn’t this no different than a private subdivision setting up similar rules?” Actually, no, it is quite different. Firstly, these ordinances typically override private rules (i.e. if a restaurant permitted saggy pants, the ordinance would still fine the person). Secondly, even if the ordinance only pertains to the public sphere (non-private property) it is still invalid insofar as the “ownership” of such public spaces by the government is illegitimate. All public property was either confiscated directly or purchased with confiscated funds (taxes). So if “public” spaces have no legitimate owner then no one can legitimately make rules to govern such spaces without also admitting that a thief may legitimately control the use of property he has stolen.
This does not imply that all laws are invalid if they occur on “public” spaces. Laws that pertain to the protection of the natural (negative) rights (e.g. life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) cannot logically be constrained by location or time frame. “Nanny-state” laws are time and location dependent (i.e. such and such act is ok before some date and in some location but then after that date or in that location it is then magically illegal), that is, they are completely arbitrary in nature.
If we are not free to look like complete idiots, then are we truly free?
Greg Morin is a member of the Libertarian party and CEO of Seachem Laboratories located in Madison. Constructive comments are welcomed to this paper or at gregmorin.com
Printed in the December 6, 2012 edition