Politics & Policy

Life’s Little Platoons

Laws don't solve everything.

On Saturday morning I picked up dog crap, a lot of dog crap. No, that’s not World War II code for getting my hands on Sid Blumenthal’s book proposal. Although I have learned that “the cannelloni orders Kimchi off-menu” is code for Bob Torricelli’s inevitable Grand Jury indictment, but that’s a different story entirely.

Anyway, yes, I was being literal; I volunteered to pick up the calling cards of hundreds of unknown canines in my neighborhood park this past weekend. No, this wasn’t another bit of court-imposed community service for my habit of replacing the two es in “Free Mumia!” graffiti with a y for “Fry Mumia!”

Rather, the fair Jessica and I were simply two of a couple dozen dog owners volunteering to do our bit for the annual neighborhood park clean-up (Note to readers: If all this scatological jocularity isn’t your bag, you can just scan down to today’s announcements).

You see, the dog owners are not particularly popular among the park’s other regulars — parents, layabouts, hooligans, tai-chi devotees, urban horticulturists — because, well, you don’t exactly need an EPA inspector to tell you that the fecal particles per-billion are higher in our park’s soil than in Bill Clinton’s last State of the Union. Also, the current debate in San Francisco over dogs being off-leash has nothing on the constant battle for canine liberation in our park.

So, the thinking was that if we want to keep using the park, we’d better do our bit to keep it nice. So while others were planting trees and shoveling mulch, we were collecting…well by now you know what we were collecting and I gotta make these poop euphemisms last.

Regardless, the annoying part is that the people who volunteered were not the people responsible for the mess. It’s a weird Catch-22/tragedy-of-the-commons sort of thing. Those who care enough to deal with other dogs’ you-know-what are almost by definition willing to deal with what comes out of our own animals. After all, we know what we feed our own dogs, or, as the economists like to say, our regulatory regime over the inputs affords us greater confidence in our ability to anticipate outputs.

No, the people responsible for all the decaying Blumenthal manuscripts strewn around the park are the for-hire dog walkers and workaholic K-street lawyers and lobbyists who — like proprietors of a chemical factory in a Julia Roberts movie — practice illegal dumping (giggle) in the dead of night. Those of us who use the park regularly are good citizens, interested in preserving our right (Okay, it’s not a “right.” How about “our privilege”?) to let our dogs’ freak flags fly a couple times a day.

So, why am I telling you about all of this? Well, partly because it’s a slow news day, partly because I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get some material out of such a heinous experience, and partly because it was a wonderful example of the limits of both law and politics.

There are lots of people in Washington, mostly on the Left but also plenty on the Right, who feel that politicians have the ability to say, “Make it so,” just like Captain Picard, and whatever “it” is will become fact. Politicians and intellectuals, for reasons both complex and simple, actually believe that words in Washington can change habits of the heart in Cleveland or Milwaukee. Examples of this folly are legion: The Kellogg-Briand pact outlawed war; decency laws banned private screening of Horatio Hornblower at the local Y; it was illegal for me to drink beer until I was 21, etc.

Of course, my favorite example of this stupidity comes not from Washington but Albany. Gov. George Pataki declared that if Germany had only passed his hate-crimes bill “the greatest hate crime of all, the Holocaust, could have been avoided.”

Wouldn’t that make a great plot for a science-fiction novel? Instead of going back in time to kill Hitler before he rose to power, an intrepid German-speaking lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law center goes back in time to introduce a vigorous hate-crimes law in the Reichstag. That’ll stop Hitler! After all, if it had only been illegal to kill millions of Jews, Slavs, and Catholics, well, Adolph’s hands would be tied; the law is the law.

But even for people like me who are deeply invested — ideologically and professionally — in the principle that people like Pataki should be slapped about the head and neck with a big, wet, semi-frozen flounder for saying such things, the language of Washington can be seductive. I spend a huge chunk of time making my belly say strange things by pushing the sides together to form a mouth. But that’s not important right now. I also spend a huge chunk of my time arguing about how this law or that law, this policy or that one, will spell ruin for this, that, or the other thing.

Spending my Saturday morning collecting enough doggy detritus to build a whole new canine was a wonderfully healthy reminder of how often people who talk that way, including me, are wrong. First of all, it’s illegal to not pick up after your dog and yet — mirabile dictu — poop spontaneously generates every morning like mold on bread in some 18th-century lab experiment — so much for the Pataki Rule of Law thesis.

But, more importantly, the clean-up effort was a perfect example of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons,” the mediating social institutions that allow civil society to operate. Most of the necessary pistons of civilization fire regardless of what levers politicians and policy-makers decide to pull. Parents raise their children, neighbors lend a helping hand and, in my case, people pick up a lot of old dog crap. Ain’t life beautiful?


1. The staff of National Review Online is currently compiling an entirely new list of the Top 100 conservative movies of all time. If you have strong feelings on the subject, great! I don’t want to hear a word about it! But Neil Seeman does! Please send him and — I really mean this — only him your nominations for the very best conservative movies of all time. Suggestions of anything from We the Living to Red Dawn will be considered. His e-mail address is nseeman@nationalreview.com.

2. This just in from our very exciting news bureau. We’ve just launched a “Letters to NR/NRO” doohickey on the home page. It’s that funky mailbox icon on the left-hand side of the homepage. This is a wonderful feature for those of you who think my e-mail address is the best outlet for long rants about other authors on NRO. Alas, not all letters will be published — especially the ones that go on for thousands of words without punctuation or verbs. But all letters will be read.

3. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a truncated version of my Earth Day column from last year. Read it, don’t read it. That’s up to you. But, if you people could let your local newspapers — like the Inquirer — know that my syndicated column is available, I will send each and every one of you an imaginary quarter.

4. I’ve written a response, today, to a Washington Post piece by Evan Gahr. You can find that by clicking here.

5. Also, today’s column, while not expressly mentioning the idea of Hidden Law, has a lot to do with Hidden Law. Jonathan Rauch has an excellent article on the topic in the current TNR, but its in the archive section , where you have to pay for it. So, you might like to see my own contribution on the subject. It doesn’t even mention dog poop, but it does defend police brutality — which must be refreshing for somebody out there.

6. Speaking of The New Republic, Greg Easterbrook has a wonderful essay made even more wonderful because it appears in The New Republic on how unfair the media has been to Bush on the environment.

7. Cosmo the Underdog goes in for surgery Wednesday morning. Thanks to all of you who have offered medical consultations, well-wishing, and everyday doggy advice. It was really, really appreciated. Keep your fingers crossed.


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