Nigh-on twenty years ago, when I was living in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, NY, and working with my family at our restaurant, I put a Libertarian Party sticker on the back window of my SUV. It was a beast of a truck, a Chevy Suburban K2500 in black, with a 454 motor, steel wheels, a big black brush bar that said “don’t get in my way” and a 130 decibel air horn that drove the point home for the recalcitrant and the oblivious. Once, stopped in traffic on the southbound side of Pennsylvania Avenue in the New Lots neighborhood, some guy in a convertible on the northbound side, also stopped in traffic, yelled at me “Now THAT’s a truck!!”

In fact, the only thing that differentiated my Suburban from those used by mysterious federal agencies rumored to quietly vanish problematic folks was that LP sticker. Well, that and the fact that it was always parked in the restaurant’s lot (on the other hands, fed goon squads gotta eat too, I suppose).

One day, I noticed that the sticker was gone. As in vanished without a trace. I had a momentary “wait – is this my goon mobile or someone else’s?” before I noticed the faintest residual outline of where the sticker was (well, that and the fact that it responded to my remote control). I was briefly annoyed, but that soon turned into bemusement. We were a couple months out from the Presidential election, and politics were a common topic amongst the regular patrons. So, I figured that someone didn’t like my potentially drawing someone away from voting for the correct tribe… er… party, even though anyone with the slightest understanding of Presidential politics, would be wholly aware that New York’s voters are utterly irrelevant in determining the victor.

I was reminded of that bit of petty vandalism by National Review contributor Kevin D. Williamson’s piece yesterday regarding lawn sign and banner thefts in the city in Texas where he resides. He discusses the nature of neighborliness and community in the face of a “totalizing instinct” that prioritizes one’s faction over everything else. He offers us this truism:

There’s an art to neighborliness. It is simultaneously libertarian and communitarian. If we would be good citizens, we should first be good neighbors.

Stealing a neighbor’s lawn sign may, in today’s hyper-sensitive and hyper-partisan culture, be rationalized as political activism, or as removal of an emotional “trigger,” as removing an eyesore or atrocity, or as rescuing the nation from the possibility that the wrong person wins the next election. It is, as countless Youtube videos (including some of boobytrapped signs) attest, an all-too-common act, which tells us that far too many people refuse to comprehend or accept the undeniable truth that it is a combination of trespassing, theft or vandalism, and political censorship.

Trivial as it may seem, it’s a moral failing, a “bad neighbor” action, wholly unlibertarian, wholly uncommunitarian, and reflects a nascent totalitarian leaning (or tolerance) that puts the lie to whatever moral justification one might assert in defending the action.

Most of us have heard the aphorism “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s at the heart of liberty and a free, healthy society, and not just the liberty and society that libertarians envision. Without a cultural respect for another’s right to express an opinion, it is a certainty that cultural totalitarianism will arise.

As it is indeed rising, today, in America, in the guise of “social justice” and in the premise that political correctness is merely politeness.

There is a model of urban renewal known as “broken windows” policing. It posits that tolerance for petty crimes contributes to a culture of lawlessness, chaos, and reduced public safety, and many have credited the model for the renewal of New York City under Rudy Giuliani. While there is controversy as to both the practice and its efficacy (and in particular, from the libertarian perspective, of the big difference between real crime, e.g. jumping turnstiles, vandalism, dine-and-dash from restaurants, fare-being taxis, etc., and “violations” that aren’t actual crimes against people or property, e.g. an unkempt lawn, selling “loosie” cigarettes, loitering, smoking pot, etc.), there is a message there: To be a good citizen, don’t do bad things to other people or their stuff.

It’s the same lesson as the classic soldier’s “make your bed when you wake up, because you’ll start the day having accomplished something.” It’s a sense of personal uprightness and self respect that extends to a respect for others. It not only tolerates but actively supports a neighbor’s right to put a lawn sign for “the other guy” on his property. It is offended by those whose actions make that neighbor hesitant, because nowadays something worse than mere theft is a non-trivial concern. Express the wrong opinion in the wrong place, and you might find your house vandalized, your personal information “doxxed” i.e. splattered across the Internet, or your job put in peril.

Worse, we are now witnessing the emergence of a new doctrine, that silence itself is proof of racism or bigotry or what have you. To paraphrase the late, great comic Bill Hicks, ‘you are free to say what they tell you.’

Can we trace all this to a culture that is less disapproving of lawn sign theft than it should be? Tolerance for seemingly minor violations of others’ rights and liberties is corrosive. It inures one to bigger transgressions, especially when they are coupled with some (unjustified but strident nonetheless) high dudgeon about the doom that faces us all if someone who might say the wrong things is permitted to do so.

Don’t silence others. Disagree with them, argue with them, or just leave them alone. All are acceptable, and all are neighborly. Barring well-established exceptions, interfering with their speech, whether it be verbal, written, or expressive via signs, is not.

Stealing someone else’s speech, no matter how righteous one’s cause may seem, corrupts our culture and moves us along a path toward that which Orwell warned us of, that which our purported more-moral-than-thou social justice warriors don’t believe will emerge: a thuggish, totalitarian society that will be functionally no different from Soviet Russia or Red China.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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