Roger Barbee: A just society that’s fair to all

Roger Barbee

Children of all ages are quick to point out to any authority figure when they think a rule is “unfair.” What that complaint usually means is that the mentioned child has done something out of place and is being punished for his or her transgression.

As an educator, whenever I was approached with this type of immature logic, I would ask the following question: If you are driving down a road at 30 miles per hour in a 25-mph speed zone, and I pass you going faster, but you get a ticket for speeding, is that fair? Always, the youngster would scream, “No, it’s unfair.”

I then would point out that he or she was speeding, so it is just. Yet, there is an interesting and compelling view here concerning equal enforcement of a law or rule or code. If the complaining child was old enough, I would give him or her a copy of Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he  writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Afterward, we would discuss justice and fairness.

As I write these words the snowstorm from last night has deposited about 5 inches of snow. However, the Virginia Department of Transportation has plowed and salted our road, making it passable. If a car skidded off the road, the county sheriff’s office would be called and help would arrive. These are just two easy examples of how we rely on government services in our daily lives, but there are many more. While we all whine and complain about “too much government,” we all rely on it for our safety, welfare, and general quality of life. Whether we admit it or not, we also rely on our elected and appointed officials in our lives, and we have certain expectations of those elected and appointed. One of those expectations, at least for me, is that these officials will take necessary actions to ensure the common good.

The copy of the Shenandoah County Code that I have on my computer is over 200 pages long and full of stated codes. For example, our county code addresses the issue of sludge, storage of propane in self-storage units, unsafe buildings or structures, and on and on. It is a staggering amount of definitions and codes pertaining to almost every possible situation. Add all of this to the size of our county, and the situation expands exponentially.

Those officials writing codes understand that citizens want less rules and regulations, but the writers must anticipate possible situations that may need governing. It is a difficult task and an act of balance in providing a just system that protects the common good while allowing individual freedom. So, what happens when an unusual situation develops such as a private citizen, running a business, stores large amounts of a dangerous liquid in a residential zone, or a citizen in Strasburg likes cats and has many that are allowed to roam freely? The owner of the business most likely believes that he or she has the right to run the business as they want, and neighbors have the right to feel protected by their local government. Certainly, the cat owner has a right to have cats. Every citizen in these two situations has rights. So, in order to serve its citizens best, what is a government to do?

If we are serious about our complaint concerning too much government involved in our daily lives, do we just say, “It’s my land, and I’ll do as I wish.” The two recent situations in Shenandoah County that I have cited strike me as like the two passengers on a plane sitting next to each other. One wants to sleep and the other wants to read. Both have the right to do what is desired, but the light will keep the one awake and the other can’t read in the dark. Does the government (airline in this case) step in? Hardly, I think.

Our individual rights as citizens, I think, stop when they infringe on another citizen. So, if I create an unsafe situation by storing large amounts of propane or allowing my cats to foul the property of neighbors, then I am wrong, and I need to change what I am doing. If we want rights and less government, we must be more responsible. That means we must know and understand local codes that affect our businesses and we should keep our pets in our own yards. To whine that “I didn’t know it was against the code” or “Oh, cats like to wander, it’s their nature,” is not responsible action. When we have that kind of thinking, we are asking government to step in and, gosh, write one more law or code or regulation. Let’s work to govern ourselves.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at red-hill@shentel.net.