Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Democracy is not enough.


There are lots of people - from both the left and the right of politics - who like the idea of voluntary, shared or common ownership. In this they see an alternative to the centralising tendency of modern government. For some this is a starry-eyed remembering of past models and idea - the Rochdale Pioneers, the Levellers and mass trespasses on Kinder Scout. Here is a celebration of the co-operative and it still has a powerful voice on the left of politics.

Meanwhile, on the liberal right, we hear of voluntarism, of the charter city and the idea that local government isn't needed - collaboration, market mechanisms and, yes, co-ops will provide voluntary (that is without taxation collected by force of law) management of what we call 'public' services.

There is much to commend both these approaches - by rejecting the big government model they are people-based and, we hope, responsive to needs at the genuinely local, community level. Indeed, in the USA local government is far less constrained by the national political agenda and property ownership rules allow for private collaborative systems that wouldn't be possible under, for example, the UK's laws. The result of this has been the evolution of shared ownership models - co-operative and mutual.

Today some 63.4 million US citizens live in 323,600 places that are members of the Community Associations Institute - that's over 20% of the population living in places where many of the things we associate with local government are provided by a mutual association of members. And:

In a lot of places – probably in most – it’s a sort of government-among-friends, where rules are applied and interpreted with good faith and generosity, where neighbors cooperate on upkeep, and where buildings and communities look better and function better because of it.

Based, as these things are, on some sort of democracy - residents, as members, vote for management committees and these committees commission the services, maintenance and support that everyone needs - cleaning streets, cutting verges, managing shared services and often things such as collecting rubbish. These committees will also set down rules about other things so as to maintain the peace, tranquillity and ambiance of the place.

And it's here where the problems start:

But, in others, homeowners’ associations appear to have more in common with the Soviets than just a communal process.  Writing in The Washington Post, Justin Jouvenal recently reported on a knock-down, drag-out fight over a simple political yard sign placed by a couple on their property during the 2008 election season.  The association’s grievance, apparently, was that the “Obama for President” placard was four inches taller than the association’s covenants allowed. 

Democracy dictates that the collective - or rather fifty percent plus one of that collective - can impose rules (and when you join - buy the property - you sign up to those rules). Thus the row about the political placard. Indeed, the rule-makers in these places determine the 'right' image for the community and act to prevent residents installing solar panels and landscaping gardens:

“Imagine growing a lush, organic garden full of fruit trees and raised beds featuring edible flowers and vegetables. It’s beautiful. And it’s in your backyard. Your slice of heaven. Your respite. The place where you can get your hands dirty growing wholesome, nourishing foods for you and your family.

One day you stroll out to your mailbox to find a letter from your HOA telling you your garden is in violation of HOA rules. According to your deed restrictions, all fruit trees and edible plants should be grown inside a screened in patio. You face $100/day fines for each day that you refuse to tear up your fruit trees and remove your raised beds.”

This is not the action of some brutal uncaring landlord but the imposition of a mutual organisation - cuddly, sharing, democratic.

We discover that democracy isn't enough. It doesn't provide the protection allowing for that resident to do what she wished - plant fruit trees and vegetables in raised beds. The resident could protest, could try to change the rules - but in the meantime that mutual, collective organisation is fining her $100/day.

We are reminded that democracy isn't a guarantor of rights. Nor is democracy reasonable, sensible or flexible. On its own democracy wants to enforce conformity with the norm - or what the democrats see as the norm - and to prevent people putting plastic sharks in their roof or replacing a lawn with a water-conserving, drought-resistant garden.

The consequence of shared ownership is that the majority will dictate how that shared property is used. And if you're in the minority what you want is of no consequence. And that majority will impose its will.

Democracy is not enough.


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