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Entropy, the Commons and Why It All Went to Scat on the Phoenix Light Rail

The news may be absent, the day may be slow, but the columns of the nefarious Drudge Report will never go unfilled. Should the one-headed panjandrums of politics, business and Hollyorc not provide enough spectacles to drive the web traffic and prop up the ad revenue, we can always count stories of the bicephalous aliens from Alpha Centuri. Should Mrs. Grales remain on her space shuttle, we get delightful stories about grown men playing with their scat on the Phoenix Light Rail. Ya’ll enjoy a nice, hearty lunch after clicking on the link.

The story is disgusting and the spectacle belongs on Gawker.com, but on an insidious level, this is news of a new America. This is news of a new America that should make us all a little bit more uncomfortable as our overlords tell us to relax instead. The sad and pitiable homeless mental patient, with the scat fixation, is a symptom; not the major problem.

The problem begins in response to our fundamental state of existence. The world around us is entropic in every way. It costs untold billions to build epic skyscrapers. Architects, engineers, constructors and heavy equipment operators converge upon the scene. Years pass before the buildings open for business.

It requires 20 broke and angry young men, six-months and a small petty cash fund to visit devastation on the work of thousands. Visa, it’s everywhere you want to practice barbarism. Things tend towards disorder and the complex structures of modern society are always cheaper and easier to destroy than maintain.

We may not ever solve for the entropy and enthalpy of a complex jet engine, but we’ve all had an experience similar to getting a shirt full of used motor oil, as we spent a three hours of weekend; which we’ll never get back, fixing an old, declining wreck of a Ford.

I quote an engineering professor of mine. “Things break. Things wear-out. Things fail.” My rejoinder, after having managed an Army Reserve Motor Pool for a few years, would be simple. ”And all The King’s Horses and most of his men are not going to prevent that vexing, fundamental truth for very long.”

Preventing this entropic failure makes us have to maintain what we own and what we care about. We usually do this pretty well on our own property. I wouldn’t want to be the one jerk on the street with a mangy-looking yard or a dilapidated façade on my house. Social opprobrium inspires us to at least take care of what we each own.

So how about the stuff that no one happens to own? Take the Phoenix Light Rail as an example. (And perhaps wear a nose-pin as you go.) Does anyone really care whether those particular things tend to fall apart?

Garrett Hardin, author of “The Tragedy of The Commons,” argues that many people do not care if a public good falls apart. In modern America, as our public sector expands and centralizes in rapacious fashion, this could indeed lead us all to tears. Ludwig Von Mises describes just how bad this could get.

If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns–lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil–do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them the erosion of the soil, the depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down the trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation.

Thus, our homeless subway rider can pay his $2.00 of “spange” and ride with no responsibility at all for how his presence or his actions affect the other riders on the conveyance. Absent a brutally aggressive coercive authority, it’s as good a place as any to relieve his bowels. Oops, there went his shot at the Harvard MBA.

The public authority, in the modern nation-state, that seeks to monopolize the ownership of assets and services, faces a profound dilemma. The future of the public square could be impaled on the horns of entropy and a broad unconcern for the maintenance and well-being of the commons amongst the constituent citizenry. The state can offer free and unfettered access to the public, and watch their assets get trashed and disrespected.

However, a citizenry that freely trashes and smears scat on the physical manifestations of a government will not long respect or abide by its philosophical precepts either. Appearances do make a difference. They show empirical evidence of how deeply you care and how dedicated you are to keeping them up. The dollars Los Angeles spends on Metro graffiti abatement is money well spent and not merely cosmetic.

The society can also rigorously police the commons. Restrict a citizen’s right to “poop” on a subway, and it’s a much nicer ride for the rest of us. The light rail systems start getting the type of ridership back that would normally avoid places where barbarians relieve themselves in public.

But this route leads to anger, unpleasantness and perhaps even a nasty touch of violence. If the state in question owns darn near everything, and has to maintain and police darn near everything, it could well necessitate something that mere civil order could never morally justify. It may well have taken an entire agency of Arkady Renkos and a system of gulags just to prevent the average vodka-schnokered Ivan from repeatedly fouling the state-sponsored beauty of Gorky Park.

This leaves us in a dilemma for the future of America. It is similar to the dilemma George W. Bush faced after 9-11. How much privacy and personal freedom does a society give up in pursuit of safety and good civil order? The larger the public sphere of ownership becomes, the more we have to live our lives on camera, or under the watchful eye of the security apparatchiks, to vouchsafe the continued utility of all of that public property.

When we do feel that we’ve paid too high a price to preserve our public square? Worse yet, if it all goes too far, what in the heck are we going to able to do about it? Property translates into rights and power. In modern America, we own less and less of it and share more and more of it. It’s something to think about as we all enjoy the egregious grossness of a bombed-out reprobate on the Phoenix Light Rail.

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