David Usborne: Our Man in New York

You don't have to be a right-wing libertarian to be driven crazy by all these regulations
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The Independent Online

"Live free or Die" is the motto on number plates in New Hampshire. It is not meant as flattering reference to George Bush's policy in the Middle East, even though the state is a pretty Republican one. (In contrast to deeply Democratic Vermont next door.) It just means keep your nose out and everyone will be just fine. Don't try to nanny us or regulate us or tell us to wear motorcycle helmets. Common sense will guide us.

For many Americans - or many Republicans anyway - the slogan is their political creed. It's so-called "big government" they are telling to bug off. They are libertarian types who think it's fine to own guns, for instance. Washington can pass any law it likes, but no one is taking my semi-automatic away.

It's pretty cock-eyed politics, of course. It's usually these conservative radicals who say they want government out of their lives who but turn round the next minute and ask it to outlaw abortion. They consider the US Constitution sacred and then pressure Bush to amend it so gays can't get married. But, hey, it's not my country. I can't vote, I just pay the taxes. (But that is a whole different column.)

If I could vote, it wouldn't be hard to guess where I'd land politically. I am from Western Europe, where state intervention in our lives is not usually such a dirty notion. You don't even have to call it socialism. If the government feels it prudent to keep Kalashnikovs out of my bedroom, I'm cool with that. And maybe it can give a little of my tax money to worthy things like national healthcare and the arts.

It's a little troubling, then, to recognise occasional lurches to the right in my political thinking. And it's not just about tax. (Bush is the tax-cutting champion, of course.) Recently I have been watching a friend trying to start his own small business renovating homes. India has nothing on New York State when it comes to the layers of bureaucracy he must deal with, all inspired by well-meaning Democrats, I'm sure. See that roofer? Shouldn't he have a hard hat? A mask? A work permit? A visa? Accident insurance? Is his ladder up to code? His underwear?

Right-wing libertarians found a new cause this summer when the Supreme Court ruled that it is OK for government to seize private property if the land is needed for a project of benefit to the wider community. It is called exercising "eminent domain", and the case had to do with New London, Connecticut, razing some shanties to make way for a mall.

Boy, are people cross. Where have they gone to voice their anger? New Hampshire, and not just because they like the state motto. It turns out that the Supreme Court judge who swung the decision, David Souter, has a farmhouse there, just outside the tiny town of Weare. An anti-government activist named Logan Darrow Clements, who makes the occasional quixotic run to become California's governor, swiftly filed plans with the Weare town council to begin construction of a five-star hotel slap on the Souter property. Weare is impressed and appalled all at once. To allow the project to go ahead, Mr Souter's 200-year-old house would have to be seized - by eminent domain - and demolished.

Swim free

Mr Clement's protest is rather amusing. But when I recently had a down-with-government moment of my own a couple of weekends ago, I was not laughing at all. Nor was my daughter, who witnessed the scene and my anger; she was just embarrassed.

I had taken her camping in the Catskill mountains. It was the only evening this summer that achieved a steady rain, causing the high-voltage electricity cables just over our tent to sizzle gently. But we were determined to take a quick swim in the small, fenced-in pool before building a fire for our burgers and marshmallows. Just as we swung open the gate, an attendant dashed from the camp office, reminding us that children under 18 could only swim accompanied not by just one but at least two adults. State law, she said. An inspector might come by at any moment.

Polly is 12 and has been a competent swimmer since she was five. This, however, did not impress the campground attendant. In the event of Polly drowning, would I help her or run for help? Surely I could not do both. I suppose not. But then I started remonstrating: "No wonder Americans hate government. Where I come from, government treats adults as adults." And so on.

I have calmed down now. But at the time, I was ready to move to New Hampshire right away. Where you can live free, surely you can swim free too. Even when you're 12.

Net loss

It's tough to get people's attention in this over-stuffed city. The bum on our block has taken to sprawling across the entire pavement in his efforts to stop us for money. People who own newspapers get attention, like Rupert Murdoch. So do owners of baseball teams and lottery winners.

Presumably it was attention 18-year old Scott Harper wanted when he jumped from the top terrace at Yankee Stadium last week. Saved by netting 50 feet below, he brought the game to a standstill for two whole minutes. No one outside the stadium saw it though. The TV broadcaster, ESPN, edited out his plunge. Why? Because the kid was just trying to get attention.

He didn't get his 15 minutes, or even 15 seconds. Shame, really.