Hey St. Louis County, Back Off!

Friends, neighbors, and relatives, lend me your ears. This is a supposedly free country, where we subscribe to various notions of personal liberty, privacy, and periodically reaffirm our commitment to things like the Castle Doctrine, which states that a man’s home is his castle. In other words, what goes on within the walls of our homes should be no one’s business but our own.

It is against this backdrop that the government of St. Louis County plies its wares. I know people, close friends and relatives, who have found themselves at odds with County government, but I haven’t felt compelled to expound on this until now. While at a picnic today, surrounded by people with whom I am familiar, but don’t consider close friends, I overheard two separate conversations (one while waiting in line for food, the other after I had sat down) by two different people, concerning their recent experiences with County government. This is as close to a random sample of St. Louis County residents as one is likely to find, so combining these data points with others I have collected, I am led to only one conclusion. The widespread interference in our private lives by St. Louis County government is not only increasing in frequency, but has reached intolerable levels.

These stories all center around permits. Permits for various home improvement projects. Projects that agents of St. Louis County government would have no knowledge of if it weren’t for 1) conscientious residents trying to do “the right thing” by applying for permits that they aren’t even sure they need, or 2) the government invading the privacy of its residents, all in the name of “safety.” So I have two messages, one for the residents and one for the County.

To my fellow residents, I say stop groveling! Stop begging for permission (because that is what a permit is) to exercise your inherent right to property. Do you own your house? Why should you have to ask anyone for permission to make improvements to your own house? Chances are you don’t own your house — it is more likely that a bank somewhere owns it. Would you call up your bank and ask their permission to remodel your kitchen? Or build a patio? Or finish your basement? Of course not. Why would you? It’s none of their damn business what you do with your house! So why do we all buy into this myth that it’s the government’s business what we do with our houses? How did they get involved in this, anyway?

To St. Louis County, I say back off! Stop violating our rights to privacy and property! Keep in mind, we fought a revolution against Great Britain for actions that were less egregious. One of these days you are going to pick the wrong resident, and like so many other sad examples (most recently in Kirkwood) of government pushing someone too far, you will find yourself on the receiving end of a violent and needless reaction. And even if it never comes to that extreme, is that what it takes to get your attention? Isn’t it enough to hear feedback such as this from your residents? Your involvement in our lives is unwanted, unnecessary, and adds no value. So why do we continue to tolerate (and fund) your invasive behavior? What good do we get out of it?

Some would argue that without government oversight of some kind, the projects attempted by some residents would be far from improvements. Some of them would be of such inferior quality that they not only detract from the value of the home, but could pose hazards to other residents. That is certainly true. My response to that is, so what? As Thomas Jefferson said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” Which is more important to you? Your rights, or your property value? Not to mention the fact, that you and every other homeowner already have the power to keep the shoddy work in check. Every time you purchase a home, you have the right to negotiate with the seller to have their property inspected (by yourself and/or a qualified third party) to make sure that it does not suffer from any of this substandard work you fear so much. Likewise, the work you perform on your own home is subject to inspection when you go to sell it. Isn’t “caveat emptor” enough protection without sacrificing yet more of our liberties for a small amount of safety?

So next time you are considering upgrades to your castle, and you want to do the right thing, here’s what you do. First, keep your mouth shut about it. Don’t go asking for permission from people who have no right to tell you what to do with your property in the first place. Second, hire competent people who share your disdain for permits to do the work (if you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself). Lastly, if they come around telling you that you’ve violated some ordinance or some regulation you’ve never heard of, ignore them. If they keep bugging you, tell them to show you the law you are supposedly violating and then hire an attorney. Remember, they are counting on you to follow the path of least resistance, and to just roll over and pay your tribute to Caesar. If they can tell that they are going to have a fight on their hands, they just might leave you alone, and find someone else to terrorize. If enough of us do this, they will eventually go away entirely.