Friday, March 19, 2010

Big nanny

Not too long after I started riding my bicycle in Toronto, I had the seat and the handlebars sprung. Toronto has some of the worst road surfaces I can remember riding a bicycle on, and I don't like coming home after riding with a headache. And since I have no hope that Toronto will maintain the streets, I spring my bicycle and grit my teeth.

But the same city that claims to balance its budget by the proverbial shaved hair every year, the same city that regularly proposes to raid its assets to meet current needs, the same city that scrimps on repairs to infrastructure, the city with some of the highest transit fares on the continent, can somehow afford to pay "inspectors" to prowl the streets looking for front yards that offend their esthetic sensibilities, and write up orders for the property owners to conform.

Cities can and should provide mechanisms to resolve disputes about people's decorating or design choices when informal neighbourhood dispute resolution fails. Cities can and should provide encouragement to homeowners who want to plant trees, as the City of Toronto does. But imposing a citywide standard on the appearance of houses, particularly ones the neighbours don't object to, merely wastes money.

In the same paper, we read another story, also about an individual's less than happy encounter with government. The story contains a paragraph which could, by itself, define the psychological contours of the nanny state:
But one of the agencies involved maintains the rules were applied fairly and equally, and Wilson must follow them like everyone else.
Yes, the government must apply the rules fairly and equally, but that doesn't suffice: the rules also have to make sense, and their application has to make sense in each individual case. Maybe in this case they do; not every business or home owner who complains of unfair treatment has a good case. But I would suggest the following rule: if an issue concerns aesthetics or "quality of life", governments should restrict their role to mediation rather than attempting to impose rules.

Meanwhile, could we focus on important things and fix the potholes, please?

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