Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why shouldn't you sit in my front yard to eat your lunch?

In the middle of the summer a contractor for the city began replacing the sewer lines in our neighborhood. Having finished that, the same contractor is now digging up the streets they have just sort-of repaired to replace the water lines. This has meant a summer with the constant sound of heavy machinery and multiple backhoes and bulldozers racing through the street at breakneck pace and parked throughout the neighborhood overnight, through weekends, and during holidays. The work is scheduled to be completed by March 2017; so much for private contractors being more efficient than public workers. 
These are the sorts of first-world problems that people like me like to complain about. Living in San Diego, they combine with the third-world streets—only slightly better than those around my husband's family home in La Matanza in Argentina—to give us some small thing to temper the weather and sun and ocean and mountains and everything. But I'm not going to complain about that now. Instead, I'm going to complain about myself.
Since this is the last week before the academic year picks back up, I am still at home with the dog and my one remaining monarch caterpillar. I spend the day reading and avoiding work and dreading/longing for the beginning of classes. As I ate a piece of leftover pizza today, I noticed that one of the workers had walked from the work-zone, which surrounds us, but isn't within a block of our house in either direction, to sit on our retaining wall to eat his lunch. This irked me, but I figured that he was only sitting on the wall and, after all, he needs somewhere to eat his lunch. After a second piece of pizza, I looked out again and he had been joined by another worker. His companion wasn't sitting on the wall but lying on the stones on our front yard, between two plants. From being irked, I became angry.
When I walked the dog I noticed that they had their coolers and a radio and a whole spread in front of the house. As Mateo and I walked around the block, I thought about what I should do. Should I confront the workers and ask them not to lie on our yard? Should I call the company and complain about their behavior? Should I wait for Fernando to deal with it?
When we got back to the house, I said hello to them and went inside. By this time I had begun to ask myself a different question: What the hell is wrong with me? Here were two people eating their lunch in the middle of a hot day doing relatively unpleasant work. And, I was upset because they were sitting on a wall and lying on some rocks. Of course, that wall and those rocks are mine. But, they were doing no harm and getting a little bit of rest.
The answer to what is wrong with me (in this context) is a fully American, fully Lockean, common, and inhumane conception of property. The harm they were doing was a very minimal trespass, one that did no damage either to the property or its owners. The wall and yard are in the same shape as they were before their lunch. I wasn't going to be using it for something else during that time. But, as my reactions and actions show, I have deeply imbued the notion that property is sacrosanct, that is exists as a right and value in and of itself and before all others.
But that's not what property is like. Property, as Aquinas taught, exists for the good of the community. A right to property exists to help us avoid tragedies of the commons, because people take better care of what is theirs than what is all of ours, because collective farming and cooperatives and group work in classes tends not to be as productive. But property is not some primary value; it can be justified only insofar as it contributes to the commonweal. In a certain, very real way, each of us holds it in trust for the community. And, when the good of the community is threatened by property claims those claims must be reexamined. Sometimes the community will win and sometimes property will. But when it's between two men sitting down for fifteen minutes and my claims on the wall, it's probably the community that wins. 

1 comment:

Craig Eckel said...

Loved it :)