Civil Society

A Nation of Narcs

Americans have developed a nasty habit of inviting the state into people's lives for tiny offenses. Here are three ways to turn back the tide.


When I was a teenager, strangers would sometimes stop in front of our house to take pictures of our front yard. We lived on a run-down street with no sidewalks or paved driveways in what was then a low-income neighborhood in a low-income town 45 minutes outside Orlando. But people didn't stop because of the poverty. They stopped for my mom's butterfly garden.

I cannot name every plant she grew, but I remember her telling me once that our tiny yard drew every kind of butterfly that migrated through Central Florida. When the flowers were in bloom and the butterflies were in attendance, our home looked like a Monet come to life.

But not everybody liked the garden. One day the man who owned the rental house next door informed my mother that he thought she should tear it down and have a normal yard like everybody else on the block. In his opinion, the best way to maintain a lawn was to mow the grass down to the nub every two weeks. After their initial conversation, he pressured my mom to raze her garden whenever he visited his rental property.

She didn't have to appease him. We didn't live in a subdivision and weren't bound by the rules of a homeowner's association. But my mom is a peacemaker, and so she had my brother and I put up a trellis between his yard and ours to create a visual barrier. We thought that would do it. We were wrong.

Six months later, a code enforcement officer paid us a visit. The man who owned the house next door had filed a complaint, claiming he'd seen a rodent scuttle into and out of the garden. (This was probably true! A good garden is home to more than just a few plants.)

After touring the yard with my mom, the code enforcement officer informed her that we would need to tear most of it down. My mom pleaded and explained that the wild flowers sustained butterflies and bees and that there was order in the apparent wildness. She had, after all, designed and planted the entire thing.

The city gave her a week to clear the yard. After that, she would be fined several hundred dollars a day until our yard looked as militantly minimalist as the lawn next door. Broke as hell and busy raising two boys on her own, my mom ran a push mower through the most beautiful garden in town. Afterward, she wept.

I was reminded of that event last week, when the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health had told an independent hardware store it could no longer offer free popcorn to customers unless it installed kitchen equipment and submitted to regular inspections, as required by the 1984 California Uniform Retail Food Facility Law. Meanley and Son Hardware had given free popcorn to customers for the last 25 years without incident.

This is not the first time the county has clamped down on free popcorn in hardware stores, according to the Union-Tribune's Peter Rowe:

Three years ago, inspectors cited Encinitas' Crown Ace Hardware and San Carlos True Value Hardware.

"The Health Department came in," said San Carlos True Value manager Danielle Matheny, "and told us if we wanted to continue giving away free popcorn and coffee we'd have to install a bigger vent system, a bigger and better sink in the break room—a lot of rules and restrictions they put on us."

In both Encinitas and San Carlos, the stores dropped the practice. Inspectors so far have ignored Payton's, but El-Hajj figures it's just a matter of time.

"I feel sad," she said, "that some of the old traditions we have become so regulated."

Free popcorn is right down there with butterfly gardens in the reverse concern pyramid. There are probably people reading right now who think dedicating this many words to either one is borderline irresponsible, considering the abundance of problems plaguing humanity. But both intrusions share a common theme with more pressing incidents: They wouldn't have happened if someone—or perhaps multiple someones—hadn't decided to employ the state to settle a grievance best addressed by looking the other way:

Meanley and Son's fate was sealed with an anonymous tip phoned into the authorities. Employees popped the corn, but the rest of the operation was self-serve, with a scoop and bags set out for patrons. The tipster claimed some folks stuck their bare, potentially grimy, fingers into the machine, plucking out crunchy handfuls.

The person who complained about the popcorn has a lot in common with the neighbor who sicced the code enforcers on my mom. And they both have a lot in common with the New York lawyer recently caught on camera threatening to report a group of Spanish-speaking restaurant employees and customers to ICE; with whoever called police to report "a 'suspicious man' walking on the bike path with a baby" here in D.C. a few weeks back (the baby was his son); with the busybodies who regularly report parents for leaving their kids in the car while grabbing some groceries or upon spotting children playing without adult supervision; with the Buffalo union official who proudly rats out undocumented immigrants at job sites; with the bigots who treat the mere presence of black people in predominantly white spaces as a threat to their safety.

Three projects might help roll back the problem.

The first is to help people who find some of these stories outrageous and others inconsequential to see all of them as related. The parallels seem vibrant and stark to me, and perhaps to the average Reason reader, but not, I suspect, to everyone. Being black in a white space is not against the law, yet working without permission in the United States very clearly is. Cultivating a garden is not the same thing as violating a health statute.

Fair enough. But it's a short logical step from "That's illegal!" to "That might be illegal!" and from "That is unsafe!" to "That makes me feel uncomfortable!" You can help friends and family and partners think differently about when it's appropriate to invoke state power by sharing stories of times when calling in the authorities caused far more harm than the alternative. A lot of people don't seem to think very hard before calling the cops—it's free, it's fast, and there are no consequences for overreacting. You don't even have to give your name! Heck, I accidentally called 911 at the farmer's market a month ago when I mistook my phone's power button for the volume button and pressed it three times in a row. It's worth the time and trouble to ask people questions ("How would you feel if someone called the police because you let our kids play in the front yard by themselves?") that might have an impact on how they think about these things.

The second project is a political program: to drastically scale back the police powers of every arm of the state. Not just the police police, but the health police and the tax police and the zoning police. All those agencies work in concert. The person who refuses to pare back her garden gets a fine. If she doesn't pay the fine, she loses her driver's license. If she drives regardless, because her job or family needs her to, she gets arrested. The police state is a hydra, so let's treat it like one.

Lastly, we need to look for ways to block the pending age when algorithms take such steps for us. I may be alone in thinking Facebook's suicide intervention algorithm is a terrible idea, but it's only a matter of time before it sends cops to someone's house and the person dies at police hands rather than his own.

It is more important than ever to recognize the incredibly high stakes of inviting the state into other people's lives. An army of advocates are trying to help America's immigrant population but failing to make a difference at scale—not because these groups lack talent or commitment or knowledge, but because the state is a behemoth with infinite resources and a monopoly on violence. At the local level, the number of government agencies messing with people often outnumber the organizations fighting back.

So talk with your neighbors and friends and family. Complain to local officials. And try not to tap your iPhone's power button too many times.