A solution for Keene’s Central Square

The Front Page of today’s Keene Sentinel features an article titled: Nudity laws: Change needed? This link will likely expire soon, but the article appears identical to one published yesterday in the Union Leader, which is archived at Free Keene, which also features comments from people close to the actual events.

The summary is this: in response to various protests involving bare-breasted women in Central Square, there is increasing public discussion about new laws prohibiting such behavior.

As luck would have it, last week I wrote about this very topic. In the very same Keene Sentinel that features the above article, my letter is published. It outlines an idea for a solution which would not involve any new laws, but would allow people to participate in Central Square in entirely voluntary ways by privatizing the property. Here is the text of my letter as published in the Sentinel: (Note: this letter represents my own views and not the views of the Free State Project)

READER OPINION: A solution for Keene’s Central Square, by Varrin Swearingen

How do you feel about women choosing to be topless on Main Street in Keene? Be part of the conversation on Talkback
Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Some people feel the topless, smoking and drinking demonstrations in Keene’s Central Square have gotten out of hand. Others feel the government and its police are wrong for making and enforcing unjust behavior codes.

So far, this debate has centered mostly around what behavior is acceptable.

Ironically, what some would call immoral behavior simultaneously illuminates and distracts us from the true moral problem. There are two facets of this previously-hidden moral problem I’ll highlight.

First, it is not just for anyone, including government, to coerce support of property from people who don’t agree with the terms.

Second, the government’s right to enforce behavioral standards is justly limited to protecting people and their property from external harm and trespass.

So-called public property, such as Central Square, fails to be moral on both counts: it’s coercively funded, and “the public” cannot, by definition, be external.

In this case, there is a simple solution to both moral failures: privatize Central Square.

What might such a solution look like? Here’s an idea that would retain most of the popular features we would like to enjoy.

The city could deed Central Square to the “Central Square Trust” subject to conditions. Funding could be removed from the current city budget.

The existing mandatory tax associated with that funding could be replaced by an optional property tax to be forwarded directly to the Central Square Trust for maintenance of the property. The Central Square Trust could then contract some or all of its management, including behavioral policy enforcement, back to the city to make it easy. This would keep things more or less status-quo, with a couple of important exceptions.

First, paying for Central Square would become truly voluntary on the part of both parties. Disenfranchised taxpayers could legally stop paying for Central Square, and the Central Square Trust could refuse revenue from uncooperative residents.

Second, as a result of initiating private property rights, “the management” could morally evict people from Central Square for any reason and legitimately enforce eviction using existing trespassing laws.

It could then choose to evict in cases that would be legally and/or morally controversial on public land.

With this kind of setup, users would simply be guests who use the property, not out of right, but out of invitation. Central Square’s revenue would directly depend on satisfying the taxpayers’ actual desires, lest they stop paying.

It could do that systematically without the same limitations burdening public property. To tidy up the transaction, the Central Square Trust could post signs explaining that Central Square is private property, it’s free for use use by all according to its policies, and violators are trespassing.

Instead of arrests for breasts, violators would simply be trespassing — a concept I believe the current batch of demonstrators actually respects.

I’d be happy to participate in such a plan and I bet most others would, too.

We could voluntarily restore a respectful, family-friendly Central Square and morally ask those who won’t cooperate to leave.

When asked, the current batch of controversial demonstrators would likely leave without a fuss and Central Square would be, for the first time ever, truly and rightly “ours.”


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4 Responses to A solution for Keene’s Central Square

  1. tlekas says:

    Assumption and Advantage
    Good article!
    Of course, this assumes that enough people who support the “breast-less” rules would contribute to support the park. If not and you got a majority on the other side the rules would be different. I understand why it was not advantageous to point this out in the article.
    The best part of getting the government out is that there could be more than one park with a variety of rules. A larger part of the society could be happy!
    Having government control of property and functions actually is a significant CAUSE of conflict in society. It is inevitable that if you have one set of rules and one way to run everything almost every one will be unhappy with some part of it. Freedom can promote peace in society!
    This would not solve all such problems. Unfortunately there is a serious lack of tolerance in society. Consider all of the laws concerning what people may do on their own property. I do not have an answer to that.

  2. maineshark says:

    Of course, Central Square was built and maintained using tax dollars. Deeding it to a particular group with some particular goal would not be moral.
    Likely the only workable solution would be to auction it off to the highest bidder (not hand it off to a specially-formed group with some particular ideology), and use the proceeds to reduce the tax burden of the current taxpayers. That wouldn’t solve the issue of those who paid taxes in the past and are no longer residents, but it’s an imperfect world.
    Taking taxpayers’ money to build and maintain something, then giving that thing to a special-interest group (of any sort) is not moral. The taxpayers, at minimum, deserve to be reimbursed to the best extent possible for the investment they were forced to make. And whomever is willing to make the best offer to enable that to happen should be able to purchase the park.

    • varrin says:

      While I agree, in part, there are two sides to that coin. Unfortunately the immorality of what has already been done cannot be undone. There is no perfect solution.
      The problem with a no-strings-attached auction is that many (maybe even a majority) of those who have supported the park so far would have their wishes violated. The fact that they have coerced tax funding of it is relevant, but not the only factor to consider.
      In the end, any improvement is going to be imperfect and will have to be politically possible. An unrestricted highest-bidder sale would, in my opinion, be politically impossible. Coerced or not, criteria could be voted on by the current residents who have the legal right and moral authority to participate in that sort of way. That’s a compromise, but it would be a step in the right direction and would be far more politically likely than an unrestricted sale.

      • maineshark says:

        Unless the vote is to reach a unanimous decision, it wouldn’t have any moral basis. There’s going to be someone there who is being coerced into paying for something he doesn’t want.
        While no options are perfect in an imperfect world, a highest-bidder sale is the option that comes closest. It doesn’t allow any particular group to control the outcome, and demands the most possible funding to make the largest restitution to the victims that is possible.
        As far as political feasibility, none of these options are. Those ranting about “there oughta be a law” won’t leave private property alone, so even if a sale was somehow made, the situation would still exist.

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