When government is the first recourse for small-town neighbors who have minor disagreements, civil society has become dangerously weakened.
A case in point: Henniker farmer Steve Forster's encounters with the town bureaucracy over behavior frowned upon by the bureaucrats: weddings amid the Christmas trees.
Forster, owner of Forster's Christmas Tree Farm, has sought to supplement his income, as so many of us have in this tough economy. He has a farm stand and he rents some of his property to groups for meetings. That includes weddings. One neighbor thought that went too far. The neighbor was not inconvenienced by the weddings, but rather found out about them by seeing them advertised on Forster's website. The town was called, and the bureaucracy engaged.
Forster was told he was not allowed to hold the weddings; they were against regulations. Forster got State Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill to write a letter to Town Planner Mark Fougere explaining that weddings were allowed as agri-tourism under state law. Fougere was not moved; he ordered Forster to stop the weddings.
On appeal, the town zoning board ruled in Forster's favor, but said he would have to submit site plans to the board.
All of this over wedding ceremonies that had inconvenienced no one, but whose mere existence was decreed (wrongly) to be in violation of a rule. There is always a rule. And rules must be enforced, if for no other reason than to remind the people who is in charge.
Town Land Use Coordinator Nicole Gage emailed Town Planner Fougere, "Forster's now doing weddings? It has been suggested that somebody needs to be made an example of ... "
That phrase ought to put a chill in the heart of every Granite Stater.
There was a time in this still largely rural state when someone who had a concern about a neighbor's business might bring it up while chatting over a fence post or a phone call. Now, even in small-town New Hampshire, a concern leads directly to a complaint to a government bureaucrat, who consults a rule book and issues an order.
Anyone perceived by the public to be acting in breach of the rules must be "made an example of ... " Civility is crushed under the weight of the bureaucracy, which does not care if the rule is sensible or even if it is being followed. The bureaucracy's concern is that its authority never be questioned or even doubted. You will be made to comply - all for the public good, of course. Live free ... according to our commands.