Amurika’s Political Institutions… what I learned from a year on my condo’s board

Man establishes political institutions to establish order in society. First it was the family, then the clan, then the tribe, followed by such advents as the city-state, and eventually the modern nation-state. Within these social groupings, men devised institutions to assist in the governing of these groupings. Sometimes it was the establishment of religion, tribal leaders, and governments. Originally, the political institution was the oldest male of the family… typically the father, thus throughout history political institutions have been dominated by males. Political institutions exist to ensure the survival of the consenting society… thus we have the idea of social contract theory.

Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 book Leviathan, established Western political philosophy with the perspective of social contract theory. Social Contract theory, through the works of Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is the philosophical idea that originated during the Age of Enlightenment and addresses the idea of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state and individual. The arguments of Social Contract theory are that individuals consent (through voting in republics and democracies… explicitly or tacitly) to give up some “freedoms” and submit to the authority of the state in return for the exchange for safety/security and the protection of the remaining “freedoms.” These “freedoms” are divided between natural and legal.

Natural rights, though not distinctly defined or agreed upon, usually pertain to the idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Legal rights, however, are definable because they are agreed to by governing political institutions and are provided to give guidance and establish legal boundaries. Whereas, many philosophers argue that natural rights are god-given or inalienable… legal rights can be fleeting or temporary. Legal rights evolve and are subject to the legal philosophy of the society. Natural rights are supposedly guaranteed regardless of society, location, or socio-economic level. Some argue that human rights and natural rights are interchangeable.

The Amurikan ideal of natural rights is foundational in the establishment of Amurika… the Bill of Rights guarantee and establish not what the government can do… but what the government can not take from you or do to you. The Amurikan Constitution is a limiting document… it is a legal document that representatives of our Amurikan ancestors consented to… consented to ensure that there would be a republic of states, with a centralized federal government that would ensure legal and binding laws would be enforced while ensuring natural rights would not be violated.

Or… let’s face it… we are self-serving bastards. As more and more of us live in more and more close proximity to one another… we have to have some rules to ensure that we don’t kill each other in some weird anarchy of the survival of the fittest Lord of the Flies world. When one lives in an urban locale… or at least a neighborhood of multiple buildings and homes… one needs rules to ensure we don’t violate the space and happiness of our neighbors but to ensure those fuckers stay off our lawns. The concept of apartment and condo boards… and homeowner associations… is a relatively new one in Amurika. As they say, all politics are local… and local politics affect us the most.

Everything I know about Amurikan political institutions was confirmed after the year I spent as a member of my condo board. I was nominated by a fellow condo owner, other condo owners voted for me, I was a democratically elected member. I was no nepotism appointee… they were no political backroom deals… none of my neighbors wanted the job… and I was willing to serve.

I owned a condo in a six-story building in downtown DC… specifically the Logan Circle neighborhood. This neighborhood in the past ten years has undergone a significant gentrification… once it was car garages, seedy bars, and pawn shops. The street my condo is on was once notoriously known for hookers and blow. Following the riots in the late 1960s, my neighborhood was a burnt hulk… then the economy started to change in DC. Homosexual men and DINKS (Dual income, no kids couples) began to move in. The neighborhood’s schools were horrible, but the urban lifestyle of row houses and renovated condo buildings beckoned… Logan Circle changed. Art studies, upscale bars and shops flourish… it is now one of the nice zip codes in the District. With this influx of income came the desire to ensure nobody fucked with your shit or dirtied your building. The new residents were willing to sacrifice certain “freedoms” to ensure the security of the wealth and the upscaleness of their neighborhood.

Here is what I learned about Amurikan political institutions… everybody wants to ensure that their home and shit aren’t fucked with as long as they don’t have to pay “too much” for it. Raising fees to ensure the cleanliness and safety of the building was hotly debated… yet everyone bitched if the trash was overflowing or someone had their bike stolen. I owned this condo for 4 years and paid approximate $200 a month to ensure my “freedom” of a clean and safe building was secured. I never balked at the idea of paying $5-$10 more a month each year because I accept the economic theory of inflation… yet many did have issue with this. Rule one in Amurika… I want the same or better service but I am unwilling to pay for it. I want my costs to stay the same no matter what. Hell… cut my fees and give me everything I have now.

Another thing I learned was that it is never anyone’s fault but the condo board’s. Some other owner’s toilet overflowed and flooded your bathroom… well it must be the building and board’s fault. Regardless of the fact that there were legal and binding (and voted in) rules that every owner agreed to that stipulated that someone else’s toilet overflowing is the responsiblity of the broken toilet owner. If you had a dispute or flooding issue with another owner… you were required to fix the issue personally and privately through insurance… yet many owners believed that the building and board should pay for the repairs. Here is what I learned, even if one agrees to a rule… votes for the rule… the rule is meaningless in the eyes of some because they are so selfish and ignorant that they will still demand someone else be responsible. Laws and rules are great until they affect me in what I perceive as a negative manner.

Basically, one cannot be a civilized society without rules. Rules are necessary to ensure the safety and security of the society… and sometimes those rules may feel burdensome. Responsible society members, however, must understand that they are not alone in their existence and that there is a required sacrifice by every member of society. An unwillingness to personally sacrifice for the good of society leads to anarchy and breakdown of order. My views on Amurikan politics, its political institutions, and its history were confirmed when I spent a year on my condo board… what I learned is that people are self-serving bastards and are willing to throw their neighbor under the bus if they feel they have something gain from it… and, oh, it is never their own fault for anything. Finally, I learned that gay men really love fancy decorative plants and greenery… as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

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