Friday, March 19, 2010

Between "Informal" and "Illegal"

This post has been marinating for a while, I wrote it some time ago and I wasn't really sure where I was going with it, so I didn't publish it, but reading back over it now, I guess it's at least a little thought-provoking.

I just read a very interesting article about how slums might give us a model for the future of cities. I have to admit, it was my interest in post-collapse theory that initially attracted me to the headline, but the article was actually about how the density and activity of the slums provides a different model for urban living than the sleek, sanitized, and intensely regulated modern city life the developed world has come to expect. The article was primarily about how cities have long gone untapped as a model for "green" living, but the thing that really caught my eye was a reference to the "informal sector" of the slum economy. That is, what some might refer to as the illegal sector: alleyway salesmen, squatters, and the like.

All of this made me think of a phrase our wedding florist used in reference to obtaining flowers not readily available on the retail market: midnight gardening. Basically, flower stealing. This florist wasn't saying that she steals other people's flowers to make money for herself, but if she spots a flourishing patch of Whatever in someone else's garden or lawn, she might take a snip of it some late night and put it in a vase in her own house. Theoretically, this would be stealing, but can anyone really imagine pressing charges for something like this?

My point, and the thing that got me off on this tangent, is that there is a middle ground between informal and illegal activity that most of us implicitly acknowledge as ambiguous moral territory. It is illegal to roll a stop sign in a deserted neighborhood at 3:00am, but people do it. It is illegal to drive over the speed limit, but people do it. It is illegal not to have white or yellow reflectors on bicycle pedals (at least in California), but a lot of people don't even have pedals that will fit reflectors. Most of us do things that are illegal every day with only a dim consciousness that these things theoretically breach a written code of conduct, but are not, in a cultural sense, immoral or otherwise damaging to the community at large.

And yet, even with an acknowledgement that there is some slippage between codified and actual human conduct, our first response to social problems is to seek new legislation, knowing full-well that (as the old saw goes) "rules are meant to be broken." But I wonder if the traffic calming theory of removing all signage and roadway markings might also apply on some level to other sorts of laws governing human behavior. If there is a middle ground between informal and illegal, I wonder if there is also a middle ground between the institutional formation and application of laws and utter social chaos? Is there a point at which community norms and standards can stand-in for formalized legal structures and the people can collectively (and ethically) take responsibility for their enforcement?