Need a Statue Strategy? Privatize the Public Square

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August 29, 2017 by Anders Ingemarson

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, even more voices are heard across the political spectrum in support of tearing down statues commemorating prominent Confederate individuals such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and others. These voices argue that putting such individuals on a pedestal sanction the evils of the old South: slavery, secession, and military aggression.

In response, others are either advocating for keeping the statues as a part of their (not so) proud Southern heritage, or rejecting the reasons for removal fearing the plausibility that our Founding Fathers may be next in line due to the seemingly rising anti-American sentiment in many quarters.

Trying to find middle ground, a third group supports retaining the statues but with added context; their presence, they say, should serve as a constant reminder and teaching moment for current and future generations so we may avoid repeating the mistakes of our forefathers. In Peggy Noonan’s words “When you tear down statues, you tear down avenues of communication between generations. Statues teach. You walk by a statue of Robert E. Lee with your 7-year-old, and he asks who that is. You say he was a great general. When he’s 8, on the same walk, you explain the Civil War. When he’s 10 you explain what was at issue, and how Lee was not only on the losing side but the wrong side.”

Here at SEPARATE! we’re with Peggy. But more fundamentally, we think that in a truly free society—a society with total separation of state and statues—controversies such as this would at the most be a marginal issue. Why? Because the public square where most of these statues are on display would be private. We would see a mix of individuals as in this case, charities, historical societies, home owner associations, small business groups, and corporations taking ownership. The square would be run for profit or not for profit according to the wishes of the owner(s), not unlike today’s private museums, sculpture parks, gardens and heritage sites. The controversial statues would be retained, removed or replaced at the owner’s discretion, sometimes after considering public opinion. And as with all private property, the owner would set the rules of admission—no trespassing, free, or for a fee—including the rules for who may or may not demonstrate on the property and on what conditions.

Opposing groups expressing their dislike for one another would have to take their clashing elsewhere, which in a society that protects private property would be close to nowhere; violent demonstrations would become events of the past.

Contrast this with today’s situation, where we all collectively share in the property rights of the public square. We have a right, directly or through our representatives, to weigh in on its design, including what statues to put on display. And we have a right to determine what the public square should be used for, incl. whether to allow demonstrations or not, and on what terms. But there are a lot of us, and we have different ideas and opinions. Most of the time we get along and work out our differences. But if not, our only recourse is to violate one another’s rights through force, either with our vote or, as in Charlottesville, with violence. The public square simply doesn’t have the good fences that make good neighbors. The private square does.

We would like to see counties, cities, towns, and municipalities around the country put up their squares, parks and promenades for sale. And the federal government might as well get in the game, divesting itself of the National Historic Sites and Parks that otherwise are bound to become subjects of controversy sooner or later.

We are under no illusion that we’ll see a mass movement any time soon. But sowing the seed and taking every opportunity to nurture it in the free marketplace of ideas will hopefully inch us in the right direction—and prevent the “Alt-Right” and “Antifa” mobs from descending on the Jefferson Memorial.

Fire away!

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