Two months ago, I wrote about the plight of a private, Tocquevillian-style civil association in the small town of Orcutt, California. That group, the Old Town Orcutt Revitalization Association (OTORA), has raised $60,000 in private donations to build a flagpole — from which the American flag would fly — encircled by a memorial to the U.S. armed forces. The flagpole and monument would be located between a highway exit and an adjacent park-and-ride lot, at the entrance to the community’s Old Town section. But the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) refused to grant approval for the project. Finally, citing a 9th Circuit Court ruling, CalTrans declared that hanging an American flag on public land constitutes an impermissible act of “public expression.”
Steve LeBard, who has spearheaded OTORA’s effort, has continued to make his case to the California legislature and to CalTrans directly, aided by TV coverage from Fox News. A bill to overturn CalTrans’s ruling stalled in the California legislature, but a process has now been initiated whereby the state would sell the small patch of land in question to the county of Santa Barbara, which hopefully would be more accommodating. (The process is expected to take four months, and OTORA would write the check on behalf of the county.)
Meanwhile, CalTrans has agreed to let OTORA put up a flagpole — not quite where it wanted, and not in connection with a memorial to the armed forces, but rather in the middle of a sidewalk near the memorial’s intended site. CalTrans’s determination was made in response to LeBard’s insistence that California law requires nothing less: Longstanding California law declares, “The Flag of the United States of America and the Flag of the State of California may be displayed on a sidewalk located in or abutting on a state highway situated within a city….”
So at 9:00 a.m. on the 4th of July, an American flag will be raised at the entrance to Old Town Orcutt.
Because OTORA has not yet received permission to build the memorial to the armed forces, or to build the flagpole where it wants to build it, the flag will be hung atop a temporary pole — one that was used at an Orcutt schoolhouse and which has been donated privately. LeBard has since refurbished the pole, which is 30 feet high and made of wood. Old Glory will hang atop it, waving proudly on Independence Day.
But one could hardly say that CalTrans has been accommodating. CalTrans told OTORA it could not place the flagpole 10 feet off of the sidewalk, leaving space for the armed forces memorial; could not expand the sidewalk enough to accommodate the memorial; and could not build a new, short sidewalk off of the main sidewalk, with the new sidewalk leading to the flagpole and memorial. CalTrans told OTORA it must, however, expand the sidewalk slightly — to accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
CalTrans also won’t provide access to the park-and-ride’s existing power feed to light the flag — even at OTORA’s expense — so the flag will have to be raised every day and taken down every night. CalTrans would, however, “gladly consider allowing” OTORA to provide its own electrical feed, so long as it complies with a long list of regulations that CalTrans outlines.
About 175 Independence Days ago, Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw the potential dangers of ever-increasing centralized power. He described the effects of such soft despotism as follows:
“[A]fter taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
In simpler language expressing a similar notion, LeBard asks today, “How many people have good ideas that would benefit the community, and they run into so many roadblocks, keep getting beaten down by the bureaucracy, that they just give up?”
On the 235th anniversary of American independence, it’s appropriate to celebrate the efforts of citizens like LeBard, and of associations of citizens ranging from OTORA to the Tea Party. There have been signs over the past couple of years that the tentacles of the encroaching administrative state might be able to be beaten back, as the citizenry becomes more attuned to the blessings of liberty. For this we can be thankful, as we watch the fireworks and celebrate the day.