A government of mood

In today's hypersensitive political-correctness atmosphere, it's not safe any more to quote 18th century French writer/philosopher/politician Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu's pre-liberte, egalite, fraternite comments about "a government of laws and not of men" because of its unacceptable sexist language.

"A government of laws and not of persons" doesn't have quite the same cachet but the larger point remains valid: the rules ought to be published, predictable, and transparent, not subject to constant case-by-case re-interpretation according to monarchical whim or, in the modern Vermont, vocal-majority mood.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the once predictable but now perilous field of land-use regulation -planning-and zoning and the shiretown of Addison County is a prime example.

And within the P&Z process in Middlebury, hapless not-little-and-local-enough office-supply-vendor Staples is now the entr e du jour, as anti-big-box activists have enlarged their list of retail enemies to include some, not all, despised corporate chains as well as that earlier target, big-box retail outlets.

Historical purists will argue that it wasn't Montesquieu who put the above quote into his 18th century book "L'Esprit du Loi" but English writer James Harrington who used it in his 17th century book, "Empire of the Law" from which source later-President-2, John Adams, put it into the Massachusetts Constitution. Je ne sais pas.

I do know that the basic idea of doing all-things-governmental by-the-open-book was at the root of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in which he ridiculed an arbitrary monarchy. His example wasn't Victoria, who might retaliate, but a safely fictional Red Queen who demanded subjectivity in decision-making via "verdict first, trial later", and a well-known "the law is what is I say it is" quote which, however, I have not been able to find in his pages.

Enthusiasts for majority rule governance should have no quarrel with a town voting to put whatever it wants in its zoning ordinance, so long as it isn't unconstitutional or arbitrary, and so if the shire town votes to exclude retail with an over-50K SF footprint, fine. If its voters want to exclude all chain retail as well, that's their privilege based on their autonomy. Let them then say so in their rule book, so that the management of stores like Staples doesn't naively read the P&Z rules, think (incorrectly) that they're welcome, apply for a permit, and only then find out that they're not.

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