Trust is at the centre of every personal and economic relationship we have and without it, any community in the meaningful sense of the word is impossible. Encouragement by the government to dob each other in discourages the formation of that trust. The extreme example of a government actively encouraging the breaking of that trust suggests how important it is. In totalitarian socialist and fascist societies, the state broke down civil society to such an extent that people would report even their own family members for any perceived minor infractions.
MARGARET Norriss is living in fear. The retired teacher is so scared of the emergence of water vigilantes that she doesn’t dare hose her front garden, even though she has been using a rainwater tank for the past nine years.
“The whole thing is turning the community against one another,” Ms Norriss told The Sunday Age. “It’s becoming like Big Brother and I’m starting to feel very uncomfortable.”
In the ethics of dobbing, I think there are at least two clear categories and a more complex one in the middle – where I think we find water dobbing, but Chris does not. We both agree that dobbing in criminals and terrorists is ok. As Chris puts it:
Reporting crime or terrorism helps, rather than harms, the viability of our communities by making us feel safer and more confident in our person and possessions. As a result, no one complains. The thief knows that stealing is wrong, and the dobber knows that stealing is wrong. Everybody accepts laws against stealing.
At the other end of the spectrum are offences where the perpetrator is risking self-harm. Chris gives the example of jaywalking. I wouldn’t report a jaywalker. I probably would not report a drug user, unless they were making a nuisance of themselves (I haven’t to date, anyway). I think crossing the road dangerously and taking illegal drugs are both stupid, but in an anonymous big city I am not going to try to save strangers from themselves.
But breaching water restrictions is, I think, in a slightly different category. Of course one retired school teacher watering her garden isn’t going to make much difference, even if she was not using her own rainwater tank. But collectively the restrictions are an important part of ensuring that there is enough water for everyone’s basic needs. The more the rules on water use are broken, the harder it is to convince people that this is a shared sacrifice that they should be a part of. Indeed, tougher enforcement was a response to complaints that people ignoring the earlier less onerous restrictions were not being punished and were continuing to waste water.
As Chris says, it would be better to sort these things out locally if possible. But there are plenty of people who don’t care what their neighbours think any more than they care about the water restrictions more generally. Dobbing these people in and getting the authorities to slow their water to a trickle is a way of both stopping them wasting water and convincing other people that they should keep their usage down.
The way to deal with innocent waterers like Margaret Norris is what people, in self-help mode, have already been doing. This is putting up signs pointing out the water is coming from a rainwater tank, and not the public system. Perhaps to avoid fraud we need a more official set of signs, or a web list of self-supplied waterers. But where major collective interests are involved, a norm against dobbing is likely to be counter-productive.