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I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion

by Mike Kimel

I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion

I wandered over the Libertarian Party and I found their Platform. I’m sure there are a few items here and there with which some libertarians disagree, but in general, it seems to me to be a pretty fair representation of libertarian beliefs, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. That said, I do not believe libertarians live up to their stated beliefs. Here’s the first sentence of the pre-amble:

As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.

To that end, of course, the libertarian philosophy also seeks to minimize government, in particular, government coercion.

More below the fold!

And it is precisely here – in the first sentence of the pre-amble, and its implications, where libertarians go off the rails. Consider the following… my neighbor, whom we have never met and might not even have seen (we’re not certain) despite living in this house for two years, seems to enjoy letting her lawn grow uncontrollably. (Feel free to substitute “loud music” or “noxious fumes” or “toxic waste” or “rats and other vermin” or “vile (like there are any other kind) windchimes” or “measles”, etc., to make the story more relevant to you.) As I type, the place is something of an eyesore: weeds, overgrown bushes and knee-high grass. Now, a libertarian would say that our neighbor, being the home-owner, has the right to do what she will with her property, and I should mind my own business and my own property. As it happens, I agree. I may wish she would have weed collection trimmed, but the weeds are on her property and she paid for the right to do what she wants on that property.

My problem is that my neighbor also has taken upon herself to make choices about what happens on my property. See, the weeds she has chosen to grow, or rather, allow to grow, have seeds, and she has chosen to allow the seeds from her weeds to cross onto my property instead of keeping them on her property. Put another way, she has made a decision that I either have to have dandelions and weeds on my own lawn, or I have to expend resources (some combination of time, effort, and money) to eradicate outbreaks. The more weeds she chooses to cultivate on her property, the more resources I have to apply to keep weeds in check on my property the following year. But it isn’t just me – she is also making the same decision about the lawns of other people on the block too.

Now, in this instance, there is a simple solution that anyone who truly believes that property rights should be sacrosanct and nobody should be coerced by anyone else should be willing to agree upon. See, she should have every right to cultivate weeds on her property, but should have zero right to place weeds (actively or passively, it makes no difference to the rest of us) on anyone else’s property. Put another way – it should be her responsibility to ensure that she does not cultivate weeds on our property without our say so.

Now, it turns out that the city has some rules about this. Last year I saw signs placed on some people’s doors saying essentially: “clean your lawn or the city will do it and bill you for it.” As far as I can tell, a libertarian – every libertarian I have come across, would view that as coercion. I, on the other hand, see things differently – were the government to allow people to create infestations on their property that inevitably spread onto their neighbors’ property, the government is essentially coercing the neighbors of those that would grow weeds into either growing weeds themselves or spending an inordinate number of resources fighting it. And to some extent, the libertarians, and I, are both partly right. But here’s what they’re missing; someone will be coerced, no matter what, as long as there are people who will grow weeds. Or play loud music or emit noxious fumes or dump toxic waste or allow rats and other vermin to proliferate or put up vile windchimes or refuse to get their kids vaccinated for measles, etc. In the end, the question is – who will be coerced, how many will be coerced, and how bad will the coercion be? I tend to come down on the side that the coerced party should be the one that is the first to try to coerce others, and that the coerced party should be as small as possible, and that the coercion should be the least bit possible. And it is clear that while libertarians may say the same thing, it isn’t true, as the one they don’t want to see coerced is my neighbor, but they have no problems coercing everyone else on the block.

Now, frankly I can understand how many libertarians don’t see this. Many of them are misfits or eccentrics. Others simply can’t reason out that there are two sides to every equation (and this, six decades after Coase!). Some like to view themselves as lone wolves, in no way beholden to the rest of society. Some find they can be more successful in business if they don’t pay taxes and/or find export their costs onto third parties. And of course, there are the thugs. Guess which group will take over if libertarians ever get their way.

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