Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Leaf Blowers, Rights, and Freedom

The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Paul Mulshine has an interesting article on individual rights and libertarianism. The discussion centers around a ban on leaf blowers enacted in the NJ town of Maplewood. In Liberty and leaf-blowers; Your right to use one ends where my property begins, Mulshine writes:

Libertarianism is not so much a system of governing as it is a system of analyzing government - one that most libertarians are notoriously bad at.

Nothing proves that better than the "dust-up" over a summertime ban on leaf blowers in Maplewood.

I use that term advisedly. Leaf blowers kick a lot of dust up. Often, after I've just washed my car I will drive past some lout who is blowing crud directly at my passenger door.

But that's just a small aspect of the problem with leaf blowers. The big problem is they make a racket that intrudes on the right of those living nearby to enjoy their own property in peace.

Which right wins out?

This the sort of decision a politician must make.

And it's the sort of decision that most people who consider themselves libertarians are incapable of making - at least if the internet comments on the dispute are any indication.

Understanding rights is one of the defining challenges of our time.

I left these comments:

“Libertarian” is a good word to describe we advocates of political and economic freedom. Unfortunately, many modern libertarians don’t seem to understand freedom or rights’ role in protecting freedom. That’s why I don’t consider myself a libertarian. The term has been distorted beyond recognition.

The thing about individual rights is that it is a dual-purpose principle. First, rights sanction freedom of action in a social context. But freedom cannot mean doing whatever one feels like regardless of consequences—not if the goal is a civil society. That’s where the second function of rights comes in: Rights also define the limits of the individual’s actions. This can best be summed up as, “your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins.” You have right to act in pursuit of your values, so long as your actions don’t violate the same rights of others.

Like with all principles, it’s often easier said than done. The boundary between where your rights end and others’ rights begin is not always easy to figure out. The leaf blower issue is one of those difficult areas, in my view. Leaf blowers are not a big deal to me. I own a leaf blower and use it for my own landscape maintenance. But I live in a large lot, semi-rural area. My lot is 2 acres, and it’s one of the smaller lots around. Even with all of the landscape maintenance companies operating all over the place, people live far enough apart so that it’s distant background noise. So in my view restrictions on leaf blowers doesn’t make sense in my area. On the other hand, maybe in a place like Maplewood, where many people live in close proximity, it is a big enough nuisance to at least warrant legal restrictions without violating the principle of individual rights. Context is important.

Once you understand the purpose of rights, and objectively establish rights’ boundaries, rights need not ever conflict. The best book on freedom and rights I have ever read—not that I claim to be a scholar or anything—is University of Texas professor Tara Smith’s “Moral Rights and Political Freedom.” Smith deals in depth with this and other aspects of freedom and rights (such as why we need rights in the first place). I found the book very helpful.

Related Reading:

Choice vs. Liberty in Education

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