Sunday, July 05, 2009

An Ethical Penumbra

A timely repost. -- Jim

Ludwig von Mises Institute blog post by Jim Fedako

I love the word penumbra -- the shaded area between light and dark . The word has a wonderful ring. Let me propose a matter that is (to me) an ethical penumbra.

The article below came out of a discussion with a next door neighbor who was livid that backyard fireworks were going off about 10 houses away. We (my family) thought it was great since we didn't have to travel for what turned out to be dueling fireworks displays. We (my family again) discussed our neighbor's view and his possible actions.

While I do not like the state, I could not find fault with someone wanting to protect his property (he never called, just paced back in forth in a lather).

So, here is the ethical penumbra: When is it OK to use the state in defense of property? The issue is not my neighbor as his property was far from the fireworks. The issue is other property owners in closer proximity to falling debris.

Don't be a Libertarian Tattletale

What is the difference between tattling and telling? As a father, I know that tattling is something that needs to be addressed every so often. My rule - not subject to debate - is that tattling occurs when one of my children attempts to use the family apparatus of coercion and compulsion (me) in order to gain an advantage over another. Accordingly, tattling does not occur when the tale revolves around the protection of property or life. Therefore, telling me that my middle son is (say) set to jump from his bedroom window to the trampling below is not tattling, while snickering that another sibling skipped her morning job is. Let's apply the Fedako Rule of Tattling to adult life?

Last year we purchased an
Easy Set pool for use in our backyard. Easy Set pools live up to their name: simply place on level ground, attach the electric pump and filter (included), blow up the outer ring, and then fill with water. With no real effort, you can have a pool that is four feet high and 18 feet in diameter, as well as a summer of family fun for less than a public or private pool membership. That is until the township zoning goons spot your pool and start sending notices for removal or fine.

It is at this point that the collectivist cries, "Those pools are an attractive nuisance, they are dangerous." But the pool is almost five feet high (when you include the inflatable ring), requiring a removable ladder to enter. So, even accepting the collective concept of nuisance - and setting aside my own desire to not see someone else's child harmed, the pools pose no real danger. Certainly no more danger than the trees that sit on my property - gravity being a undeniable and lethal force. Of course, some folks see things differently, and those folks inserted regulations into the zoning code to preclude my enjoyment of backyard fun. That said, pools are not the only way to enjoy the summer in your backyard.

In Ohio, fireworks are legal to buy but illegal to set off. Around the holidays, licensed fireworks distributors open their doors to sell fireworks. The consumers are mostly Ohioans who have filled out a state-mandated form swearing to set off those very same fireworks in some other state. Please, those fireworks are set off in backyards across Ohio.

Certainly, a fireworks display brings enjoyment to the property owner, as well as some (if not all) of his friends and neighbors. However, besides the colors and sounds, fireworks also rain sparks and smoldering debris over adjoining properties, creating real and potential threats to those homeowners.

So, here is the current situation: pools that violate zoning and fireworks that violate state law. Now, back to tattling and telling.

On a family bike ride through our neighborhood, we noticed a few Easy Set pools. My children wanted to know why we could not have ours when some neighbors had theirs. My answer: Zoning, as well as government enforcement in general, is arbitrary at best.

The next question was expected. Should we tell on our neighbors for violating the zoning code? My answer: No, that would be tattling. The reasoning is simple: zoning regulations are a collective theft of property rights. Our only reason for tattling would be to gain an advantage over our neighbors - the power to control their property through the use of the
social apparatus of coercion and compulsion. We can't have our pool, so you can't have yours.

Hey, if these folks can get away with a small act of civil disobedience, the more power to them. They have not aggressed against my property nor violated a contract. The state is the aggressor and violator. Besides, I do not want to support the state by acting as its volunteer agent.

What about fireworks? What is the appropriate response in this instance? The answer is a little more complicated since the answer depends on where your property sits relative to the fireworks display.

I have only been an outside observer (literally), watching from a good distance the colors and sounds. If I lived where sparks and debris were falling on my property, I could make the call to the county sheriff. In this instance, I am seeking protection for my property from the cartelized protection racket. This is well within my rights since I would not be using government to gain an advantage over my neighbors (I refer to ethical rights, not legal rights). I would merely be protecting my property from aggression.

Could I call the police in order to protect my neighbor's property in his absence should his property sit beneath the fireworks display? If you have an agreement with your neighbor that includes property protection, call. Additionally, if you truly believe that his property will be damaged, call. Otherwise, if you have no property-based reason for stopping the display, remain silent. It could be that all adjoining property owners have agreed to the risk.

Again, we are not agents of the state who must report every violation of law, or any violation for that matter. We are simply acting men and women who have the right to protect our property from aggression.

Sadly, in Ohio, the police likely will not enforce your fireworks complaint - they will not protect your property. However, they will act as the gun wielding muscle should you ignore the zoning folks and decide to keep your pool.

That settled, let's add a twist: Your neighbor builds a fence that violates the restrictive covenant of your development. Do you have a right to complain and seek action? Absolutely. In this instance, your neighbor violated a contract he freely signed.

Occasionally you read about the so-called patriot who installs the 100-foot flagpole and spot lighting in a neighborhood where the restrictive covenant precludes such a display. The patriot claims that he has a right to show his love of flag and country, "That's what our soldiers fought and died for." This is a perversion of liberty: the belief that the desire to worship the flag supersedes any contract previously signed. Usually the media and sundry statists rush to his defense, making the homeowners association the evil usurper of the right of patriotism. The reality could not be further from the truth.

So, a libertarian can complain and seek action for actual wrongs. -- tell when appropriate, but do not tattle. And never use the state to your advantage.

note: It's true, local police will not enforce fireworks laws. But they have threatened me for drifting through a subdivision intersection while bike riding. The idea being that if I come to a complete stop at every stop sign, no more neighborhood car break-ins or armed home invasions (one occurrence). The state's perverse version of the broken window theory.


Anonymous said...

Nice, but you missed the most annoying part of a neighbor enjoying backyard fireworks. The noise. Speaking as a father who had 2 children under the age of 3 crying a couple times in the last month because I had a neighbor who thought fireworks were fun at 10PM.

Now, I have to agree with you on not wanting to use the police for every little matter, but I had two little matters that don't go back to sleep easily. So, being the son of a police officer I did what I was taught to do. Solve the problem myself.

The second time they woke my kids up I carried my crying daughter across the street and to the shock of a group of my neighbors I picked up their bag of illegal fireworks exchanged a few words and walked home. They haven't asked for them back and no police have come asking for them either.

Anonymous said...

Here in Utopia/Muirfield I had to listen to fireworks until after midnight last night. And there were two sources, both three or four houses away. It would have been a nice night to sleep with the windows open but we could not.

Anonymous said...

wonder what fireworks show the public will set off after board approves base salary increase for eligible administrative staff. Dear anon,job well done. I always believe if you want something done right do it yourself.
This is almost as bad as the city of delaware allowing alcohol at recent event, but wonder how many people in past have been ticketed for open containers on the street.
Have a great day all.

Steve Scott said...

When I saw the umbra in the diagram, I immediately thought of an umbrella. Now, what would a penumbrella be?