Shining a laser in your face
Property rights are a natural consequence of freedom – that is, owning oneself. One cannot own himself if he is not free to act. This is likewise true for making and controlling the products of his own work (material goods), which is merely a particular type of action. This fact gives rise to property rights.
That much is old hat. As always happens, many people start treading intellectual water when we get in concretes. What does it mean exactly to own the products of one’s mind ? Thus you get endless debates around such things as patents, copyright laws, homesteading, ownership in a fluid medium, and so on. All these issues are not critical, but rather are discussions of detail.
The issue of externalities, however, have been proposed as being perhaps fatal to the notion of property rights. An externality is an occurance where the actions of one person directly affects another person, without the two being involved in a relevant exchange. This is also called “neighbourhood effects”, because they tend to be area problems, such as pollution.
One famous example is that of the laser. Basically, the situation is that a neighbour is shining a laser towards your property, presumably making annoying points of light appear on your windows or burning your eyes out. Because the laser belongs to the neighbour, the argument goes, there is a conflict between both individuals’ right of property.
The solution is to apply the law, not to subscribe to political pseudo-science.
This is a stunningly stupid argument. The premise of having rights is that the rights of one person stop where the rights of the other begin. I have the right of action, but if I kidnap you, I am breaking yours. That is why kidnapping is illegal. In the same way, the fact that the neighbour is visually polluting and damaging my property (or myself) is an attack against my rights. Whenever the neighbour does or does not own the laser is completely besides the point – it is illegal one way or another.
In fact, we already have laws against such things. They are called nuisance laws. Either the people using this argument are ignorant of the law (which is not an excuse, I’ve been told), or its meaning has escaped the piercing mental gaze of these intellectual giants.
The problem of externals is, in most cases, a non-problem. I am always annoyed at the efforts spent by even libertarian commentators to try to explain how pollution would not be a problem in a free state because companies would get their money together and trade a reduction of pollution with the other fellow.
While these solutions would probably work in a sense, they are completely irrelevant. Pollution is usually an attack against another fellow’s property rights. We already have laws against pollution, all we need to do is enforce them. Then we would feel much more secure about it.
Right now pollution is a big psychosis because we have to watch our back, and the government isn’t willing to treat the problem intelligently. It has become a slave to the green lobby. Instead of attacking its own pollution problem (the US Army is the biggest polluter in the country) and putting higher taxes on gasoline, it protects forests from getting cut (making more forest fires) and promotes a Kyoto quota system which will cost millions of jobs for a mere reduction of 0.6 C. Environmental policy in our governments is all upside-down.
Nevertheless, negative externalities are not the problem, but rather the fact that people inflict them on each other. The solution is to apply the law, not to subscribe to political pseudo-science.