Tibor Machan teaches ethics in the school of business at Chapman University. His latest book is Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society (Cato Institute).
For a couple of years, Orange County, California, has been buzzing with controversy over what to do when the El Toro Marine Air Base is closed. The question on everyone’s mind is whether it will be transformed into an international airport by the local authorities. Airports of different sizes are being considered, but there are many citizens who would just as soon avoid the troubles they associate with a new airport.
In our time, such an issue is decided by a combination of federal, state, county, and local bureaucracies following various rules that have emerged over many years of similar haggling. Everyone considers the outcome a matter of public concern, and each citizen supposedly has an equal right to have his or her ideas implemented. Nevertheless, the authorities will make a decision driven by the special interests with sufficiently large constituencies and funds to make a serious difference.
In fact, there is no “right” disposition because the valid concerns of all the people expressing their demands are quite incompatible. The objectives of environmentalists, business people, and residents with various interests—the arts, commerce, education, science, travel, and more—are all over the map, and none can be given any rational public priority, despite what those who speak of the “public interest” would have us believe. The simple fact is that there is no public interest involved here. All interests are private and vested. The only bona fide public interest is one that actually benefits everyone equally. And there are very few such projects in any community—mostly they amount to keeping the peace and preserving the rule of law.
Resolving the Unresolvable
But could it be otherwise? Might there be some way of dealing with an issue of widespread yet still essentially conflicting concerns without several groups of people getting the short end of the stick?
Indeed, there is. Briefly, it involves the strict, unfailing protection of individual rights, specifically the right to private property.
Consider the proposal to have an airport in a community. How large should it be? Who will pay for it? And how should affected third parties be treated? In a system of private property rights, those who own the land in question have the authority to decide how it will be used. But that is by no means a simple matter.
For example, in a system of private property rights the use of a parcel of land as an airport may not place unwanted burdens on third parties—just as you may not dump trash on your neighbor’s property. Thus, the operators of the airport may use it only in ways consistent with the equal property rights of their neighbors. Among other things, that means the operators will have to avoid impositions on their neighbors or offer them satisfactory compensation for the hardships.
One way to violate rights is to impose unreasonable noise on others. Serious noise during the night, for example, when folks are reasonably expected to be getting their rest, is a violation of individual rights. During the day the same degree of noise would not be a violation because nearly everyone is making noise as they go about their business.
Or take air pollution. At a certain level, “polluting” the atmosphere is normal—living itself produces waste that cannot be avoided. Yet to dump excessive, unreasonable levels of air pollution on third parties—levels not normal within a given realm—is to violate their rights. The details may be difficult to ascertain. But that’s why we have courts and arbitration groups.
Rights Constrain Activity
Some people will say that stringent protection of rights would lead to small airports, at best, and many constraints on construction. Of course—but what’s so wrong with that?
Perhaps the worst thing about modern industrial life has been the power of political authorities to grant special privileges to some enterprises to violate the rights of third parties whose permission would be too expensive to obtain. The need to obtain that permission would indeed seriously impede what most environmentalists see as rampant—indeed, reckless—industrialization. But it could also significantly impede environmental enthusiasts who gladly violate other people’s rights in striving for their objectives (which at times involve returning to a pre-industrial age).
The system of private property rights—in which building, traveling, farming, woodcutting, and all other kinds of other human activity must be conducted within one’s own realm except where cooperation from others has been gained voluntarily—is the greatest moderator of human aspirations, keeping them in balance with the diverse and reasonable aspirations of all others. In short, people may reach goals they aren’t able to reach with their own resources only by convincing others, through arguments and fair exchanges, to cooperate.
Unfortunately, most special-interest groups—business, environmental, scientific, educational, artistic, and so on—construe their own objectives as superior to those of others. In the case of the El Toro facility, each side tends to believe that its cause is just and that the others are simply using financial and political muscle to thwart it.
In fact, however, many objectives are equally sound and should be carried out—within the limits of individual rights. Look at how this system of rights works in two areas of life: religion and publishing. Many different religions manage to co-exist in reasonable harmony, mainly because each group is able to operate unbothered within its own realm. Many diverse publications also manage to co-exist harmoniously. This, too, is largely because publishing organizations have the right to operate their own facilities and sell their own products unimpeded by the political and bureaucratic processes that govern broadcasting, public education, beaches, parks, and forests. In those areas, individual rights do not rule. Instead, there is a semi-democratic approach in which, at the end of the day, most people are left dissatisfied. Such is the “tragedy of the commons,” especially in a country where most people implicitly (if inconsistently) believe the individual’s pursuit of happiness is important.
There is, in short, no satisfactory answer to the El Toro controversy within our system of largely politicized social decision-making. But we are not necessarily stuck with this state of affairs. Eventually, we might transcend it.