David R. Henderson  

Smoking, Evolution, Contraception, and Shoes in Living Room

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Should restaurants allow smoking or not? Should schools teach evolution or intelligent design or both? Should insurance companies cover contraception? Should I be able to take off my shoes in your living room?
This is the opening paragraph of the Econlib April Feature Article, "How Property Rights Solve Problems," written by me. I show how the fourth question, whether I should be able to wear shoes in your living room, resembles the other three and how property rights solve all four.

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CATEGORIES: Property Rights

COMMENTS (18 to date)
ThomasL writes:

I agree about property rights offering some possibility of solution to these kind of issues.

I want quibble a bit with 2 and 3 being analogized to 1 and 4. Of course no analogy is perfect, but looking at 3 and 4 in particular, the former is a violation of conscience, while the latter is only a violation of decorum.

There is a difference not of degree but of kind in attempting to compel someone to do what they believe to be wrong in itself vs. something that is simply inappropriate in the circumstances.

Vipul Naik writes:

Property rights and free markets do "solve" all these problems, in the sense of (generally) giving individuals what they personally prefer. But they fail to create a *world-state* that *every* individual prefers.

The activists on each side of the issue in these cases are fighting the issue precisely *because* they disapprove of the solutions that property rights offer. They want a different solution, not just for themselves, but *for others*. Even if schools were completely private, it wouldn't simultaneously be true that they *all* teach evolution-only or they *all* teach creationism-only, which means that at least somebody on at least one side of the divide will be unhappy by the results.

So I think the problem you claim that property rights do solve is a much easier problem than the actual source of conflict.

blink writes:

The analogy is helpful, and I concur with the property rights approach. Still, I think "shoes" lacks the emotional force of the other three examples -- perhaps something that is private but still raises some people's blood pressure would be more convincing.

Also, you avoid the hard problem by assuming that "property rights" are easily defined. For example, proponents of limits may claim externalities in some cases. I may have legitimate concerns about a noisy night club next door, a bar that attracts thugs, or the dilapidated building across the street. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to include smoking, education, and contraception. After all, that people express opinions about these issues shows they have preferences over the actions of others. In think you need to make the case that these preferences are illegitimate and should be discounted.

Daublin writes:

Very well done.

A corollary is worth pointing out. In the public policy version of these questions, no matter which decision is chosen, a large minority is going to personally displeased. They'll end up in the wrong kind of restaurant, the wrong kind of school, the wrong kind of insurance policy, and the wrong kind of living rooms.

In the private policy version, people vote with their feet. There is hope--not a certainty, but a hope--that not just most of the citizens, but all of the citizens, will end up in a a situation that they personally prefer. It's not a sure thing, but at least with the private version, there's a chance of success.

Glen Smith writes:


The whole point of the shoe example is that it is a mundane thing.
Now, the thing with the no-smoking restaurant is that a government law creates rent-seeking opportunities for certain businessmen. At the very least, it allows a restaurant owner to reap the benefit of cost reduction while not risking his/her business to greater extent than any other restaurant. In most places I've live when there's a hard move for no-smoking restaurants, the restaurants (or those restaurants that'll get an advantage) are the biggest supporters of the no-smoking movement.

Monica S writes:

I agree with the contraception and restaurant analogy, but what schools teach is very different because the children are the ones who are affected but it is parents who decide. Children are not property and since they can't meaningfully consent to much themselves, someone else has to make decisions for them. I don't see why it is any less of a rights infringement for the state to make this decision than it is for the parents to make this decision, because either way it is not the affected party (the child) who is making the decision.

Tony Licari writes:


Great article!


Excellent points.

Bob Murphy writes:

David, just those four sentences from your excerpt could replace an entire discussion from other scholars. Of course, one would probably need to spell it out more for people who didn't see why I thought those 4 sentences were sufficient.

Bill writes:


RPLong writes:

Excellent article!

"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

I never realized Jefferson wrote anything like this. The first time I encountered this view was in reading Rand. Interesting.

ajb writes:

And yet at the margin, some minorities will be disserved. That is why we have states. Nations are one "property rights" mechanism for solving collective action problem. You may think it is an inefficient solution, but we have not found a way to get aggregations of people that solve the order/law/community dilemma that does not involve nations. But the structure of nations allows not only rent-seeking but defections at the margin. Since it is not efficient to vote/discuss/delineate by property rights everything, rules and norms evolve to favor both the majority and certain protected minority interests. In the end, the majority has an interest in restraining certain behaviors even if some freedoms are obstructed.

Restrictions on immigration or definitions of who is an adult are tied to debates about which persons will have standing to decide the structure of property rights.

Sam writes:


I had to read the fourth question over several times, thinking that you had it backwards. As a Swede I would expect all guests to leave their shoes in the hall before venturing further into my home. (Except maybe for formal events.) I find these small cultural differences funny.

biagio writes:

I agree with you on the smoking issue and it is something I have always thought, however, to play the devil's advocate, couldn't the other side comeback be that the state tries to reduce its health cost? Sure then your point must be accompanied by a vision of a world where everyone takes care of his own health.
As far as the teaching of evolution is concerned however there is the rational part of me who agrees with your point but also one that is terrified of an apocalyptic world populated by uncritical idiots only because we were libertarian in our approach to education.

Shangwen writes:
I hate smoking with a passion. I'm a militant anti-smoker when it comes to my own behavior and what I allow in my home. But I'm a militant defender of the right to smoke....

I think this is why libertarianism is pretty strong philosophical meat for people who are otherwise conversationally OK with the idea of live-and-let-live. I hate being around people who are stoned or drunk, but am totally opposed to criminalizing drugs. However, tribalism and ideological xenophobia make it acceptable for most people to advocate force against those who are merely different in their views.

Ken B writes:

I confess to a nagging, uncomfortable doubt about the schools. To some degree society does have a responsibility for children. We will intervene in some extreme circumstances. I think we should (and I think libertarians are always going to lose when they argue we never should). This makes a colorable case for some standards in education; it's not just my arbitrary dislike for your choices.
So do property rights really resolve that? Ameliorate perhaps.

David R. Henderson writes:

I want [to] quibble a bit with 2 and 3 being analogized to 1 and 4. Of course no analogy is perfect, but looking at 3 and 4 in particular, the former is a violation of conscience, while the latter is only a violation of decorum.
There is a difference not of degree but of kind in attempting to compel someone to do what they believe to be wrong in itself vs. something that is simply inappropriate in the circumstances.

True on both counts. But where they are similar enough is in the solution: property rights.
@Vipul Naik,
I did agree in the article that not everyone will be happy. But I’m using the word “conflict” differently from the way you use it. Property rights eliminate conflict. To take another example, I find it disgusting that some people were nose rings. But they are I are not in conflict.

I have responses to many of the comments on this post and so I’ll do a new post.

David N. Welton writes:

With regards to smoking, here's an anecdote:

My wife and I used to live in Innsbruck, Austria, a mid-sized university town of roughly 100,000 people. The Austrians, as much as they have a lot of bureaucracy in other things, were very much in favor of the freedom to smoke wherever you want.

The results were that in practically every single restaurant, cafe, or eatery of any kind, you could light up and start chain smoking whenever, and wherever you so pleased. There were no restaurants, bars, cafes, or anything else that catered to non-smokers. As far as I could ever tell, the only places that did not allow smoking were McDonalds and Ikea, which is extremely limiting in terms of options when eating out.

I think you can argue this one in terms of "it's their restaurant, they can do what they want with it", but it seems difficult to argue that the market was doing a good job of allocating smoking and non-smoking places.

For instance, one day, my wife took our 6 month old daughter to a cafe with our friend and her daughter, at around 2 in the afternoon. They got there, sat down, started eating cake and coffee, and some elderly women arrived, lit up and started chain smoking. What can you do at that point? It's -5 C outside, so picking up and leaving is not a great option, as they would have had to go somewhere else. My baby and her mother came home reeking of cigarette smoke.

I once read an interesting idea; that rather than banning smoking everywhere, what they should do is auction off "smoking allowed" licenses, in order to force owners to consider whether it's something they actually need, or whether it's simply a situation where they don't want to be the only/first one to "defect".

Joe Cushing writes:

This is the same point that is missing from the Obama care debate. People in favor of forcing people to buy the kind of insurance bureaucrats think they should buy are in favor of this because of a prior violation of private property rights. They argue that people are already in the health care market and that the government isn't forcing them to enter. This is only true because government has already forced people into the heath care market by forcing hospitals to cover care for people who can't pay. Hospitals have a public interest to cover these people and do do charitable people but neither have a choice.

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