Art Carden  

A Political Constraint: There are People Who Get Their Jollies From Ruining Your Fun

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The libertarian corner of the internet is aflutter with news that officials in Leawood, Kansas have shut down nine-year-old Spencer Collins' "take a book, leave a book" Little Free Library (HT: Brian Doherty from Reason, originally, and Lenore Skenazy's Twitter feed).

This blows my mind: "Leawood said it has received two complaints about Spencer Collins' library." Another report quotes an anonymous neighbor who thinks it is an "eyesore."

Seriously. People are consuming their valuable (?) time and energy reporting things like this to local authorities. Next thing you know, they'll be coming for kids' lemonade stands.

I can't track down the quote, but I recall Steven Landsburg writing--I believe in Fair Play--that we should never underestimate people's willingness to ruin others' fun and their desire to meddle in others' affairs. It's a knotty problem, and I wonder which is more important: people who want to free ride on good governance, or people who want to force the rest of us to take a ride on bad governance?

Here's the website I was about to buy one, but then I saw that these things are not cheap.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Brian Albrecht writes:

I bet one of your fans would make an imitation for you... A bleg might be all it takes.

Not me, I would saw off my hand.

Tom West writes:

I saw that these things are not cheap.

Looking at my own buying pattern, I find an interesting trend. It was one thing when custom non-mass manufacturing was twice mass-produced stuff. Occasionally I would by unique items.

But we're *so* efficient with mass-production that the price differential is now a factor of ten, and that's adjusted my anchor price down so far that custom made items seem ludicrously expensive, and I just can't bring myself to spend the money, even if they're the same (relative) price they've always been.

Baumol's cost disease in action...

Alex writes:

Tom West is absolutely right. I'm a carpenter and work on a lot of high end homes. I recently wanted to build a shed for myself, only to discover that the materials would cost me easily $600-$700 more than buying one from a place that specializes in sheds. The one I would build is undoubtedly better, but I absolutely can't build *any* structure for as cheap as buying a ready made one.

When I saw the price, I actually thought it was kind of cheap. By the time I were to collect the materials necessary and build one myself, it would take about a day, and the prices of them are less than I would charge for a day's work.

NZ writes:

WRT carpentry & mass production: this is probably true of sheds and stuff, but not everything.

I designed and built a rack for my guitars. It's much nicer than this $90 one but the materials only cost me a total of $15 (I wouldn't really count the time spent because it was recreation). So, with some mass-produced things you're also paying for the time of some professional designers who didn't necessarily do a great job, and for a brand name, and then in the end you're paying more than for custom-made.

This is also the case sometimes with other projects, like certain electronics builds (certain speakers and mics for example).

NZ writes:

WRT the story in question, I don't see Art's point here. The library was a structure that violated a code. The code exists no doubt primarily to deter liability issues, and to protect property values.

In other words, there are externalities that the 9 year-old of course did not account for when he put up his cute little library.

For example, even if everyone on the block likes the cute little library, what counts is whether the people who come to consider buying a house on the block like it and the signals it sends.

I personally would not mind, but many people would. Many people seek peacefulness, isolation, refinement, or even certain class markers in a neighborhood, and a rinky-dink structure with a hand-drawn sign that invites strangers to walk onto private property and exchange books violates that ideal.

This is also a security concern if the neighborhood is undergoing change, perhaps with distrustful elements creeping in. (Perhaps this is part of why the mother was upset about the otherwise reasonable compromise of moving the library into the garage!)

So while it is easy to point to contradictions and overreaches of government, it doesn't mean that government actions are always wrong. For example, what this guy says makes sense:

"We empathize with them, but we still have to follow the rules," said Richard Coleman of the City of Leawood. "We need to treat everybody the same. So we can't say if somebody files a complaint but we like the little libraries -- we think they're cute -- so we ignore it. We can't do that."
andy writes:

In other words, there are externalities that the 9 year-old of course did not account for when he put up his cute little library.

For example, even if everyone on the block likes the cute little library, what counts is whether the people who come to consider buying a house on the block like it and the signals it sends.

Priceless... ROFL :)

NZ writes:

I could have said "There are externalities that the 9 year-old [and many libertarians, apparently] of course did not account for..."

andy writes:

I thought you meant is as a hillarious joke how one could build such an absurd argument... you didn't mean it seriously, did you..?

NZ writes:

Well, I guess it's funny because it's hard to see how a nine year-old and his cute book swap could cause anyone any trouble. The truth is, it probably wouldn't.

But the rejection of any possibility of externalities by those above the age of nine is equally funny. Why is it so hard to understand the reasons to make the boy move his book swap to the garage?

If you think about it, the city actually acted quite reasonably: they simply left a note stating that there had been complaints, indicating the rule that was broken, and suggesting a method of addressing the issue that would permit the book exchange to remain active. (Which, it seems, the family has followed without issue.)

The city could have fined the family and ordered the book exchange shut down, but they didn't.

If anything, this is an example of government working well.

ThomasH writes:

One has to question the judgement of the regulator who thought it was cost effective to enforce whatever violation there might have been.

Bill Conerly writes:

There's one around the corner from my house. It never dawned on me to call the city and object. The real issue isn't externalities; it's the meddling interference of small-minded neighbors. Time for the kid and his parents to move.

NZ writes:


The regulator explained why it was cost effective: not enforcing it would set a precedent, putting them on a slippery slope toward more serious infractions. So, no doubt knowing full well that this would become a sexy news story about a "Big Old Meanie Bureaucrat pushing around a cute little boy and crushing his dreams", he courageously chose to enforce the law anyway.

@Bill Conerly:

Indeed, once we toss externalities out the window, any number of solutions seem perfectly reasonable, including not enforcing the law, lodging daily counter-complaints against the neighbor who complained, breaking the windows of city hall, or the solution you suggested.

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