11 February 2013

Property Rights & Containment

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | Should Cities Ban Invasive Plants?

[My mother] just bought a house next to a fellow who loves to grow bamboo. It's about 10-12 feet high, maybe more, shading her windows and dropping leaves into her yard. More problematically, it seems to be sending roots over to her yard. Unfortunately, she didn't know when she bought the house that bamboo is a highly invasive plant that can wreak havoc with things like sidewalks and foundations. Yeah, I know; this is what comes of living in Manhattan for forty years.

DC, alas, does not have an ordinance against such plants, though local laws against bamboo are apparently rising in popularity.

But should it? If you libertarians wonder why I say that not all questions can be solved by resort to first principles and property rights, this is why. The plants are on his property, but they're invading hers.
I don't see how this is a problem for property-rights libertarians. What did Oliver Wendell Holmes say? Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose? Your right to plant things in your yard ends at... my yard. And since there's no way*
There are ways, actually. You just have to be extremely diligent about planting the bamboo in certain types of buried containers, typically having many layers as back-ups. A more interesting question that "should a city ban bamboo?" would be "what sorts of oversight should cities impose on bamboo-containment devices?"
to keep the bamboo you plant in your yard and out of mine, sorry, no bamboo.

You can do what you want on your property, but that is only relevant if what you're doing can be reasonably expected to stay on your property. Even the hardline property-rights libertarians I know would admit that "I can do what I want in my yard!" is not a good reason to let people build two hundred foot tall bonfires in their quarter acre residential lots.

As much as I would love to solve everything with first principles and property rights, McArdle is right that not every situation lends itself to that analysis. But this is not one of the situations.

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