Americans love to defend liberty–and oppose government actions that they believe intrude on that liberty. (Granted, all too often they are perfectly willing to have government limit other people’s liberties, especially when those other people don’t espouse the same religious beliefs they hold, but that’s a subject for another day…)
We’re just emerging from one of those periodic, heated debates, triggered by “patriots” offended by government’s effort to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. Again, I’m not spending many pixels on the anti-mask, anti-vaccination folks, because (with very few exceptions) they are so clearly wrong–not just on the science, but on the role of government–not to mention remiss in discharging their most basic obligations to other humans. People who don’t believe public health is a public good that governments are bound to protect are beyond the reach of logic and reason.
In many other areas, we get into various shades of gray. There are plenty of issues that raise legitimate questions about the proper role of the state. I’ll admit to qualms, for example, about things like seat belt laws and similar”nanny state” measures, meant to protect individuals from their own heedless or self-destructive behaviors.
I was recently prompted to think about the proper and improper use of government authority when I read a recent “Eye on the Pie” column written by my friend Morton Marcus. Marcus, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is an economist and former director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University. In this particular column, he defended governmental “intrusion” on the most hallowed of rights: property rights. He argued (I think persuasively) that your house may be private property, but it also has characteristics of a public good.
My house can be seen by anyone driving down my street. Unless I go to great trouble, I can not stop you from seeing my house. I can’t charge you for looking at my house.
But what you see of my house influences your opinion of my block and the price you’d pay to live near me.
Broken windows, leaky roofs, sagging gutters, piles of trash, and abandoned furniture are not inviting signs of habitation. Such a house may be a fire hazard and a danger to its neighbors.
At the same time, if my house has rats or unhealthy conditions, it may pose a health hazard not only to my family, but to yours as well. My children play with your children. I meet you in the grocery. We family may be carriers of disease, my house a public health menace.
Governments have limits on private behavior when public health and safety are at risk. Yet, we’ve seen great resistance to action that infringes on presumed private rights.
We don’t enforce building codes. We allow structural deterioration and abandonment. We don’t insist houses have adequate insulation from the cold of winter and the heat of summer to protect residents from chronic illness..
Our collective neglect is excused because we believe we’re protecting the poor and/or elderly who cannot afford repairs or adequate weatherization.
Yet our housing stock is one of the most vital aspects for the economic development we seek. Our state provides funding to restore abandoned, old movie theaters, but does little to resurrect declining houses.
Our reluctance to infringe on the “rights” of a property owner conflicts with the community’s need to preserve its critical assets.
Morton argues that there are many negative consequences of not treating housing stock as a public good: decay of our central cities, abandonment of our smaller towns, encouragement of urban sprawl and environmental degradation. He blames the “infatuation with the myth of unlimited private property rights.”
Of course, as any lawyer will confirm, there are few if any rights that are “unlimited,” and property rights are no exception. Laws against nuisance, and minimum upkeep regulations–neither very well enforced, unfortunately–are meant to protect the considerable investments people make in their homes.
Morton’s column raises some thorny issues: does government have an obligation to ensure that people’s homes are humanly habitable? How far does that obligation extend before it becomes an unconstitutional invasion of property rights? What about the rights of homeowners whose properties are adjacent to homes that have been allowed to deteriorate?
If we are talking about property values, it is interesting to note that, in historic areas that are subject to more stringent government regulation, values are not only stable, but tend to be higher.
I’m not entirely sure where I come down on what are often very technical/legal questions of property regulation, but I am sure that these are precisely the sorts of questions our elected officials ought to be debating–rather than worrying about my uterus, Jewish space lasers, or being “replaced.”