Menckens Ghost

More About: Philosophy: Libertarianism

Are Libertarians Good Neighbors?

It is said that fences make good neighbors.  But do libertarians make good neighbors?

This question comes to mind because of the problem between the most libertarian member of Congress, Rand Paul, and his neighbor in Kentucky.

The neighbor was recently sentenced to a month in jail for assaulting Paul and breaking his ribs as Paul was mowing his lawn.  Certainly, assaulting someone is inexcusable unless done in self-defense, no matter the provocation. 

In this case, Paul had a history of piling debris on his property near his neighbor's lot.  After the neighbor had cleaned up the debris on three separate occasions, he went off the deep end when Paul did it again. 

News stories did not say if the neighbor had tried to speak with Paul about it in a nice way previously—which is what I would have done and what most people would have done.

Many libertarians are opposed to zoning laws and feel that what someone does on his own property is no one else's business, as long as it doesn't result in what economists call a negative externality—that is, a substantial cost to another party.  Other libertarians are anarchists who think that government is unnecessary.

Accordingly, libertarians tend to be proponents of Airbnb and other services that make it easy for homeowners to rent their homes via the Internet on a short-term basis like a hotel. They also tend to oppose efforts by cities to control and tax this home business.

This is one of the few instances where I side with government against my fellow libertarians.

Sorry, compadres, but through the years I've incurred considerable costs in terms of money, time, stress, and diminished quality of life due to bad neighbors, especially renters—and especially renters who rented by the month, week or day.  They had no tie to the neighborhood, oftentimes didn't share the neighborhood's norms of behavior and upkeep, and, if they had come to town for a major sporting event and rented a home for a couple of evenings, would have loud, late-night parties and trash the neighborhood.

Such behavior didn't bother me when I was younger.  For example, it was no big deal to me when I lived in the barrio and would be awakened by boom boxes playing Mexican music or by gunfire. But now I value tranquility, don't want to live next to a hotel masquerading as a house, work hard at having good relations with neighbors, and am very careful to check local zoning ordinances, crime rates, and property conditions when choosing a neighborhood to buy a home. 

Over the years, my wife and I have learned that a homeowners association is the best option for us, despite the negatives of a HOA, as the property maintenance rules are clear and uniform for all residents.   Don't like the rules?  Then don't move there.

Unfortunately, even living in a HOA doesn't keep inconsiderate jerks from moving into a community.  Some immediately begin to violate the rules that they agreed to before moving in, and in the process, inflict costs on everyone else.

For example, down the street from us in one HOA, an absentee landlord rented his Scottsdale townhouse to a NBA player who played for the Phoenix Suns.  It was mystery why the 21-year-old wanted to live in a community of mostly middle-age residents instead of in a high-rise condo in the many young, hip areas of downtown Scottsdale and Phoenix.  But in any event, he promptly began turning the place into an eyesore and nuisance, which affected the salability of nearby homes that were on the market.

Among other nuisances, he bought a German shepherd puppy and kept it outside all day in the furnace heat of Arizona to bark, whimper, and poop.  Never picked up, the feces attracted flies and stunk like an Army latrine.  Then, as the puppy grew larger, the renter tore off the sliding screen door to his patio so the dog could easily get into the small yard.  He threw the mangled door into the yard, where it could be seen from a neighboring house that was for sale. 

From there, the renter graduated to having loud fights with his girlfriends in the driveway.  One time, as he roared up the street in his Dodge Charger, a woman ran after him, screaming obscenities and trying to hold on to the door handle.  Another time, two cops in separate cars came to the house on a domestic violence call. One stayed back to cover the one who knocked on the door, because domestic violence calls oftentimes end in violence.

Then there was the renter who lived in the townhouse that was attached to the one that my wife and I lived in.  Two Canadians owned the house.  The renter inexplicably let the water heater in the garage leak for weeks without notifying the owners. This resulted in black mold growing on the common wall between his garage and ours.  We had to pay a water/mold remediation company to open up the wall on our side to see if mold had migrated to our side.  To make matters worse, due to having a drinking problem, the renter crashed into one of our trees one night, crashed through his garage door another night, and crashed into the gatehouse to the community on still another night, knocking concrete blocks from the wall and causing $10,000 in damage to his Escalade. 

Renters caused a disproportionate share of problems in the community, but resident owners also could be bad neighbors.  One deranged homeowner lived in slum conditions, with human and dog feces scattered about his house and swamp conditions from a broken irrigation line in the backyard that attracted mosquitoes and increased the risk of neighbors contracting West Nile disease.  He would wheel his city trash container to the curb in his undershorts, to the chagrin of a couple across the street who had a toddler.  His son, an ex-con, would sometime stay with him and walk through the neighborhood high on something while talking to himself.  One day the son turned the gas on in the fireplace, hoping that his father would light one of his cigars and blow up the house.  Luckily, the father smelled the gas in time and turned it off.  Weeks later, the son was carried out of the house by cops in arm and leg restraints after he had gone berserk and was harming himself by banging his head against a wall.

At least residents of the HOA and the City of Scottsdale had recourses available to them to deal with such residents.  The HOA could fine the bad actors for violating rules, and the city could take legal action against them for violating city ordinances.  But if these recourses weren't available, what, pray tell, would doctrinaire libertarians suggest could be done by good neighbors to deal with bad neighbors when polite requests don't work?  Fisticuffs?  A duel in the street?  A call to the local Mafioso?

Before answering, here is a real case study in what can happen when legal recourses aren't available.

My wife and I bought our first house in semi-rural New Jersey, in a township that didn't enforce property maintenance ordinances.  Such ordinances didn't seem necessary to us when we moved there, because our house was on a wooded, one-acre lot and had only two neighboring homes, one of which was a secluded rustic cabin in the middle of three wooded acres that used to be a Boy Scout camp.  A hippie-like couple from Denmark lived in the cabin and taught at the local public school.   They smoked pot, which was none of our concern; and the wife would sunbathe topless in the backyard, which was the best thing about them living next door.

One day we came home from work and found that they had parked a junker of a Volvo on our side of an outbuilding of theirs, just several feet from our property line.  The hood had been removed and put on top of the car.  They couldn't see the car from their house or backyard, but we could see it clearly from our kitchen and sundeck.   We politely asked them if they could move it and even offered to pay for the towing.  They refused.  Since the car was an eyesore and would negatively affect the salability of our house, we spent thousands of dollars having large evergreens planted on our side of the property line as a screen, along with having a tall wooden fence installed.

So, once again, I ask my fellow libertarians what other recourse was available to us in the absence of a governing body that would intercede.  Poison the neighbors' well?  Moon them from an upstairs window?  Tackle the husband when he was mowing his lawn?

A doctrinaire libertarian might answer that the New Jersey neighbors had a right to do whatever they wanted on their property.  As much as I like libertarians, I hope that someone who thinks this way never moves next door to us.

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