Dealing With Eyesores in an Anarcho-Capitalist Society

I recently noticed this question posed on the anarcho-capitalist Reddit boards, the author writes:

The argument is along the lines of: “Something about your property is an eyesore and is harming everyone’s property value.”

Is this a legitimate point? I don’t see how this can be an act of aggression. I’m having trouble coming up with a concise rebuttal to this. Most of my comebacks are slippery slope argument or: “Well I think your face is harming my property value so I think we need to do something about that.” Not exactly what I’m looking for.

To answer the question, yes, it is a legitimate point.  But what I really think the author is looking for is the proper way to deal with this situation.

The way this situation would be dealt with, in the absence of home owners associations, state regulations, zoning restrictions, etc…, is through the homesteading principle.   Private law courts would basically look at who was there first and decide based on the homesteading principle.

Consider this example:

If a person owns a home in a nice neighborhood and a pig farmer decides he’s going to setup shop across the street from them, private law courts would uphold any eyesore/smell complaints brought by that homeowner as being legitimate.  However, if a person buys a home across the street from a pig farm, then comes to the courts to complain about the eyesore/smell of the farm, the courts would not recognize that complaint as being legitimate.  The homeowner bought the home in full knowledge of the condition of the environment around it and agreed to purchase the home at that price, which would surely be at a bargain because of the pig farm.

This homesteading principle applies to all businesses and homes. If a person moves in next door and starts destroying their lawn and putting junkers up on blocks in the front yard, their neighbors have a legitimate right to sue for property value damages if the previous condition of the lot was in good upkeep.

This principle would maintain order and nice communities without the need to have a bureaucratic body deciding who can build what where.  If a homeowner can demonstrate property damages (loss of value) that was not part of pre-existing conditions, and which was caused by some specific actor, then that homeowner has a legitimate claim against said actor.

When in doubt, always look to property rights for the answer to any problem in the absence of the State.  The eyesore is in fact a form of pollution (unintended damage to the value of other peoples’ private property.)  There is already a large pre-existing body of work on pollution and environmentalism in libertarian journals.

Block writes in Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: The Case for Private Property Rights:

Up to the 1820s and 1830s, the legal jurisprudence in Great Britain and the U.S. was more or less predicated upon the libertarian vision of non invasiveness (Coase, 1960, Horwitz, 1977). Typially, a farmer would complain that a railroad engine had emitted sparks which set ablaze his haystacks or other crops. Or a woman would accuse a factory of sending airborne pollutants to her property, which would dirty her clean laundry hanging on a clothesline. Or someone would object to the foreign matter imposed in one’s lungs without permission. Almost invariably, the courts would take cognizance of this violation of plaintiff ’s rights. The usual result during this epoch was injunctive relief, plus an award of damages.

Contrary to Pigou and Samuelson, manufacturers, foundries, railroads, etc., could not act in a vacuum, as if the costs they imposed on others were of no moment. There was a “way to force private polluters to bear the social cost of their operations”: sue them, make them pay for their past transgressions, and get a court order prohibiting them from such invasions in future.

Upholding property rights in this manner had several salutary effects. First of all, there was an incentive to use clean burning, but slightly more expensive anthracite coal rather than the cheaper but dirtier high sulfur content variety; less risk of lawsuits. Second, it paid to install scrubbers, and other techniques for reducing pollution output. Third there was an impetus to engage in research and development of new and better methods for the internalization of externalities: keeping one’s pollutants to oneself. Fourth, there was a movement toward the use better chimneys and other smoke prevention devices. Fifth, an incipient forensic pollution industry was in the process of being developed. Sixth, the locational decisions of manufacturing firms was intimately effected. The law implied that it would be more profitable to establish a plant in an area with very few people, or none at all; setting up shop in a residential area, for example, would subject the firm to debilitating lawsuits.

But then in the 1840s and 1850s a new legal philosophy took hold. No longer were private property rights upheld. Now, there was an even more important consideration: the public good. And of what did the public good consist in this new dispensation? The growth and progress of the U.S. economy. Toward this end it was decided that the jurisprudence of the 1820s and 1830s was a needless indulgence. Accordingly, when an environmental plaintiff came to court under this new system, he was given short shrift. He was told, in effect, that of course his private property rights were being violated; but that this was entirely proper, since there is something even more important that selfish, individualistic property rights. And this was the “public good” of encouraging manufacturing.

Under this legal convention, all the economic incentives of the previous regime were turned around 180 degrees. Why use clean burning, but slightly more expensive anthracite coal rather than the cheaper but dirtier high sulfur content variety? Why install scrubbers, and other techniques for reducing pollution output, or engage in environmental research and development, or use better chimneys and other smoke prevention devices, or make locational decisions so as to negatively impact as few people as possible? Needless to say, the incipient forensic pollution industry was rendered stillborn.


  • Anonymous

    “The eyesore is in fact a form of pollution (unintended damage to the value of other peoples’ private property.)”

    Pollution cannot sensibly be defined as damage to the _value_ of property. Rather it is a form of damage to the physical integrity of property–akin to a brick through the window.

    Nobody has a right to the _value_ of their property, since value is subjective and exists in people’s heads. Consider the entrepreneur who creates a brilliant new mode of transport, he hasn’t infringed on the rights of car manufacturers, even though his invention has harmed the market price of the cars they’re trying to sell. The same is true of the person who decorates his property in a way his neighbor disapproves of–absent a contractual breach, he hasn’t infringed on anyone’s rights.

    The appropriate way to deal with this kind of conflict, imo, is through the preemptive use of restrictive covenants/homeowners associations.

    • Yeah, you are right that pollution needs to be some kind of physical violation of their property’s integrity.

      I’ll think about a better response.

  • Rudd-O

    You should have distinguished between real eyesores (refer to the Epic Lawn Chair story on the Web) and pollution.  Not making that distinction reduces the value of your post.  🙂

  • Skyler Collins

    Indeed, loss of value is not a form of property damage. A Rothbardian should now that. ^_^