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The Age of Enlightenment?

A Captain in the LAPD has responded to critics (link no longer available) of general surveillance by saying that Americans objected to street lights when they were first installed because they made it easier to see what people were up to at night. There is, of course, a rather large difference between allowing for people to see what goes on in public areas and recording everything that goes on there. The difference is, perhaps, akin to the difference between the Providential God who might be anywhere but is not necessarily in any given place at any given point in time and the Pantheist God who inheres everywhere in nature at all times.

Meanwhile, the only example of I know of street lamps being erected in American history is in Philadelphia in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin says that some credit him with introducing lighting to the streets of Philadelphia. In fact:

“It was by a private person, the late Mr. John Clifton, his giving a sample of the utility of lamps, by placing one at his door, that the people were first impress’d with the idea of enlighting all the city. The honour of this public benefit has also been ascrib’d to me but it belongs truly to that gentleman. I did but follow his example, and have only some merit to claim respecting the form of our lamps, as differing from the globe lamps we were at first supply’d with from London.”

Nowadays, would the government let Mr. Clifton do that?

Reader Discussion

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on May 02, 2014 at 09:52:07 am

I am pretty sure that most governments in the US would in fact permit me to erect a street lamp, provided that the lamp were on my own property. Indeed, my neighbor did precisely that last year--his lamp illuminates the entrance to his driveway, as well as the street surrounding it. So at least in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the answer to the essay's concluding question is "yes."

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 02, 2014 at 11:34:35 am

I lived in a jurisdiction that did not automatically provide street lights, but any landowner could order one from the city for a fee.

That said, only in metaphors is light an unalloyed blessing: just ask anyone who lives to the west of his place of employment and so has to drive into the sun during rush hour each way.

If I'm especially interested in studying the night sky, I'm going to regard my neighbor's street light as pollution. Similarly if I have difficulty sleeping, and my neighbor has surrounded her house with halogen lamps or extravert Xmas displays, I'm going to be vexed by your externalities.

As far as I'm concerned there's no "right" answer here, and no special reason to chide early Americans that bridled at street lamps. Whether we defer to the forces of light or the forces of darkness, and the extent of the deference, is purely a social choice. If I sued to enjoin my neighbor from putting a light on his porch, I'd guess I'd lose. If I sued to enjoin my neighbor from pointing a 6 gajillion lumen spotlight on my bedroom window, I expect I'd win. And in each case, I doubt the court would be able to articulate a workable standard to distinguish between the decisions. It's just a social choice, that's all.

And the fact that it is a social choice illustrates, once again, the fundamentally arbitrary nature of property rights.

it generates externalities.

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nobody.really
on May 02, 2014 at 12:16:05 pm

I think we may be missing the point here (it is of course rhetorical) as it does not really aplly to street lighting but the host of other little things that we are no longer deemed capable of doing for ourselves w/o "nany state" supervision.
In my own case, I live on a private road (oh, oh, nobody will not like that and its' externalities) and wanted to buy and hang a sign indicating that it was a private road. No big thing, right, as the adjacent property also is bounded by a private road and has precisely the same sign that i wished to affix to a pole.
Nope, can't do that; need a traffic survey, etc etc.
Did it anyway. Have never had anyone even stop by.
Also am not permitted to paint speed limits on road even though the County refuses to enforce the 25 mph limit and we have had 2 fatalities in the past 7 years.
The good Professor is correct in a rhetorical sense - if not in the specific case he cites - of course it is a play on the opening comment of the brilliant LAPD captain - do we care to shed light on surveillance activities or not and will the government permit us???
BTW: Nobody, how about giving up some of your self generated externalities - aren't they arbitrary?

take care
gabe

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gabe
on May 02, 2014 at 12:37:46 pm

Everything seems to generate externalities including flatulence but i don't see anyone urging a ban on it - thank goodness, what would any of us here do then?

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gabe
on May 02, 2014 at 13:37:13 pm

Actually I think the points raised were about "negative" externalities.

Our lives are bound up in externalities, feeding children, driving the school bus, avoiding others mistakes, etc., etc.

in Western cultures, beginning with the tremendous explosion in populations of the 19th century (maybe even because of that explosion) there has been a great diminution of individuality consisting of "living outside oneself." That is, to conceive of one's life in terms of its relationships with and meanings to the lives of others (however few in number), rather than conceiving of one's life in terms of the meaning and uses of others' existence in one's own life.

That trend of the 19th century may have been modified, but not eliminated, by the wars of the 20th century.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on May 02, 2014 at 13:45:05 pm

You will forgive a former NYC street kid's reversion to a New York state of mind and his feeble attempts at humor, I hope!

You are correct on individuality. I wonder what you think of some of Peter Lawler's posts on "relational living"

Rather interesting, I would think.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on May 02, 2014 at 14:34:47 pm

Everything seems to generate externalities including flatulence but i don’t see anyone urging a ban on it....

Oh, no?

I'm in a restaurant and somebody says, “Hey, mind if I smoke?”

I always say, "No, mind if I fart?

“It's one of my habits. Yeah, they got a special section for me on airplanes now.

I quit once for a year, you know. But I gained a lot of weight….

It's hard to quit, you know? After sex, I really have an urge to light one up…!”

- Steve Martin

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nobody.really
on May 02, 2014 at 14:59:02 pm

Nobody:

As always, i enjoy your humor. It is quite good. Are you sure you are not from NYC? Perhaps, you had to circle JFK airport for countless hours? This also could cause one to put on weight, ya' know!

On a more serious note however, my comment on flatulence actually had a point, although admittedly one obscured by my silly sense of humor.

It seems as if you often seek to point out that property, etc engenders externalities of one sort or another. This is so true as to be almost "information free."
Additionally, as it is an externality and you seek to highlight the social costs attendant thereto, you also seem to want to either tax or regulate it.
My point is this:
Life itself is an externality generating phenomenon - there is simply no escaping it (especially if we are to believe the climate warriors)!

so too does speech; and as you have advanced certain arguments (see Mr Devine or was it Nile Gardiner's piece this past week) asserting the need for greater "sensitivity" and possible limitations upon speech, it would seem as if there is little chance of escaping some limitation (or tax) on our speech. Flatulence like speech may be more or less effluent depending upon circumstances (certainly mine here is questionable). Are we then to limit this - I mean it is unavoidable that speech will affect a listener.

You see, I don't believe that we should do anything to limit it - no matter how effluent.
I believe that Justice Holmes was wrong when he said that because you should not shout "fire in a crowded movie theater" it is therefore permissible to limit speech.
The authorities could just as easily have arrested the miscreant for disorderly conduct, willful endangerment or some other such law. This still recognizes the externalities involved but preserves the domain carved out for special protection by the 1st amendment.

Just a thought - and pardon the humor - I suspect, however, that you don't mind.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on May 02, 2014 at 15:21:52 pm

Gabe,

I don't think you are wrong to say that we should not take the final question all that seriously. But on the other hand, as a rhetorical move, ending on that question was weak, precisely because it so manifestly invites easy factual rebuttal. Rhetoric matters--at least if our intent is to persuade. The essay would be more effective, and more persuasive, had the final line been entirely omitted. I suppose that we should be charitable, and read with a more forgiving spirit. But I don't think we should assume that the only people who read here are those who already agree with us. Indeed, were that the case, I think much of the point of blogs like this one would disappear.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 02, 2014 at 15:26:22 pm

Kevin:

could not agree more. I rather like the exchanges that we all, from time to time, have on this site.
I suppose I am more partial to it as I also tend to make a not dissimilar error - especially with my silly attempts at humor.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on May 02, 2014 at 15:27:43 pm

Richard,

Your comments here point us precisely to why politics matters. It also shows us why the contributions of scholars and thinkers like Lawler and Masugi, among others, are so important. A parched atomism--of the kind so fundamental to the habits of mind so many economists embrace--ultimately justifies the diminution of individualism on which you remark above.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 02, 2014 at 19:32:38 pm

I think we may be missing the point here….

I surmise Samuelson’s main point was to characterize the NYPD’s surveillance practices as excessive. I sense his subordinate point was to cast doubt upon his analogy to people objecting to street lights. I sense his tertiary point was to say, “HEY LOOK – I’ve got this really cool factoid about Franklin!”

Whatever you think of points 1 and 2, that Franklin quote is a fun factoid.

”[M]ind if I fart?

“It’s one of my habits. Yeah, they got a special section for me on airplanes now….”

Are you sure you are not from NYC? Perhaps, you had to circle JFK airport for countless hours?

Oh, were you stuck sitting in that special section of the plane with me? Sorry ‘bout that.

[A]s it is an externality and you seek to highlight the social costs attendant thereto, you also seem to want to either tax or regulate it.

My point is this: Life itself is an externality generating phenomenon – there is simply no escaping it (especially if we are to believe the climate warriors)!

[S]o too is speech; and as you have advanced certain arguments (see Mr Devine or was it Nile Gardiner’s piece this past week) asserting the need for greater “sensitivity” and possible limitations upon speech, it would seem as if there is little chance of escaping some limitation (or tax) on our speech. Flatulence like speech may be more or less effluent depending upon circumstances (certainly mine here is questionable). Are we then to limit this – I mean it is unavoidable that speech will affect a listener.

You see, I don’t believe that we should do anything to limit it – no matter how effluent. I believe that Justice Holmes was wrong when he said that because you should not shout “fire in a crowded movie theater” it is therefore permissible to limit speech.

The authorities could just as easily have arrested the miscreant for disorderly conduct, willful endangerment or some other such law. This still recognizes the externalities involved but preserves the domain carved out for special protection by the 1st amendment.

1. I don’t recall having advocated greater “sensitivity” or possible limitations on speech recently – but I have made such arguments in some contexts in the past.

2. I don’t regard a Pigovian tax as a limitation per se, but rather the removal of a subsidy. Regardless of what you call it, to goal is to cause actors to bear the full cost of their actions. But if actors are willing to bear those costs, then they’re free to engage in their actions to their heart’s content, just as a person who likes to buy Rolls Royces is free to buy Rolls Royces to his heart’s content. If you’re willing to spend the money, more power to ya.

(Ironically, studies suggest that a Pigovian taxes often frees people more than it constrains them. We live in a world of social norms – that is, often ambiguous, unspoken constraints. I’m motivated to pick up my daughter promptly from the day care provider because I don’t want to get another scolding, and I don’t want my daughter to see me getting scolded. Nevertheless, from time to time, I’m late.

Now, what if the day care provider imposed a fine for late pick-ups? When this was tried, the result was that late pick-ups increased. The fine seemed to tell parents the magnitude of the burden they were imposing on the day care provider – and parents found that they were perfectly willing to pay that price. The social norm, the shame, was the real constraint. The fine was not seen as an additional punishment, but as a substitute. And as a substitute, it just wasn’t as powerful as the norm and the shame.)

3. For what it’s worth, for purposes of this discussion, arresting a miscreant for disorderly conduct, willful endangerment or some other such law is just another version of Pigovian tax. Indeed, I suspect these are precisely the remedies anticipated by Justice Holmes when he offered this analogy.

And no, imposing these remedies, rather than a straight tax, do not vindicate Free Speech to my mind. Nations in which journalists are regularly arrested for saying incendiary things are not generally regarded as bastions of Free Speech rights.

4. Thus, I am unmoved by your objections to my desire to control externalities via a Pigovian tax. That said, there are enormous practical challenges in quantifying an externality and administering a taxing regime. Thus, a policy of Free Speech may yet be optimal, not because speech imposes no costs on innocent third parties (The nursery rhyme ending “…words can never harm me” is empirically false!), but because the practical challenges of controlling the externalities would exceed the benefit.

Note that my conclusion embracing Free Speech is not a statement of religion, but a concession to administrative complexity. If circumstances/technology changed, the cost/benefit trade-off might change as well, and I’d change my conclusion.

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nobody.really
on May 02, 2014 at 19:45:40 pm

Nobuddy:

A favor if you would.

Both you and Richard have referenced Coase someone that i have not read but would like too. My reading list is long, so:
Is there a short work of his from which I can draw the essential flavor of his thinking. would greatly appreciate it.

Oh and i did not make my 1st amendment point in a religious sense either - purely as a practical matter to highlight the difficulty of finding some point at which we would not be confronting or engendering externalities.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on May 02, 2014 at 22:22:44 pm

Thanks, Kevin for your kind reference to me. On the original subject, consider DC's considerable efforts to undo this beautifier's work: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/metro-pulled-out-his-flowers-but-guerrilla-gardener-pops-back-up-in-dupont-circle/2013/10/27/2b22d8fc-3f22-11e3-ad86-5120269ae35b_story.html
The gentleman's website is here: http://www.letmyflowersgrow.com/ He states: "I was stunned and saddened by your [DC govt's] Fed Ex response that I would face "arrest, fines and imprisonment" if I continued to tend to the thousand flowers I planted at the Dupont Circle Metro North Station."

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Ken Masugi
on May 03, 2014 at 08:52:41 am

Ken,

How depressing. And point taken. The awfulness of local government--and of course really all--is distressingly un imaginative and arbitrary. Samuelson reminds us of this in his post.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 03, 2014 at 09:17:46 am

Ken,

Pursuing Richard's thoughtful comment:

"In Western cultures, beginning with the tremendous explosion in populations of the 19th century (maybe even because of that explosion) there has been a great diminution of individuality consisting of “living outside oneself.” That is, to conceive of one’s life in terms of its relationships with and meanings to the lives of others (however few in number), rather than conceiving of one’s life in terms of the meaning and uses of others’ existence in one’s own life."

I am not sure that "living outside oneself" in the fashion Richard describes above is sufficient to escape the dangers of egoism the Tocqueville so eloquently describes. Tocqueville worries that we will withdraw into lives engaged only with the small circle of our families and close friends, and argues that when most of us do so, we are living in a narcissistic and egoistic society that undermines what he thought best about American democracy. Egoism paves the way to despotism, in his analysis--an important part of his argument that is mostly ignored by those who invoke him in contemporary argument. That is the part of Tocqueville's analysis on which Bellah et. al. riffed in Habits of the Heart--a book that is usually interpreted as progressive and not conservative. This is a concern I find absent in most economic thought, at least of the kind we teach undergraduates.

Simple libertarianism so often celebrates exclusively what Isaiah Berlin termed negative liberty--the absence of restraint on individual choices and actions. It is easy for libertarians to forget the other kind of liberty, the kind that requires a well-ordered character in order to make responsible choices. Autonomous self-government requires virtue, and virtue does not happen easily in a culture of narcissism (the title of an idiosyncratic book by Christopher Lasche.).

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 03, 2014 at 11:43:57 am

Ken:

As always nicely put. Let me seek some further exposition of these points, if you will.

" It is easy for libertarians to forget the other kind of liberty, the kind that requires a well-ordered character in order to make responsible choices."

Agreed 100%.

Yet, I believe that there is also another danger that a good society confronts.
Let us consider the alternative to the "negative liberty" types. By that I mean those that seek to engage in the culture in which they reside. Applaudable, yes; but is there not some limiting factor which must be placed before these "engagers" such that they do not cause the engagement, and in some cases the "atomistic" choices of others to be overwhelmed or negated.
We have on this site had several discussions regarding externalities. worthy topic of discussion, indeed. However, what strikes me is that we sometime see the unavoidable externalities of living as license for imposing certain costs upon others.
Doubtless there are times where such actions are appropriate, if not mandated by circumstance. However, can not (does not) this often lead to a far more abusive set of social constraints than is otherwise called for when we seek to either tax or regulate away the externality or dramatically reduce its social costs via government mandate.
I also fear that there is an almost "clinical" detachment associated with these expressions of concern for the costs of externalities upon others. Consequently, we arrogate to ourselves both the right and the presumptive wisdom to determine what shall be done without considering the possibility that a) life is messy, b) some social costs are unavoidable, c) these costs sometimes lead to significant social improvements via entrepreneurial innovation, AND d) the intervention of such a "presumptive intelligence" may very well lead to the very atomization we seek to avoid or minimize.
As you know, I am no libertarian, yet I must confess that I am deeply concerned with the efforts of those who seek to define every simple and unavoidable human interaction as an externality and then regulate it out of existence.
Are these not the modern day equivalent of the medieval clergy? (a bit strong, perhaps/). It is in their "clinical detachment" and their use of certain "constructs" which while useful in explaining certain market exchanges are, to my mind, at least harmful and destructive of the social order.
In short, "goodness gracious, man, can we not get along as we did in olden days?"
We did seem to work things out (after a fashion) via our friends, churches, etc etc.

Thus, the challenge may be to find the correct balance between those spheres of life / culture that are amenable to change and those that ought to be changed and those that ought to be left to the cultural marketplace.
take care
gabe

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gabe
on May 03, 2014 at 15:20:56 pm

Gabe,

The Drug Enforcement Administation schedules controlled substances according to their clinical usefulness and potential for abuse. Drugs considered to have no valid clinical use and high potential for abuse, such as heroin, are Schedule I, those having little abuse potential but accepted clinical benefit, like Lomotil, are Schedule V. Morphine is Schedule II because, while it has significant clinical benefits, it has high potential for abuse, etc. Perhaps it would be useful to consider a similar classification system for political and economic concepts such as diversity, equality, "fairness," and so on. It is not enough to recognize the virtues of such concepts in the abstract without considering their potential for abuse in practice.

One such concept is "externalities." Surely such things exist, but it is perilous to conceptualize such things in the abstract and using such concepts to fiddle with the real world. It is of course common sense to classify externalities as positive or negative, but some activities, such as bee-keeping, generate both. Some externalities are objectively negative, such as producing sarin gas in one's garage, but others are matters of subjective taste, such as constructing a modern home in a gentrified neighborhood, or flying a Seahawks flag from one's porch. Others are ambiguous, like using DDT to dispel yellow fever. Some are merely nuts, like the anti-semite's perceived grievances against "Jewish Banking." And of course there are the artificial grievances of the hypersensitive who are "offended" by some activity or other, like the young lady at Dartmouth who was vexed by a charitable event called "Phiesta." Some externalities are matters of degree, like noise levels.

The process all too often is to allow the burden of persuasion to shift once an activist identifies an externality that he or she wishes to control. I believe that the more valid approach is not only keeping the burden of proof on the person advocating for change on account of some claimed externality, but that the burden of proof should be very high as well. This is particularly so where the external detriment is subjective or ambiguous.

So, In consideration of the above, I would classify the concept of externalities of activites as Schedule II--undoubtably useful but with a high potential for abuse.

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z9z99
on May 03, 2014 at 15:29:37 pm

Z:

Good point and there is a certain affinity between drug abuse and "externality induced intervention".

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gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.