The used tampon someone had thrown out the window definitely was the worst. It was among the trash my family collected last week along what has become our usual “pandemic walk.” We also picked up dozens of cigarette butts, assorted alcohol containers, face masks, fast-food wrappers, cans, water bottles, and more.
I thought a single trash bag would be enough. It wasn’t. On the first half of our walk, we filled up the bag and also someone’s discarded trashcan I found in a Westminster open space field. We decided to give up and clean the second half of the walk another day.
What prompted this bout of “community service?” Previously we’d walked past the local public school and seen someone’s fast-food trash left at the side of the road. I was furious. How could some people be such jerks? We decided to clean up some of the neighborhood trash just so we wouldn’t have to see it.
My wife and I also thought we could help our child understand why littering is bad and why it can be a good idea for people to pitch in to make things better. And I figured by writing a column I might inspire a few people to better-secure their trash or stop intentionally littering. One can hope.
I do have a policy recommendation: People who are caught intentionally littering should not be issued a fine; instead, they should be required to spend many hours cleaning up trash.
Of course my aim with this column is not merely to complain about litter bugs. The issue also offers an opportunity to talk about broader issues regarding the tragedy of the commons, external harms and benefits, voluntarism, and public virtue.
Recently CNN analyst Asha Rangappa complained, “So-called libertarians focus exclusively on their individual ‘freedom’ but never on the costs of the negative externalities of their ‘freedom.’ Whether it’s seat belts, guns, masks, vaccines, a refusal to act in the common interest imposes significant costs.”
Before digging into those issues, let’s linger over the term libertarian. I used to be a libertarian, and I even held a leadership position with the state Libertarian Party. I no longer call myself a libertarian. Not only do I have some profound disagreements with many libertarians, I fear libertarianism often is more anti-state than pro-liberty.
But in the broader sense I think Rangappa is referring to people who generally are for free markets, property rights, freedom of association, and individual liberty. In that sense I’m still broadly “libertarian-adjacent.”
Libertarians and other free-market advocates hardly ignore the problem of externalities. Indeed, libertarians often point to the tragedy of the commons. Although my family picked up a few items of trash that had blown onto the edges of people’s yards, almost all the trash we picked up was from the city-owned open space and along the public roads. People have more incentive to take care of their own stuff.
From a certain angle, the entire libertarian project can be described as a strategy to internalize externalities, to enable people to benefit from their productive actions and not suffer from others’ harmful actions. Property rights, contracts, and legal torts are centrally important to solving problems of externalities.
Freedom in the relevant sense does not mean “freedom” to do whatever you want and to hell with everyone else. Rather, it means freedom to do whatever you want as consistent with the rights of others and freedom from others’ physical abuses. If you dump trash in my yard, start a big fire next to my house, emit noxious fumes next door, or shoot a gun toward my house, I can properly ask the police to stop you and (where applicable) I can sue you for damages.
Contra Rangappa, not only do liberty advocates typically strive not to impose harm on others, they often advocate voluntary action to benefit others. I know many libertarians and other liberty advocates who help finance scholarships, donate to medical research, give time or money to help alleviate poverty, and so on. When I was a member of the Libertarian Party, party members helped provide security for a local mosque that had been threatened. Some liberty-minded people even pick up neighborhood trash.
Regarding Rangappa’s particular claims: I don’t know any libertarians who decline to wear a seatbelt. Anyway, wearing a seatbelt confers benefits almost entirely to the user.
Regarding guns, responsible gun owners confer external benefits to society at large. Because criminals don’t know which homeowners have guns or which people carry a concealed handgun, criminals often are more hesitant to attack anyone. Libertarians agree government should crack down on criminal violence.
I do know some libertarians (and more conservatives) who refuse to wear masks during the pandemic. But that’s not coming out of any liberty philosophy. Every real liberty advocate at least acknowledges that private businesses have a right to require masks. True, some libertarians and conservatives question the efficacy of masks, and more question the legitimacy of government mandates. One can be in favor of something without wanting it mandated. Many liberty advocates are adamant about wearing masks in public through the pandemic.
I’ve seen no evidence that libertarians are especially averse to getting vaccinations. Many liberty advocates I know are extremely enthusiastic about vaccines. Notably, the leftist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a major figure in the anti-vax movement. Meanwhile, the great liberty-oriented economist Alex Tabarrok has played a leading role in spurring government to hasten its vaccination program.
True, libertarians and other liberty advocates often are skeptical of political claims as to what constitutes the “common interest.” And they’re right to be so, as politicians and bureaucrats often don’t know what promotes the “common interest” and often cynically pursue their own narrow interests in the name of the “common interest.” Indeed, a school of libertarian thought, Public Choice, describes how politics often becomes a way for entrenched interests to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else.
Individuals can, by their own free choice, help to clean up other people’s garbage, both literally and intellectually. Generally they can freely act to improve their own lives and the lives of others. It’s a strength of freedom.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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