Peacefulness from property rights
We humans are social creatures. We come together in large numbers not only face to face — think cities — but in networks of globe-spanning cooperation. Our sociability is responsible for our successes as well as for most of our troubles.
On the success side, consider your clothes. Someone sewed together your shirt, someone else stitched together your underwear, and heaven knows how many other someones worked to grow the cotton for your jeans or skirt, produced the fuel to transport that cotton to a mill, and wrote the insurance contracts that make the entire operation economically feasible.
Every day, each of us uses goods and services produced by the cooperation of legions of people around the world — goods and services that would be impossible to produce without our willingness and ability to join together in contractual and other market arrangements.
But living and working in close proximity, and trading, sometimes create conflict and trouble. On Sunday mornings, churchgoers want quiet to hear their pastor's sermon; diners at a nearby open-air restaurant want to enjoy brunch. If diners can talk as loudly as they please, the noise disrupts the church's quiet. But if the restaurant is prevented from serving Sunday brunch, churchgoers' demand for quiet disrupts diners' wishes.
Who's in the right? In this example, as in most real-world situations, both groups — churchgoers and diners — are engaged in perfectly innocent activities. No one is a bad guy. In a sense, both are in the right.
What to do?
Before answering, it's important to point out what not to do. Don't rush to blame one party for causing all the trouble. It's tempting to blame the restaurant, whose talking and laughing patrons disrupt the church's services. But why not instead blame the church? What if the restaurant began serving Sunday brunch in 1985 and the church was built nearby in 1990? Can we not then say that the church — by putting itself near an existing open-air restaurant — is to blame for the noise that its congregation suffers?
Both activities — brunching and listening to sermons — are peaceful and productive. Here's an idea: Assign a property right to one establishment — say, the church — and let the restaurant owner and the church's pastor bargain.
If the church has the legal right to be free of noise on Sunday mornings, the restaurant owner must either stop serving brunch or pay the church a fee in exchange for permission to keep serving brunch. If the value to the restaurant of continuing Sunday brunch is higher than the cost that churchgoers suffer from the restaurant's noise, the restaurant will agree to pay the church a high enough fee to buy the church's permission to keep serving brunch.
Clear property rights give incentives and opportunities to each of us to peacefully and productively settle disputes that might otherwise erupt into wasteful, or even violent, conflicts.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.