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Regulating Caveman Technology

Mises Daily: Monday, June 14, 2010 by

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I am fortunate enough to live on a property with enough trees and garden areas, put in by previous owners, that I accumulate a pile of yard waste in my backyard. About once a year, I have to figure out what to do with it. Where I live, you can burn yard waste, and so, once a year, I do. I don't really have any good way to haul it anywhere, and I put in plants or flowers that can tolerate ashy soil after the burn is complete. In a way, I tap into my inner caveman, using a technology that has been around for a long time — the wonderful technology of fire making.

Of course, in some places, any burning is banned. In others, it is permitted, but discouraged, with a lot of vague regulations so that you can be stopped at any time. Where I live, it is clearly indicated that

Open burning is allowed on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during daylight hours, only. No burning is allowed in a closed container, such as a burning barrel (outdoor grills are acceptable). You may only burn yard waste.

I have tried to contact city officials in the past about ordinance clarification, and I remain curious: why is burning permitted on some days and not others? Why only during daylight hours? What exactly counts as "yard waste"?

From what I can tell (and from what I have experienced myself), burning yard waste releases smoke and particulate matter into the air, and those with asthma or respiratory diseases would be adversely affected by my burning. You can see, however, that according to the city I have every right to release grand plumes of smoke and soot anywhere I want on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during daylight hours. Yet on the other days, and at night, I am completely restricted from doing so, even if no one around me cares.

This is the truly disastrous result of the city inserting itself between me and my fellow property owners — the city has taken over what we should be doing ourselves. In a system of strong private-property rights, I would have to find out whether anyone around me had, for example, children with asthma. Or if they simply did not like the smell of smoke wafting into their home.

What the city has done indicates that negotiating with the city council is more important (and legally binding) than negotiating with my neighbors — the property owners themselves. They have permitted me to burn away, no matter what the consequences.

And what if I didn't have their permission to burn yard waste? Under the current system, someone could complain or call the police, but I clearly have the law on my side — so what are they going to do about it? Three little sentences about the simple burning of yard waste, and yet, it's really so much more.

In theory, if I could burn my yard waste and contain all of the smoke on my property (or at least enough so that no one knew that I was burning anything), shouldn't I be able to do it regardless of what others may think? Some city councils have assumed that this cannot be done — that if they don't know how to do it, then no one must know how. This assumption has led to all-out burning bans. But why should my rights be curtailed in this scenario?

Similarly, what if none of my neighbors care about my burning and smoke? Should the city intrude on my property rights in this case? I think not. The only sensible way to deal with a situation like this is to enforce strong private-property rights. Our arrangement has nothing to do with the city.

Some cities (such as mine) permit burning under some circumstances, but the conditions themselves are arbitrary and can impede on the arrangements peaceful citizens make amongst themselves. For example, perhaps my neighbor with asthmatic kids will be gone all day on Wednesday, and they indicate to me that I should burn then.

Or perhaps one neighbor doesn't want my smoke coming her way at all, ever. I could check the weather reports and plan to burn on a day when the wind is blowing away from her house. Of course, if enough property owners object to my burning, and I can't figure out some way to contain my smoke and particulate matter, I would have to figure out another way to get rid of my yard waste — maybe by hiring someone to haul it away, or by composting.

The law is supposed to maintain rights, but in this case it can easily be used to violate them: if I was having a feud with my neighbor with asthmatic children, I could try to burn as much yard waste as I could, directing the flow of smoke towards them. Currently, where I live, I can do this as long as I follow the city's ordinance on burning. I could even call the police to stop my neighbors from putting out my fire, or redirecting the smoke flow. In essence, I could smoke them out of their home on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during all daylight hours. During that time I could induce asthmatic distress in their children — in their own home — all I want.

What my city has done is similar to what the US, in concert with the States, has done. The Clean Air Act has put limits and restrictions on what certain industries can emit into the air. But, just as in my city, the other levels of government have injected themselves between the private-property owners and permitted some smog and other substances that cause air-quality concerns.

A system of private-property rights over all else would be a better solution. Once your smoke and particulate matter has interfered with my air space against my will (which would be determined on a case-by-case basis, by each property owner), then that would be considered an act of aggression.

Even a "simple" regulation on burning yard waste — a caveman-era technology — has far-reaching implications and potentially disastrous, unintended consequences. In our modern society, a strong reliance on private-property rights would better allow us to deal with simple cases like these, as well as the complexities of advanced technology.