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How Privatized Neighborhoods Could Make Trick-or-Treating Even Better

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If there is any group that enjoys Halloween the most, it is the children. Most people can remember back to their own childhoods, ringing doorbells and begging for candy, all adorned in their carefully chosen costumes. Aside from the actual candy that trick-or-treating procures, the process of roaming neighborhood streets and collecting goodies from different houses is itself one of the most fun experiences for youth on Halloween. Trick-or-treating, though, requires that children traverse their neighbors’ properties, for they must use their neighbors’ driveways or lawns to approach their houses, walk up their front steps, and knock on their doors or ring their doorbells. Since this involves the employment of other people's private property, any committed defender of private property rights must consider the implications of trick-or-treating.

The Halloween Problem

But some people are friendlier to trick-or-treaters than others. On the one hand, there are those whose front yards are filled with homemade gravestones and undead animatronics, and give out king-sized Hershey bars. There are also those, on the other hand, who want nothing to do with trick-or-treaters or with Halloween at all. Whether they are scaredy-cats, religious fundamentalists, or just plain curmudgeons, it must be recognized that they have the right to not participate in Halloween, and to exclude all trick-or-treaters from their properties if they so choose. This, though, is easier said than done. If such anti-Halloween property-owners simply go about their daily business the night of October 31, they may be inundated by a host of goblins, princesses, and astronauts, each incessantly ringing their doorbells and knocking at their doors. What are they to do, then?

A de facto rule has emerged in many areas, stating that those who are not welcoming trick-or-treaters are to turn off all the lights in their houses. Most candy-seekers know what a dark house is code for: the homeowner will not open the door and no candy will be received. Bearing this in mind, trick-or-treaters tend to only approach illuminated houses, seeing as that any other strategy would be a waste of time and energy. To have one’s house avoided by sugar-starved children, then, one simply must turn off all his lights for the night of October 31st (and then hope that his house is not egged and TPed as a result!). Though this solution has been successful for many, it cannot be considered just. It essentially makes non-participants undergo a blackout under duress, which they must do, or else have doorbells rung continuously for hours. They are forced to turn off their lights or face the consequences.

Another technique has been used to avoid the oft-bothersome behavior of trick-or-treaters. Some have taken to placing a candy-filled bowl on their doorsteps, with a label reading “take one piece,” “take a handful,” or something to that effect. The children themselves are responsible for taking the candy from the bowl, with the homeowner not having to answer their door or play any other role. They can sit inside their houses without having to worry about their doors being knocked upon or their doorbells rung, all while keeping on as many lights as they want. Of course, there is much wrong with this solution too. It similarly makes people act under duress, for if they do not place candy bowls on their doorsteps, their houses as well will be battered by constant knocks and rings. In addition, trick-or-treaters still have to make use of homeowners’ driveways, lawns, and doorsteps in order to get the candy, and thus homeowners would also have to allow public access to their land for the night.

Needless to say, neither solution is ideal. Both require property-owners to act in an undesired manner, in order to avoid an outcome they consider even more burdensome. While each person may have his choice over which option he takes, the fact is that the choice is thrust upon him by force and he is are prevented from conducting his own affairs fully on his own terms.

Moreover, on the face, it appears that this issue solely hurts those who dislike Halloween — but this is not the case. Trick-or-treaters themselves are made worse-off due to the unintended, real-world effects of using force against property-owners. For instance, once it has become common knowledge that keeping one’s lights off denotes non-participation, homeowners must keep their lights on in order to denote participation. This runs contrary to the allure of Halloween, though, which emphasizes the spooky darkness of the night. As such, violating the property rights of non-participants artificially stimulates the use of lights in neighborhoods on Halloween night, making the experience much less authentic and enjoyable. In fact, since there is often a gray area between which houses are considered to have their lights on and their lights off, those who want trick-or-treaters to knock on their doors are incentivized to make their houses especially bright, further ruining the eerie mystique of the night.

Could Freer Markets Offer More Flexibility and Variety?

This lack of flexibility, and efforts to avoid the inconvenience and annoyance of trick-or-treating has led to some attempts at alternatives.

Some people, in the name of making Halloween more safe and kid-friendly, have organized “trunk-or-treat” gatherings. This is when children assemble in a central, predetermined location, where people (usually their parents) have parked their cars and put candy in the trunks. With each trunk bearing a different theme, trunk-or-treaters go around to different cars - rather than different houses - to receive candy. This idea satisfies the libertarian requirements for Halloween, in that property rights are never violated. All participants willingly meet up by agreement, and those who do not wish to participate in the trunk-or-treat are not forced to. Everyone benefits.

Many apartment buildings also encourage trick-or-treating within their walls. This is also entirely acceptable, as the owner of the building will have permitted children to knock on doors and ask for candy on what is rightfully his property. If some tenants happen to oppose Halloween - for whatever reasons - it is their own tough luck, for they agreed to the building's rules ahead of time. If anti-Halloween attitudes became a sizeable issue, of course, the owner would likely try to find some sort of compromise, or even require that trick-or-treating be done elsewhere. They would take into account different tenants’ preferences, and try to find the most satisfactory solution to maximize profit, as is characteristic of capitalist enterprises.

Such a model looks similar to what might exist in the privately-owned covenant communities that Hans-Hermann Hoppe has theorized. These communities would be founded on the voluntary contract of different property-owners in an area, who agree to a common set of rules for themselves, instead of having rules and regulations crafted by inefficient government bodies. A covenant community could easily allow trick-or-treating within its domain, permitting children to cross onto neighbors’ doorsteps for a certain duration of time. As with apartment buildings, there may be some members of the community that detest Halloween and wish that their doorbells would not be rung. The answer to this is the same: they agreed to the terms of the covenant community in prior, and have the full right to leave, should it bother them that much. It all occurs within the voluntary sphere of interaction with the full assent of property-owners, and thus constitutes a moral, libertarian alternative.

Must children in the modern world avoid classic trick-or-treating altogether, though? Do they have to pursue trunk-or-treat gatherings, live in apartment buildings, and found private, covenant communities? Surely not. Again, all that is required is that they respect property rights. There is clearly nothing wrong with a child trick-or-treating on neighborhood streets as long as they approach only the houses that they know are giving out candy. As long as this requirement is met, children are free to go house-to-house in pursuit of candy. It can sometimes be pretty well assumed that a person wants trick-or-treaters to come up to their house, especially if they have an abundance of supernatural decorations leading up to their front steps. Other times, homeowners can be seen from the road opening their doors to other trick-or-treaters (possibly those who have been much less careful in respecting property rights); obviously, it is acceptable to approach these houses as well. In circumstances such as this, though, it can be frustratingly tricky to rely on one’s incomplete knowledge. If there is no prior arrangement in place (as there is between trunk-or-treaters, apartment tenants, and the members of hypothetical covenant communities), it difficult to determine ex ante which houses are pro-trick-or-treaters and which are not. Difficult as this quandary may be, the answer is, once again, to not trespass.

Building Community

Embracing property rights would lead to far fewer impersonal exchanges in community interactions. Since owners have to explicitly allow others to use their property, they are not liable to allow everyone to use their property. In fact, many property-owners are bound to be quite selective. For Halloween, this may mean that trick-or-treaters would have to stay within their own neighborhoods, and could not simply outsource their candy-hunting efforts to richer, more populous communities, to which they do not belong. They may only be able to approach the houses of those that they personally know - those that they have real connections with. Under a system of fully-protected property rights, property-owners may not take kindly to the trespass of total strangers upon their land - on October 31st as on all other days of the year. If children they are familiar and comfortable with were to cross their land and greet them on Halloween night, though, they might very much giving them candy and having their company. Instead of using their neighbors as mere means to the end of acquiring a large stash of candy, trick-or-treaters might, in this case, have to engage in meaningful interactions with them. In the hyper-atomized world we presently live in, these sorts of community relationships may seem daunting, but they were once the social norm, and with effort, could be again. A free society, then, would permit trick-or-treating from house-to-house, but the circumstances under which it would occur would be quite different from what we see today, and probably much more personal.


James Ketler

James Ketler is a high school student living in Massachusetts with his brother, sister, and parents. He became interested in libertarianism in 2015 after hearing about Rand Paul's presidential campaign and followed the rabbit hole straight down to Mises and Rothbard. When he's able to find the time, James loves to study and write about liberty, ethics, history, and economics.

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