My friend is selling her house, but she won’t get a reasonable price because of the junkyard maintained by her next-door neighbor. It’s a conflict reflecting a central tension of our times.
Mrs. Juncky, the lady next door, has a corner house in a nice neighborhood.
In front, on the side and behind her home are expired lawn mowers; a disused boiler; a variety of abandoned planters and plastic containers; an assortment of rusted hoes, rakes and shovels; stacks of rotting wood; decrepit lawn furniture; several orphaned interior doors; and an odd collection of windows and window screens. Missing are the abandoned pickup and broken-down RV needed to complete her collection of junk.
Representatives of the neighborhood association were unsuccessful in appealing to her sense of pride or responsibility to the neighbors because there were no covenants.
A city worker could not persuade her to conform to the reasonable expectations of the local code, but no action was taken because she broke no law.
When asked by my friend about this situation, Mrs. Juncky said, “It’s my property; I’ll do what I want to with it.”
The real estate example is obvious. We have zoning laws, construction codes, rules about weights and measures and a host of regulations that constrain individual liberties which may harm the interests of others. In some places, the freedom to paint your house whatever color you wish is limited by a homeowners’ agreement or covenant. Some developments insist that all structures have Spanish-style tile roofs.
Tourists often find such constraints charming and quaint … as long as they don’t have to live with them. Historic preservation may be invoked to support conformity and suppress individual preferences.
The issue goes beyond the maintenance of residential or commercial property. This is the standoff between the property owner who rents land to the billboard companies for signs others see as polluting our highways and endangering our lives.
This is the ongoing battle between tax-cutters who believe “life is tough and people need to be responsible for themselves,” and their opponents who cannot justify slashing people from the rolls due to being disabled, indigent and unemployed.
This is America’s unresolved question of individual rights of gun ownership and the community’s reasonable expectations of safety in our homes and on our streets.
This is the issue between the parent who refuses to vaccinate a child and the well-being of thousands of other people’s children.
This is the conflict between the rights of the individual and the negative impact they have on the lives of others.
Mrs. Juncky may be within her rights; her junk does not emit bad odors or attract vermin. Her yard is just unsightly. Since we insist on believing “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the visual wounds Mrs. Juncky inflicts are easily dismissed.
While Mrs. Juncky asserts her rights, she remains indifferent to the monetary harm to another. Surely the two could negotiate a solution, but not as long as Mrs. Juncky insists on “holding her ground.”
Morton Marcus is an economist formerly with Indiana Unviersity Kelley School of Business. Send comments to email@example.com.