Thursday, February 02, 2006

Group Choices

My old post 'Choosing to oppose suburban sprawl' (and subsequent comments) explained how a group might choose to regulate the options open to its members, e.g. to overcome collective action problems. Besides such considerations of optimality, there is also an important sense in which these group choices realize important freedoms, even as they restrict individual freedoms. This might at first seem odd, in light of my thorough individualism and rejection of "group welfare" notions. But note that a diversity of regulated groups, which individuals may opt in or out of, could indirectly enable individual freedoms.

This is best seen on small scales, e.g. "gated communities" wherein residents sign away their freedoms to own dogs or play loud music, in exchange for the benefits of having neighbours that have done likewise. Other communities have no such restrictions. This diversity of choices allows people to find and live in a community setting that best suits them. If everyone, everywhere, had the right to own dogs and play loud music, then there would be nowhere dog-averse (or loud music averse) people could comfortably live. Better to let them set up their own little regulated enclaves, which individuals may freely opt in or out of.

Does this principle still hold on a larger scale? If 95% of Christchurch residents oppose urban sprawl and want stricter regulations (for the sorts of reasons explicated in the post linked above), does that give them the right to restrict the freedom of the other 5% who want to develop on the outskirts of town? It isn't obvious either way. I think, insofar as the consequences are felt by everybody, it does seem reasonable enough that others have some say in how their locality develops.

This answer might be more clearly acceptable if there was greater diversity between cities, thus providing 'opt-out' alternatives more acceptable to most. (You can never satisfy everyone about absolutely everything, of course. But still, we should do what we can.)

But it's certainly more difficult on a large scale, simply because there are fewer alternatives. It's much easier to create your own little community than your own city, let alone countries, etc. And of course it's much easier to move neighbourhoods than to emigrate to a wholly new country. Those sorts of difficulties must be taken into account. So, as a general (and rather obvious) rule, we should be wary of large-scale moves to restrict individual freedoms. On a small scale, even arbitrary restrictions are relatively unobjectionable, so long as everyone affected has an easy opt-out option. They won't really "restrict" anyone who cares to avoid them. But of course large scale restrictions are harder to avoid, so greater care must be taken to ensure that they are genuinely justified. This suggests that "group choices" are more legitimate in small communities than large (e.g. national-level) ones.

(I wonder if those differences could be more neatly subsumed under a Millian regard for "experiments of living"? I guess it comes down to the same ideals in the end, though.)


  1. If 95% oppose urban sprawl they can prevent it without infringing anyone's rights. They can just buy the land and not build on it. As long as they don't use money taken from the 5% there is no problem.

    The reason this doesn't happen is that the total value that all of the 95% place on having the land empty is still less than the total value that the 5% place on having it developed.

    The issue here is a majority with a very mild preference using the political system to overbear a minority with much stronger preferences.

    It's a defect that results from a pure democratic system and the only way to fix it is to have entrenched protection for property rights.

  2. Nigel, you assume that we start with a fair distribution of material resources. While I grant your point about 'one man one vote' failing to adequately account for varying preference strengths, I'm not convinced that 'one dollar one vote' would actually (let alone necessarily) be any fairer. And especially when one considers the transaction costs, etc., it is far from clear that "The reason this [collective buy-out] doesn't happen is that the total value that all of the 95% place on having the land empty is still less than the total value that the 5% place on having it developed."

    Would your proposal even be manageable, if the 95% did want to pool their resources to buy out the land? What would the legal status of collectively-owned property be? It sounds awfully complicated. (Especially if the population is in flux, e.g. inter-generational issues; or if some members wanted to pull out of the collective; not to mention free-rider problems, etc.) This just doesn't sound like the sort of goal that can be achieved through decentralized and independent action (as in market exchanges). You know, 'public goods' and all that. There is a place - and a need - for the collective decision-making of politics.


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