Results: The Libertarian Action

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Sun Nov 12 2000 - 10:33:12 MST

** The question:

Suppose Person A wants to open up a bar, and applies for a liquor license.
Persons B, consisting of the resident/owners of a nearby condominium complex,
are annoyed by this for the standard reasons - increased noise, increased
traffic, violent drunks wandering around, and decreased property values.
Suppose that Persons B sign a petition to deny a liquor license to Person A,
thus annoying Person A and any investors thereof. Do you agree or disagree
with the following statements?

 (A) Signing a petition to deny a liquor license is an improper use of
government mechanisms, constituting the initiation of force.

 (B) Signing the petition may be a minor initiation of force, but that's a
justified response to the bar's proposed initiation of noise (or the other
negative effects).

 (C) The city government deciding the issue is the nearest available
approximation to the dispute resolution mechanisms that would exist in a
libertarian society - for example, distributed ownership of "noise rights".

 (D) This is a straightforward conflict of interest between the bar builders
and the condo owners, and invoking libertarian ethics is needlessly
complicating the issue.

** Votes, in chronological order:

Eliezer Yudkowsky: A
Brian Atkins: BC
Sabine Atkins: BC
Dave Sill: A
Michael S. Lorrey: A

James Wetterau: A
xgl <> D
stencil <> D
Robin Hanson C
Michael Bast C

William Sullivan A
Sean Kenny C
Curt Adams C
Ziana Astralos D
Damien Broderick BC

Dan Fabulich Undefined
Brian D Williams C
Fraser Orr CD, would not sign
Greg Burch C
scerir <> B

Samantha Atkins C
Natasha Vita-More C (I think)
Bradley Felton A
Shirley Ulrich A

Special Guest Votes (do not appear in totals):

L. Neil Smith Great big "A" - no surprise there
Moshe Yudkowsky (Dad) Would sign

** Results

Would sign: 15 of 24
Wouldn't sign: 8 of 24

A: 7 of 24
B: 4 of 24
C: 12 of 24
D: 4 of 24

(Results may change when the absentee ballots arrive from Florida.)

** Notes on phrasing

Several voters expressed surprise at the phrasing of D, stating that they
agreed with the first half of the statement but not the second - that
Libertarian ethics are precisely relevant to what methods are permissible in
solving conflicts of interest. I entirely agree. The phrasing of D expresses
a viewpoint which I disagree with - i.e., that the methods discussed above
(bar building, petitions) are as morally neutral as two sellers trying to
undercut the other's price. Please note that four people still voted for D as
phrased, which indicates that this is, indeed, a viewpoint held by some

Dan Fabulich suggested the following rephrasing for "B", which, in retrospect,
would have been much better: "The citizens who signed the petition are not
initiating force; the bar initiated force by initiating noise and other
negative effects, and the citizens are forcefully retaliating."

** Quotes from the votes

Dave Sill:
> [ A: agree B: disagree C: don't know D: disagree ]
> I think the two sides should meet to raise the issues and options. The
> proponent might not want to locate in an area where he's not welcome. Or he
> might be willing to compensate the opponents. Or they might be willing to
> compensate him to locate elsewhere.

Michael S. Lorrey:
> If the land is zoned for commercial use, and the condos were built and occupied
> fully aware that the neighboring land was zoned for commercial use, then they
> have absolutely no argument whatsoever. If the prospective bar owners are trying
> to change the zoning or get a variance or other exception, then that is another
> story, and the neighboring residents have a right to contribute their opinions
> into the zoning/permitting process, but their opinions cannot be binding on the
> decision of zoning and alcohol board members. Moreover, if the prospective bar
> owners can do a noise study of the existing property, and of another facility
> elsewhere that is similar to what they have planned, and show no significant
> contribution to the existing noise pollution, then neighbors opinions don't
> count for much. Also, if there were any similar businesses in the property in
> the past (no matter how long ago), then that use is grandfathered.

James Wetterau:
> I agree with A -- and on those grounds I wouldn't sign such a
> petition. For similar reasons, when I lived in Manhattan and some
> residents of my neighborhood tried to "preserve the character" of the
> neighborhood by petitioning the city to prevent the building of new
> high-rise apartment buildings, I opposed the petition to some of my
> neighbors and refused to sign. I was also annoyed by the city's
> attempts to harass and remove strip clubs, though I did not myself go
> to them, which were successful. Naturally I disagree with B.
> I somewhat disagree with C, though I recognize that the city could
> function that way. My concern is that though the city *could be* the
> nearest approximation of a dispute resolution mechanism, it's far more
> likely to blindly support the majority against the minority, even if
> the majority is made up of some people who would be barely affected,
> or not at all affected, and the minority has a vital interest, due to
> the mechanisms of voting. Thus the city may act very perversely to
> ignore the interests of whoever is in the minority in an
> administrative region, whereas in a fair system it might well be the
> case that most people in the region should have no input.
> I agree with precisely half of D: "this is a straightforward conflict
> of interest ... " but not with this half: "invoking libertarian ethics
> is needlessly complicating the issue". It's interesting from a
> libertarian perspective to see how our society deals with
> straightforward conflicts of interest. I think that, in general, US
> society does better with such conflicts than with the true government
> horrors (war on drugs), but still there's room for improvement.
> All the best,
> James Wetterau
> P.S. If I were to imagine a libertarian response, it would go
> something like this -- don't oppose the bar, but while it's going in,
> meet with the bar owner. Try to discuss concerns in advance. How is
> the bar owner going to make sure that people are secure passing the
> bar? Will the bar owner try to make the bar the kind of place people
> in the neighboring condo would enjoy going? Will the bar owner take
> the effort to get drunks into cabs home swiftly? Will noise be abated
> by good heavy doors and walls, and a ventilation system that permits
> windows to be kept closed? Perhaps the bar owner will be a good
> neighbor by allowing community groups to use rooms, bathrooms, phones,
> etc., or by hiring people from the neighborhood? In return the condo
> owner could explain what it's like to deal with city government, what
> doing business in the community is like, etc.. If done right, the bar
> could actually improve the value of the property, rather than lowering
> it. Bars don't have to be hives of violent, miserable people. They
> can provide valuable places for public gathering and performance.
> If in fact the bar turns out to be a nuisance, the bar owner could
> then try to either deal directly with the bar owner in a friendly way,
> or by calling the police to enforce noise and nuisance ordinances
> already on the books almost everywhere.

> Why - in a Libertarian society - would the condo residents
> be permitted to stigmatize "a bar?" First-class
> restaurants sell alcohol too; and many other
> establishments have the potential to attract undesireable
> clientele - theaters, concert halls, schools, nursing
> homes...
> To the extent that humanity has gotten where it is through
> an ad-hoc approach to the universe, as opposed to a
> programmatic one, isn't it inhumane to license - that is,
> restrict - activities that are not *intrinsically* evil?
>> So you'd pick option A, right? That's what it sounds like; I just want to
>> be sure.
> Naah, still D; what I'm objecting to is the licensing
> process that the petition would seek to influence, not to
> the petition itself. As he said just before she slapped
> him, it doesn't hurt to ask, does it?
> If you say, But we must have some control over the
> establishment of nuisances, then I say, since the
> nuisances are all in the subjunctive, then make your
> controls equivalently conditional. If you fixate on the
> weeds you'll end up paving over your garden. Ordnung muss
> ja sein, but not in my back yard.

Robin Hanson:
> I'd say C, it's close to what anarchy would do.

Michael Bast:
> I'd have to say (c), since it is a dispute, and someone has to resolve it, short
> of violence. The petition may be an initiation of force, if there's an
> expectation of it getting you what you want when you have no legitimate right
> involved, or it might simply be a way of getting the government to pay attention
> to this violation.
> Ethics (specifically libertarian here, but ethics in general) ARE the
> issue, that is how to determine who's right, by what values and methods is an
> answered arrived at, and are all parties satisfied about the justice of the
> issue.
> Given that both parties think they have a legitimate interest in what they
> want, and they can't both have all of what they want, it seems fairly
> straightforward. Unless you want to add complicating issues, as are inevitable
> in life...
> (C) The city government deciding the issue is the nearest available
> approximation to the dispute resolution mechanisms that would exist in a
> libertarian society - for example, distributed ownership of "noise rights".

William Sullivan:
> I'm not clear on the above two options. My understanding of the libertarian
> position (if I can be excused for discussing the vast, conflicting body of
> libertarian opinion as one position for a moment) was not that there are no
> conflicts of interest and therefore initiation of force is improper, but that
> initiation of force is improper and especially so when interests conflict. So,
> it would seem to me that the second half of option (D) (after the second 'and')
> is a bit weird; if one agrees with the first half of the option's description of
> the problem, then "libertarian ethics" help to simplify the issue, not
> complicate it.
> As it so happens, this last is my position. I agree with the first half of (D)
> (before the second 'and') and the entirety of (A) (with the possible exception
> of the last five words, which I could quite happily live without). And I think I
> would also hold this position from the perspective of the bar owner, the condo
> owner, and a third-party; the issue of precedence and legitimacy is of the
> utmost importance and regardless of the benefit the condo owner may gain from
> the closing of the bar, empowering and/or encouraging a government like this is
> dangerous.

Sean Kenny:
> I would say C as long as the wealthier party (the bar owner or the local
> residents) is not a position to exert undue pressure, which unfortunately is
> usually the case. But then I'm a liberal, not a libertarian. :)

Damien Broderick:
> 0.6 B, 0.4 C (off the fuzzy top of my head)

Dan Fabulich:
> Undefined.
> If this were a libertarian anarcho-capitalist society, then noise
> rights would be settled ahead of time in some formal way.
> Perhaps they have, and the bar approves of a government like this.
> Suppose, the rule of law is that you control your noise rights, unless
> someone throws together a petition to stop you, in which case, you
> lose them. In this case, clearly, the bar does not entirely own its
> noise rights. If we assume that the bar approves of a government like
> this, or if the government in question is a Nozickian "government"
> consisting only of the set of PPAs and arbitratian agencies operating
> in the area, (in which case, the bar has revealed preference for the
> "government,") then the answer is C. The bar, if it so wishes, may
> buy its noise rights from the citizenry at some fair price. If it
> refuses to pay this, then it's not best for the bar to operate here
> anyway, since it's not willing to pay its own costs.
> If the rule of law is that the bar owns its own noise rights, and the
> citizens approve of or reveal approval of the government, then, if the
> petition has no effect, no force, no foul. In that case, the answer
> is C again, but in this case, the government refuses to do anything
> about the petition.
> If the bar does NOT exhibit revealed approval of the government in
> question, and if noise is not force, or if noise rights are up in the
> air, then this could be a case of A.
> You've gotten no agreements to B so far because you phrased it wrongly
> as far as libertarians are concerned. The better way to phrase B
> would be:
> (B') "The citizens who signed the petition are not initiating force;
> the bar initiated force by initiating noise and other negative
> effects, and the citizens are forcefully retaliating." If noise is
> force, and the citizens have not approved of or given revealed
> preference for the government, then the answer is B'.
> So:
> Disapproval = non-agreement and not revealing preferences in a
> Nozickian "government".
> Noise = noise and all the other negative effects of a bar.
> Bar disapproves of government and noise is not force: A
> Citizens disapprove of government and noise is force: B'
> Otherwise: C.

Brian D Williams:
> "C" is the clear choice.
> This is in fact common practice, Park Ridge Il, also known locally
> as "Pleasantville" ( Where Hillary Clinton is from) is a "dry"
> community, only restaurants may serve alcohol.
> Some local entrepreneurs opened a "Hooters" just accross the street
> from the boundary and the town tried to deny them a liquor
> license.
> The Hooters held out and the matter was finally decided by a judge.
> Hooters won.

Fraser Orr:
> My vote is sort of C or D, depending on how
> you interepret their meanings. Specifically,
> this is a simple pollution problem. Without
> a doubt a certain amount of pollution from
> one property to another is necessary. If I
> play my CD player quietly, the sound will
> travel into my neighbor's home, perhaps
> bellow the level of human sensory detection,
> however, it will be there. If I light a match
> in my backyard, photons from the fire will
> undoubtedly reach my neighbor's backyard.
> However, probably not enough to be bothersome.
> Consequently, many actions produce some form
> of pollution, whether noise, photonic, or
> chemical. Clearly we cannot make all types
> of pollution illegal, but if I dump nuclear
> waste in my backyard, that is obviously a
> problem. Consequently, the libertarian solution
> to pollution is fairly straightforward. If
> you want to stop me from polluting your property,
> including making exscessive noise, you have
> to prove actually damages arising directly or
> proximately from your actions.
> In this case, actual damages might include
> increased crime, vanalism, traffic problems,
> disturbance, creating a hostile environment,
> Actual damages might be measured in terms of
> reduced value of property, increased security
> costs, health costs, costs of cleaning up ,
> costs associated with traffic and reduced parking
> opportunities. Of course on top of these are the
> transaction costs associated with obtaining the
> damages, including court costs, opportunity costs,
> etc.
> Consequently, the petition is certainly an initiation
> of force, a prior restraint if you will. Let the
> liquor store take on the risk. Let them go to
> the expense of building the place, stocking and
> staffing the place. If, it turns out that their
> action causes actual damage to the condo owners,
> then let them sue, proving actual damages (as
> I say either directly, or proximately by way of
> their customers) and let the liquor store either
> clean up their actions, compensate sufficiently
> or go away. Perhaps the condo owners could point
> out to the liquor store owner the potential of a
> lawsuit, so that the liquor store owner is fully
> aware of the potential costs associated with his
> potential pollution. On this basis he can adequately
> compensate, either by making restrictions on his
> customers, negotiating a deal with the condo owners
> or even choosing not to build.
> Of course, this mechanism is made rather more difficult
> because of transaction costs. Specifically the cost
> of a lawsuit is extremely high. However, the solution
> here is not to arrogate more control to the government
> (by letting them decide these matters by zoning laws)
> but rather to reduce the cost of a lawsuit, perhaps
> by largely privatizing the court system.

Greg Burch:
> I'm overseas and on the run, but since there was a request for input from
> "old timers", I'll take a quick crack at it . . .
> I don't see the government action in the petition, per se. The petition
> itself is just a form of speech, and an orderly one at that . . . As for the
> PETITION scaring off investors, if a real estate developer's backers learn
> the community doesn't support the development, then that seems like valuable
> information to the investors.
> To the extent the petition is seen as a petition for the GOVERNMENT to ACT,
> it can be seen as a minor initiation of force, or simply initiation of legal
> process within the legal structure available. I'd have to know more about
> the due process available to the bar owner, the extent to which the gvt
> action is governed by explicit law, etc.
> > (C) [snip]
> I think Brian is right that this is the best choice, again depending on the
> factors discussed in connection w/the previous point.
> > (D) [snip]
> I don't understand this -- it just doesn't parse for me. All disputes in
> society involve a "conflict of interest" and that's what all of the various
> mechanisms of social control, libertarian or otherwise, are about.
> "Libertarian ethics" are very much implicated in this dispute, if I
> understand your meaning. And then the question becomes one of doing the best
> job one has of implementing one's ethics with the social structure available.
> Thus, petitioning the government (especially as constrained by explicit,
> fair law) is far more "libertarian" than, say, firebombing the property to
> express the "conflict of interest".

> In Italy we cannot choose "C" (usually, because
> of our past, present and future city governments).
> So we (libertarians or not, extropians or not)
> choose "B", always. As I do.

Samantha Atkins:
> > "C" is the clear choice.
> Agreed. The existing stake holders in any area or resource should have
> the right to some say regarding things they think will influence the
> value of their stake. However you produce that effect consistent with
> the rights of the newcomer, this needs to be recognized and dealt with.

Natasha Vita-More:
> Iíll answer Eliís query as a deep-foggy rather than an old-timer,
> (while remembering that it is size that matters, not age.)
> If I understand the setup correctly, the folks who live in condos
> are complaining that the bar will be too noisy and the issue
> is how to they resolve the impending conflict.
> As a former homeowner, I remember attending town meetings and
> listening the wranglings night after night. I purchased a home
> in a commercial zone which was primarily residential, all resident
> knew before purchasing their homes that this location would,
> at some point, be developed. I was there to turn my home into
> be a business that would have live music. The fact that people
> lived in homes next to me was secondary to the fact that we were
> commercially zoned.
> The bottom line is this: If you purchase a piece of property
> in close proximity to a business district, the community will
> end up dealing with how much revenue will come from the business
> and how much the town needs the business and who does or will
> work for the business. If the personality profile of the town
> is rowdy, rowdy will win. It is a conservative or spiritual
> community, then not too many folks will end up stooped at the
> bar.
> The folks that purchase homes or condos near commercially zoned
> areas have to deal with the consequence development and growth.
> Zoning laws may have community buffer zones which give residence
> a sort of padding between their homes and bustling businesses.
> There are also zoning variances and ordinances.
> If a person purchases a condominium or home which is near the
> buffer zone or right smack up next to a commercial zone, then
> this is part of the possible situations that can occur. If the
> person does not want to be near a bar, then she or he needs to
> purchase a homestead near a national forest which cannot be developed.
> A commercially zoned location is zoned to the businesses that
> the community desires regardless of who lives next door.
> Regarding noise, I believe in the 1970s Congress passed a Noise
> Control Act as a sort of template for local and state bodies
> to use when designing their own regulations. However, even my
> townhouse manager where we live doesnít stop the noise pollution
> coming from the people across the way.
> It seems that the resolution could be obtained through voluntary
> cooperation. In that the idea is for the individuals involved
> to have the power to decide, rather than a governing body, it
> still boils down to a set of values or guidelines that folks
> will have to follow. So, if the community wants more business,
> business will win. If the community wants more spas and meditation,
> there will be a juice bar instead of martinis.

Bradley Felton:
> I agree with "A". The condo-owners don't own the rights to the formerly
> quiet lot across the street that they were enjoying the benefit of, anymore
> than a person on an airline "owns" the right to the empty seat next to them
> which they didn't purchase a ticket for.
> The legitimate way for the condo-owners to control their surrounding
> environment is to purchase it; then they could leave it forever
> undeveloped, or turn it into rental units with strict noise rules, or
> whatever.

Shirley Ulrich:
> I agree with (A).
> Under the right set of circumstances, (C) might have merit.

** Guest votes

        = L. Neil Smith =

L. Neil Smith is probably one of the most extreme Libertarians around, the
author of some reputable anarchocapitalist SF, and was recently the
Libertarian candidate for President in Arizona instead of Harry Browne. I'm
not sure how that happened, but when I noted that, if nobody voted except in
Arizona, he could be the next President, he replied: "I'd be happy just to be
the president of Arizona." It took me a few seconds to get that... but
definitely, an extreme Libertarian.

Anyway, I was curious to know how the Confederacy would have handled this.

> I agree that:
> (A) Signing a petition to deny a liquor license is an improper use of
> government mechanisms, constituting the initiation of force.
> There is no such thing as a "proper" use of government mechanisms.
> If, indeed, the bar causes people in the neighborhood to lose the
> enjoyment of their own property, that's a purely civil matter, to be
> dealt with _after_ the fact. Try it before, and you've got a police
> state.
> Which is also the case if you accept the idea of distributed noise
> rights. Sound like Algore's ideas about carbon.

[ I requested clarification on that last one - i.e., I defined "noise rights"
as buying the right to emit any decibels over 90 on a piece of property - and
he replied: ]

> I am, in fact, well aware of the concept of "noise rights". I simply
> reject it.

[ I'm not sure whether this means he thinks a noise-rights contract is morally
unenforceable, or whether settling this issue by buying up noise rights is
simply a bad idea. I was surprised; I thought for sure that would be how the
Confederacy handled it. ]

        = Moshe Yudkowsky =

Moshe Yudkowsky is my father. I was raised to vote Libertarian, and was
somewhat curious to see what Dad would think of the issue. (I should note
that Dad, though a Libertarian science-fiction fan, is decidedly *not* an

> (E) (heh, heh)
> [ Editor's note: Typical. ]
> The question is property rights. Do the bar owners have the right to
> extend noise beyond their property line? Airplanes extend noise
> everywhere, how is this legal?
> It's not anti-Libertarian to use the gov't to defend against infrigments
> of property rights. That's what gov't is for.
> However, in this case, the question of "noise" or "noise pollution"
> rights haven't been clearly defined. What's the limit on the amount of
> noise that one person can legally generate? Clearly noise at different
> times has different values to different people (loud music in the
> afternoon, vs. the middle of the night, vs. the middle of the afternoon
> when a night-shift worker is sleeping).
> The other effects: increased traffic, etc., are all part of a different
> series of property rights issues (why is the street considered common property?).
> Houston, TX, does not have zoning laws, so there's no implied property
> rights. Chicago does, and the property rights are enforced in that
> mannner. But they're not defined as property rights, and they get
> tangled in the political atmosphere.

  [ In response to the flat-out question, "Would you sign?" ]

> Hmmmm... I really don't know. I suspect that I would.

** Signoff

Thanks again to everyone who voted!


-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:50:20 MDT