Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Noise pollution: This Libertarian's Solution

The Belfast (Maine) City Council is looking into setting up a noise ordinance. Of course, the final product will be a Command and Control-based model, with some magical threshold set, below which victims of noise pollution are left with no recourse, and above which the only recourse is police intervention and court-imposed fines.

I'd like to proffer a scheme in which Noise Pollution would be seen as a property right, and a tradeable one, at that.

Suppose that the ownership of property implicitly included the right to raise the volume of sound on that property to any level. This would be defined as an exclusive right, i.e. only the owner has that right, and has the right to exclude others from doing that. Now, if property owner A wants to make so much noise on their own property that it increases the noise level on property owner B's property, B would have the right to enjoin A from doing that. B would have no say in the noise level on A's property, only on B's.

Now say that A is a bar owner: for the sake of discussion, Rollie's. Rollie's wants to have a band play every Friday and Saturday night till 11pm. The band's playing will increase the decibel level on B's property (say, the Albright apartment). If noise pollution were a property right, Albright could legally enjoin Rollie's from making use of her property, i.e. raising the noise level. Even one decibel, if she wanted to. It would be the same as enjoining someone from setting foot in her apartment.

If noise pollution were a fungible property right, Rollie's and Albright could enter into a contract to cover the situation. Albright could rent or sell to Rollie's the right to increase the decibel level on her property to prescribed limits within certain hours. Going over the limits or outside the agreed-upon hours could result in extra fees or in the suspension or termination of the arrangement.

And the compensation Rollie's would directly give to Albright in order to exercise this license would be enough to make her happy. Maybe it would be enough for her to have a meal on Friday night before the music started, and enough to rent a motel room for the evening. If the owners of Rollie's didn't see enough profitability after having to pay Albright an amount she would like, they would have other options. They could refrain from playing music. They could investigate other noise abatement technologies that might, in the long run, be less costly.

I haven't fleshed this totally out, but I hope it gives everyone something to think about. The Free Market could provide solutions for everyday people and their problems. The only thing standing in our way is the lack of legal recognition of this facet of property rights.



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