Suppose somebody is walking along the sidewalk carrying a big sign saying “I hate you.” Is he violating your natural rights? Should the state prohibit him from being annoying? Does freedom imply being protected from being annoyed, or does it protect our right to be annoying?
The citizens of Brighton, Michigan, believe that we have a right to not be annoyed. In December 2008 the city council enacted an ordinance authorizing the police to cite anyone who is annoying in public “by word of mouth, sign or motions.” Violators will pay a fine. Brighton is not alone in this war on annoyance. Royal Oak, Michigan, also had such an ordinance, which serves as a model for other cities to copy.
A common source of public annoyance in some cities are beggars who ask for money as one passes by or, worse, come up to you with a sad story. Now, with the anti-annoyance ordinance, one can call the police, and the beggar will have his food in jail if he refuses to accept the ticket.
In some places, guys walk down the street in baggy pants that hang low. Another annoyance is inconsiderate guys who walk around with a loud portable music player; the music itself is often cacophonous, hence annoying, Those who are annoyed by such fashion and bad taste can now call the police and have the offenders cited.
In economics, uncompensated bad effects on others are called “negative externalities.” The textbooks say that government can correct this by charging the person who emits the externality for the social cost. Evidently Royal Oak and Brighton have implemented this principle. You annoy, you pay.
Unfortunately, if you walk into a shop and seek some service, but the worker there is yakking on her cell phone, it is very annoying, but in Brighton you may not call the police, since the shop is a private place.
But what if the police are annoying? The police should not be above the law. If you are annoyed by a police officer, you should be able to call other police and have the officer cited.
You get a traffic ticket and the judge pounds the gavel and declares, “guilty!” Very annoying, and the court is a public place. You can get back at the judge; call the police and have the judge cited! But that would annoy the judge, so he will have you cited too. Now you have become annoyed again, and can have the judge cited for citing you. After all, if judges are above the law, we have no law.
What a wonderful weapon is this anti-annoyance ordinance. If your neighbor annoys you by hanging underwear in his back yard, call the police! Threaten to cite him, and he will have to do as you say. But that might annoy him, and then you have to do what he says. Whoops, now they are both slaves of one another. At least it’s equal.
Children are often annoyed by the restrictions and punishments imposed by their parents. They can now do something about it. When they are shopping or otherwise out in public, parents are often annoyed by their children whining, crying, complaining. parents can now tell their children that they will call the police if the kids don’t stop being annoying.
Perhaps the residents of Brighton and Royal Oak find this editorial annoying. Too bad; they can’t do anything about it unless I show up in those towns. I will make sure I never enter those towns.
The unemployment rate in Michigan is over ten percent, and its automobile industry is crashing. What I want to know is, if the residents find the bad economy annoying, who gets cited?
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.