I never thought I would write a post about dog poop for LRC, but it is at the center of a situation that reflects problems at the heart of libertarian philosophy. In particular, is there a limit to property rights?
I have the tremendous good fortune to have a house in the French countryside.This has been a vacation house, but it was purchased in particular for my soon to begin retirement. While we feel very alone in the country at our house, there is another house just down the hill from us. When we arrived five years ago it was occupied by an elderly woman of great kindness and energy. We made fast friends with her. Upon turning 80 she decided to sell her house and the extensive grounds and move to town. The new owners were a young couple expecting their first child. They are both physicians by profession. The first year the house was being refurbished, and therefore, they did not spend much time there. Last year was Covid, so we could not spend much time there.Thus, we did not have the opportunity to get to know them. In particular, we never had the opportunity to have a drink together.
There is another important member of this new household, Maurice. Maurice appears to me to be a large spaniel. Now the neighbors have a much larger property than we do, but Maurice has the habit to go up the hill to our place to relieve himself. Understandably, my wife is annoyed by having the crotte de Maurice on our property. My wife has initiated conversation with the neighbors to alert them to this problem. In response they have made some effort to control Maurice, but in the end they believe that in the country their dog should be allowed to run free.
Anyone who has visited Paris knows that the French have been slow to take up the common courtesy of cleaning up after their dogs. In the Robert Altman film set during Paris Fashion Week, Ready to Wear, there is a running gag that everyone steps in dog poop. I recall nothing else about the movie but I do have a picture in my mind of Sophia Loren stepping into a pile. It is not a joke that there is a French belief that it is good luck to step in dog poop.
From a libertarian non-aggression principle (NAP) point-of-view, I think it is clear that Maurice’s owners are in the wrong. They are allowing their dog to violate our property rights. But the husband has countered my wife’s complaints that in the countryside it is normal to let dogs run free. And furthermore, we should add a gate to keep Maurice off of our property. Thus he is making an argument that personal property rights are accompanied by property responsibilities that are based on implicit or explicit societal agreement. This situation puts me in mind of a discussion between my two favorite libertarian bloggers, the Bionic Mosquito and Robert Wenzel.
There are many other variables representing the complex fabric of all human relations. But for me there is something more to understand in my hierarchy of goals. I asked my wife in the spirit of Jordan Peterson, “Do you want to win this argument or do you want to be friends with the neighbors?” How many people do you know, even among your closest family and friends, that regularly do something that annoys you; yet, the relationship is so important that you put up with the annoyance. It is important to me, perhaps more than my property rights, that we are friends with our neighbors in spite of Maurice.
In any case, now my wife is fed up with our neighbors. A fundamental pastime for me in my coming retirement at my house in the country will be to develop and nurture my garden. I now have another task, to develop and nurture friendship with my neighbors; under the even more important constraint, keeping my wife happy.