Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. His research interests include constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal and political philosophy, and legal history. His work has appeared in the Vermont Law Review, the Syracuse Law Review, and the Jurist, as well as the Washington Times, Huffington Post, and the Daily Caller. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a JD from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

People like different things, and that’s a problem. It’s one that only exists, of course, in a world with scarce resources having alternate uses. Competition over resources means everyone cannot get everything they want.

Although my libertarianism has many different “foundations,” I want to focus on this one in particular. I take it as a truism that people like different things, and likewise that the world is full of scarce resources with alternate uses. Any system of human “governance” (in the broadest sense of the term) must come to terms with these two facts. I am a libertarian, at least partially, because I believe the market system tends to better rationalize different tastes and to produce more abundance of those scarce things.

What is an example of the problem that people like different things? Take trees. Some people value trees as beautiful things having as much a right to live as we do. Others value trees as paper, firewood, or houses. These values seem to clash.

How can we solve this problem? We could have tree‐​lovers and tree‐​harvesters physically fight over the trees. This happens in many cases of value disagreement, of course, but it is far from an optimal solution. We could try to convince tree‐​harvesters that there will be bigger environmental effects to tree‐​harvesting, thus eventually harm something tree‐​harvesters love, such as oxygen. Also, of course, we could simply ban tree harvesting.

But there is only one solution that produces a rational, socially optimal result: property rights and rights of transfer. Those who own trees are free to do what they want with them, and if someone would rather do something else with the trees, then they can acquire those property rights. As an added bonus, property rights in trees will engender tree cultivation, thus rewarding both harvesters and conservationists.

Those points are often made but less often understood. Property rights create social cohesion because they keep us from fighting over how property will be used. They are a socially optimal solution to the problem that people like different things, and they can be endorsed by people with severely contrasting tastes. I let you have dominion over your property because I want dominion over mine. I’ll let you play your Barry Manilow if you let me play my Bob Dylan. And if you’re playing your music too loud, I’ll knock on your door.

Yes, this doesn’t solve all the problems that come with people liking different things, but it does an amazing job of solving most of them. Moreover, a system of respect for property rights does not invent new, unnecessary problems. Under normal situations, it is not a problem that you listen to Barry Manilow and I listen to Bob Dylan, as long as we respect property rights. If we politicize music preferences, however, we will invent a problem out of thin air, namely what are “we” going to listen to?

But some people aren’t happy with property rights as a socially optimal solution. They aren’t happy because property rights allow people, such as Barry Manilow fans, to persist in liking different things. Some people want to have sex in strange ways with people of the same sex, and others don’t like that. Some people want to raise their children with different beliefs, and others don’t like that. Some people want to ingest certain substances so they feel better, and others don’t like that. They don’t realize that property rights help both Barry Manilow and Bob Dylan fans, gay and straight couples, creationists and evolutionists, and teetotalers and potheads.

Those who cannot accept people liking different things then look for a solution to this “problem.” What they need is a type of physical force (because they can’t seem to convince others not to like different things) that doesn’t put them in danger (because physically stopping undesirable behavior yourself is scary), and is seen as legitimate by those whose behavior they are trying to change. They quickly find their way to politics. If they just get 50% +1 to agree with them, then they can wield the state’s considerable power against those who insist on liking different things. It is easy to see why this option is so attractive.

With politics in the picture, the whole game changes. The equilibrium of a property rights system is based on the mutually beneficial theory of “stay out of my way; I’ll stay out of yours.” When politics intrudes the question changes to “whoever can win the political game is free to get in everyone’s way.”

And that game has high stakes. Losers don’t just walk home with their tails between their legs, they lose the ability to live their lives according to their values and consciences. Being on the wrong side of 50% +1 can mean you will not be able to educate your children how you want, that you cannot marry who you want, that you can’t work in your chosen profession, and that you cannot listen to Barry Manilow.

No wonder politics is so vicious.

After something is politicized, “keeping to yourself” is no longer an option. Instead, you have to play the political game if you want to live your life according to your values. Energy that could be spent building new and exciting technologies or beautiful art is now invested in trying to defend your way of life in the political process. A fleeting victory–for example, legalizing gay marriage–may cause you to hold your hands up in a pose of victory, and rightfully so. But why did you ever have to play this game in the first place?

I am a libertarian because I hate the game. We live in a time that increasingly fetishizes democratic choice as a method of rationalizing our disparate preferences. This is ludicrous. Democratic choice is at best a method of solving some collective action problems that are truly problems, and it is hardly ever a real problem that people like different things.