In defense of Bourbon Street

My colleague at George Mason, Bill Butterfield, (an excellent blogger, incidentally) recently wrote about a conversation we had while strolling down Bourbon Street in the Big Easy.
Bill writes:
“My problem with libertarians is that they overly discount meddlesome preferences. They claim they have none, which is the source of their sense of moral superiority. But meddlesome preferences are preferences just the same, everyone has them and they must be included in any attempt to maximize utility from a policy perspective.”
I would not claim that libertarians are without meddlesome preferences. I, for instance, would love to meddle in a lot of the decisions of others (for example, Fox should not be allowed to cancel “Arrested Development”!).
That said, the libertarian perspective is that we should honor individual rights (more precisely, “negative rights”). To do so, the rest of us are obliged to refrain from certain activities—including meddling.
A few examples: You have a right to life. I, therefore, am obliged not to kill you. You also possess a right to property, so I shouldn’t be allowed to take your iPod.
Though I may have a “meddlesome preference” for invading your rights and taking your property, I have a stronger preference for having my own rights respected and keeping my own property. Being a member of a liberal (libertarian) society, means that I agree to forfeit my right to act on my meddlesome preferences in exchange for living in a society in which no one else is permitted to act on their meddlesome preferences. For most of us, I think the trade-off is well worth it (the rest, of course, are free to join restrictive religious groups or even secular communes).
The economist in me would point out that well-defined, exchangeable rights in property provide entrepreneurs an incentive to take account of the preferences of others. Most people–even libertarians–want to live in neighborhoods without strip clubs. The home developer who appreciates this will make a profit. The developer who sells a unit to Larry Flint’s Strip Club in the middle of a residential neighborhood will not become a wealthy man.
I would much prefer to live in a system based on personal rights which restrain the meddlesome preferences of my fellows than in a system ruled by the meddlesome whims of the median voter.

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