Monday, August 09, 2004

Ugliness as a Negative Externality

In Matthew Yglesias' response to a post by Virginia Postrel warning about the dangers of seizing on any and every negative effect of private actions to justify government intervention, a commenter makes the following suggestion:

... the way to resolve these 'negative effects' is not necessarily increased prescriptive legislation. An 'ugliness' fine may work very well.

And why restrict it to buildings? Ugly people ruin my day -- make them pay.
Sure, why not? If "visual pollution" is a problem, then aesthetically challenged folks are unrepentant offenders and ought to be treated as such - "Ugly people got no right to live!"

I'm just joking, obviously, but the above illustrates why Virginia Postrel is right and Matthew Yglesias is so very wrong on this issue. While I won't go as far as to say that one never ought to pay attention to negative externalities (and I don't even share Postrel's view that smoking isn't a public health issue), the concept is one that lends itself to abuse even more readily than does the Interstate Commerce Clause, and people who think, as Matthew seems to, that regulation isn't a problem because there's so much of it on the books already, display a cavalier disregard for freedom that is a danger to us all.