Atlas Shrubbed – POLITICO Magazine
Rand Paul was blindsided last week while mowing his lawn by Rene Boucher, his enraged next-door neighbor and fellow physician. The Kentucky senator was left with six broken ribs and fluid in his lung, Boucher with a charge for fourth-degree assault (he pleaded not guilty on Thursday morning).
No one knows exactly what lit Boucher’s wick. It’s clear that he and Paul have a longstanding beef, and reports from neighbors converge on a theme. According to the New York Times, those familiar with the feud “cited stray yard clippings, newly planted saplings and unraked leaves.” Jim Skaggs, the developer of Paul and Boucher’s gated community, told the Times, “They just couldn’t get along. … They just both had strong opinions, and a little different ones about what property rights mean.”
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Paul is a libertarian-leaning Republican famed for his ideological intransigence. Boucher is a known Democrat with a hashtag-Resistance posting style on social media. Boucher’s lawyer insists that “[t]he unfortunate occurrence of November 3rd has absolutely nothing to do with either’s politics.” Yet it’s hard not to see it through the prism of politics or, if you’re an economics nerd like me, through the prism of free-market property rights theory.
The delicious irony in the idea that America’s most notable libertarian lawmaker might have been brutally tackled for violating his neighbor’s property rights with “stray yard clipping” was not lost on Twitter’s wits.
Nick Baumann, an editor for the Huffington Post, tweeted:
america’s most famous libertarian politician blowing his leaves onto his neighbor’s lawn is just perfect
— Nick Baumann (@NickBaumann) November 6, 2017
In an even headier tweet, the Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner wondered whether a famous theory about property rights, beloved of enthusiastic capitalists like Paul, might have had something to do with it:
I really hope Rand Paul recovers and that the Coase Theorem played no role in this altercation. https://t.co/VSzwyFeZv1
— Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) November 6, 2017
This is pretty funny, if you’re an egghead wonk.
Allow me to explain. Neighbors constantly subject one another to what economists call “externalities,” also known as “spillover effects.” If you let your lawn go to seed—or paint your house purple, or throw loud parties—the sounds, and sights, and weeds won’t stay inside the bounds of your property. They spill over to the neighbors.
The Coase Theorem, inspired by the work of the late Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, says that as long as there are no “transactions costs,” the spiller and the spillees can always arrive at an arrangement to deal with the externality that leaves some of the parties better off without making anyone worse off, no matter how property rights were initially assigned. Take the case of the ugly purple house, which subjects the neighbors to a horrible aesthetic externality every time they look out the window. According to the Coase Theorem, if there is a deal that could be cut that would leave the spillees better off, and the spiller no worse off, then that deal will get cut, even if the owner of the ugly purple house is entirely within her rights to paint it whatever color she damn well pleases. For example, the neighbors might pool their money to have the house repainted a subdued green, which the owner likes just as much as purple.
Likewise, if there’s a deal Paul and Boucher could make about, say, the locations of plantings or the disposal of leaves and lawn clippings that would leave both of them satisfied, then they’ll make it, and the exact location of the boundary between their properties won’t matter, as long as we make one grand assumption.