The Enforcement of Rights

by: Butler Shaffer

Karen DeCoster and I recently generated a great deal of e-mail response to our blogs concerning the creation and enforcement of homeowners’ association rules. The specific topic at hand, begun by Karen, related to an elaborate set of restrictions concerning dog “poop.” A rule proposed in one condominium complex would require dog owners to provide DNA samples that could later be compared to “wayward excrement” to identify the miscreant canine and its owner. Owners would also be assessed a $10 per month fee for the collection and testing of any poop found on the premises. The owner of any dog found in violation would be subject to a $500 fine.

Karen’s point – as well as mine – was that the desire of many people to subject their neighbors to rigid controls was not confined to using the state to enact statutes or ordinances, but can be found in private undertakings. Control freaks are also in the workplace as well as legislative halls, endeavoring to micro-manage the habits and behavior of employees as to matters having no bearing upon the work to be performed or the protection of the employer’s property. Rules prohibiting employees from smoking during non-work hours and in their own homes, as well as private efforts to control the eating habits of others, are but two recent examples. Homeowners’ association restrictions have long been a source of neighborly regimentation. It was in this spirit that Karen and I commented upon the predilection of so many to want to control the actions of others, be it through political or private means.

There is no necessary connection with libertarian principles here. Homeowners are at liberty to agree to such restraints, just as Karen and I are at liberty to question the mindset that promotes them; just as I am free to criticize your hat, or rock music.

This mania for control over the lives of others is not the theme for this article, however. I have explored this topic in books and other articles I have written. What I focus on, herein, is the question raised by the aforesaid e-mailers: how are our rights to be protected and enforced?

Let me begin by saying that I have long taken a very restricted view of “rights.” I have never been impressed by arguments grounded in so-called “natural law” or “moral rights.” How am I to know the definition, the boundaries, of what I – and my neighbors – may or may not do in compliance with such “rights?” Furthermore, why should I have to base my claim to immunity from the trespasses of others on any ground other than my own free will? My liberty to act within the confines of what is mine to own has long taken priority over any notion of “rights.”

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