Monday, November 8, 2010

Libertarianism and Leaf Blowing: An Aporia

Tad Friend's recent New Yorker article on the suburban politics of leaf blowing suggests a very troubling state of affairs ("Blowback," October 25). The article pits quiet-loving citizens against "the libertarians" who want to be able to pay gardeners to leaf blow because it is the cheapest (i.e. fastest) way to have an immaculate yard.

And yet what Friend's reporting reveals is that all parties involved exhibit a staunchly libertarian ethos. For the leaf blower advocates, this comes across most obviously as a fierce protection of private property: no one should be able to coerce another individual to spend his or her money in a prescribed way. As for the opponents of leaf blowers, their corralling of ostensibly scientific evidence (including careful measurements of decibel levels and toxic "nanoparticles") represents another, if more subtle, form of libertarianism: this preference-based science is flouted as cultural capital, where the goal is still, finally, to protect private property.

The rights of the individual and the fierce protection of private property are thus effectively gained by dollars, or by scientific sense. This might explain, in part, the surge of the Tea Party candidates in this current election season: across seeming political divides, libertarianism wells up in strong individual feelings. Unfortunately, as Friend's article aptly shows, such an uncompromising philosophy of the individual and private property does not translate very well to living together; libertarianism is far better suited to living apart. (As if that were ever an option.)