Humans Acting

Life always conspires to test and challenge our beliefs. There are several beliefs I hold that are compatible with libertarian philosophy. That’s not a political declaration. There’s never been a political party with a platform I agreed with 100 percent. Much of what is presented as democrat, republican and libertarian, I find arbitrary and insincere, and socialism is cute and terrifying like the evil doll in a horror movie.

Where I think the libertarians get it right, not 100 percent right, of course, but mostly right, is in their live and let live approach to government and economic issues. Ludwig von Mises wrote a book called Human Action in which he makes the case that human beings, possessed of minds with a logical structure that is similar for everyone, make purposeful decisions to maximize value. Thus, when people are able to exercise free will, over time the aggregate effect tends to produce the greatest value for all.

Human Action is a masterful defense of human freedom and free markets, and since its publication in 1942, no nation has fully embraced its principles in practice, possibly because the book is longer than War and Peace and not nearly as exciting. In the United States, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have always contended with the coercive powers of government and business in their attempts to maximize their own value.

Libertarians and republicans share a fierce attachment to individual property rights. Democrats and socialists are generally more supportive of public lands. It’s difficult, not impossible, but difficult, to be both an environmentalist and a republican or a libertarian, although some say that Theodore Roosevelt managed it to some degree.

Even a hard core libertarian, however, would draw the line at dumping toxic waste in the creek that runs through their property on it’s way to the lake downstream. Most of us who believe in even the most limited forms of government would acknowledge the legitimate role of a government here in defending the public good, but decades of scientific advancement have not extinguished the conflict between polluters and public health or between property rights and ecological health.

When it comes to property rights, personal choice and free markets, I’m as libertarian as F. A. Hayek himself, but I’m also an environmentalist because I’m aware that we are all members of the same community. My creek runs downstream. The silt from the illegal road on the mountain runs into my creek. The acid rain from the coal plant falls on my timber, and every mountain in the Southern Appalachians.

Nevertheless, there was little conflict between belief and action while I was home on the farm. But when I became a landlord, some of those beliefs were soon to be tested.

“Do what you will but do no harm” was my initial philosophy with our renters in another county. They seemed like reasonable, hard working people, and I had little concern for how they would care for the house.

But the large, wooded back yard was another matter. The neighborhood sits in an area that was formerly known as “Sandy Flats.” There are beaches that would feel lucky to have the sand in that yard. The soil does not hold water well, and during the long, hot summers it takes a hardy ground cover to survive.

To complicate matters, my elderly father, during the last years he lived at the house, loved to feed his birds so much that they had stripped away most of the ground cover, and the sand was beginning to erode during heavy rains.

When my dad left the house and we began to care for the yard ourselves, we took an ecological approach to restoring the soil. We encouraged native plants and grasses to grow, selected for hardiness and drought tolerance. When the leaves fell, we let them remain in place during the winter, which added organic material and improved the tilth of the soil. In just a few years the butterfly population multiplied and we began to see fireflies on the property at night. The heaviest rain had little effect on the stability of the ground. It was a well balanced ecosystem again, and an oasis in a neighborhood of traditional lawns.

Last July in the heat of the summer, our tenants enthusiastically removed most of the ground cover in the back yard and spread some grass seed on top of the sand in the hopes of making the yard look like a ChemLawn commercial. They raked all the leaves in the wooded area, exposing the soil to the hot sunshine. Like so many Americans, they were blind to the ecology of the land under their feet, and fixated on the heavily marketed images that we are programmed to recognize as symbols of prosperity and the good life.

Of course every bit of their grass seed died, and the ground began to erode again during the next downpour.

In an instant I felt more like a big government democrat or a law and order republican than I did a libertarian. I had to take a day or two to cool down and consider my response. Was I willing to lose good tenants who pay their rent on time and fix things around the house? Did I want to curb their enthusiasm for taking on projects at their own expense? How could I respond in a way that would maximize value for myself, and my tenants?

In the end, like a libertarian, I left them to their own devices. Like a democrat, I explained the science of soil management with a short course on ecology. And like a big government democrat or republican, I reminded myself that I still control their security deposit.

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