I've often been frustrated by libertarians who deny that there are boundary cases--who insist that all situations can be easily and correctly solved by the application of a few handy first principles. It seems obvious to me that many important principles are fundamentally incommensurable in some situations, and no simple rule set can correctly specify a single correct outcome in every case.

So I was interested last night to find myself arguing with an anti-libertarian who argued that there are no first principles--that a preference for chocolate ice cream has the same normative value as a preference for not having slavery, i.e. none. The only question he was interested in is how to allocate the various losses and gains between people who can't satisfy their preferences.

At some level this makes no sense--stating that satisfying people's preferences is valuable is itself a normative axiom. But as we delved deeper into the particular case we were arguing, land use restrictions, it got very weird. I was arguing, not particularly surprisingly, for a fairly strict construction of property rights that gives your neighbors little say over how you use your land, unless you are using it to hurl bombs at their house1. He was arguing that communities ought to do what they want, as long as this allows the majority to satisfy their preferences, with some sort of just compensation for the losers; he believed this power was actually less oppressive than limited state power as long as people could "vote with their feet".

But then we got into noise pollution, and he demanded to know if I thought people should be allowed to play loud music in their houses, if you can hear it. Not deafening music, which I would be against; just loud. I pointed out that as long as the transaction costs for side deals are relatively low, which they should be in the kind of leafy, large suburb we were discussing, it didn't really matter whether he had the right to play music, or I have the right to enjoy silence; the Coase Theorem dictates that we will end up with preference maximization.

But I shouldn't have to pay for quiet, he said.

"Vote with your feet," I said. Things didn't progress very far from there.

I've met a fair number of people who say they believe that there are no first principles. But I don't think I've ever met one who really never advances normative justice claims. I think it's just not in us.


1This leaves aside air and water policy, on which I have no good opinion except that we should strive to keep the thing as simple and non-coercive as possible.

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