Libertarians and Lawn Equipment

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve been lying low in public on this front, while a lot of activity has been going on backstage.

Summary version: a bill to accelerate the transition away from super-polluting, noisy, leaf blowers powered by dirty two-stroke gas engines, and toward much cleaner electric models was introduced by a D.C. City Council member early this year. According to its sponsors, it has enough support to pass if it comes up for a full council vote. But before the whole council can consider it, it must be scheduled for hearings and a vote in a committee chaired by Council member Vincent Orange — who is up for re-election right now. That committee is where the action is for the moment. Stay tuned.

I’ll take the occasion to add two updates. One is a column yesterday by Paul Mulshine on, making the libertarian case in favor of controls on dirty, noisy equipment. Sample:

The defenders of the leaf blowers tend to speak of a "right" to use them and argue that any denial of that "right" is evidence of the nanny state in action.

Nonsense. A nanny state is a state that prevents you from doing harm to yourself, not to others. The best way to understand that is by comparing this grass to that other grass, the kind people smoke.

If somebody wants to smoke pot in his own house, then he can do so to his heart's content as far as I'm concerned. He can even listen to the Grateful Dead - though only if he keeps that sound on his own property as well.

But if he wants to project 90 decibels of sound onto my property, then let us imagine my possible response in a land of true liberty, free of all regulation.

I've imagined this many times. What I imagine usually involves my Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. A quick search shows numerous cases in which leaf-blower users have been shot; a classic case of justifiable homicide.

Obviously I’m a nonviolence-is-the-best-path guy, and, also obviously, Mulshine is exaggerating for comic effect. But I think he’s right in his revision of the standard “nanny state” argument.


Which leads to the second update:  a fact sheet on which some of the DC-area efforts are based. You can read the full thing here, but for a sample:

Toxic pollution - Two-stroke engines, unlike increasingly cleaner car engines, burn an oil-gas mixture that generates high levels of ozone-forming chemicals. These engines also disperse fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”). These chemicals and PM2.5s are inhaled by equipment operators and passers-by. An authoritative, independent laboratory study showed that using a two-stoke gas-powered leaf blower for 30 minutes produces pollutants equal to those generated by driving a Ford F-150 truck 3,900 miles, or as far as from Texas to Alaska.

Harmful health impacts - Ozone and PM2.5s are well known causes of, or contributors to, early death, cardiovascular disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, premature births, and other serious health conditions. Even short-term exposure can be harmful…

Damaging noise - According to reports from federal agencies, noise from leaf blowers ranges from 102−115 decibels (“dBs”) at the ear of the operator. These same federal agencies have declared noise levels above 85 dBs to be harmful…. Health effects from noise alone can include heart disease. A recent study estimates that more than 100 million Americans are at risk for noise-related health problems, with over 145 million at potential risk of hypertension due to noise, and even more at an increased risk of heart attack.

More as election news, council news, and advancing-technology news develop.