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My unwritten policy at the Unbroken Window is to typically not comment on issues like this. But I think enough time has passed to put an economist’s perspective on the issue and have it heard without shuffling quickly to another web site.

Ignore the passions for now, ignore the 9-11 issue, ignore the religious discrimination, etc. Economists like me see these sorts of situations in a far simpler light – they are nothing more than basic property rights issues. To those who are not in support of putting a mosque (or whatever that facility is going to be) near the 9-11 site, there are a variety of tools they could employ to see that their objectives are met. Of course, the tool being chosen right now is to sway popular opinion against the mosque and have the force of the state intervene to not have the mosque built. But that behavior is thuggish and certainly outside the bounds of decent behavior in a tolerably free society.

Why?

Because there’s an easy solution – if people did not want the mosque, and truly felt as strongly about its positioning as they say that they do, they would put their money where their mouth was, and they would offer to buy the space from the current owners. The last I remembered it in economics, if you value something more than another person, it follows that you would be willing to pay more for the resource than they do (challenges to this idea are many, I’ll blog it in the future). Thus, if opponents truly feel as strongly as they do, then they should be able to conjure up the resources to make it attractive for the mosque owners to sell, and to use the funds to pursue their project on a different site. But I suspect that this would never happen. It’s a lot easier to scream than it is to actually do something. And it is a lot easier to rely on the force of the government’s guns to get your wishes than it is to peaceably negotiate. Think about the violence of this for the time being. This is not an issue that should be considered narrowly. If some group of people claims it values something more than another group of people, relying on government and other coercive means to get your way is a sharp lurch back to the uncivilized society of marauding that prevailed until very recently. And what of another issue when you are on the receiving end of this criticism? Are people this short sighted? And think of all the time and energy spent running to the media and the government that could otherwise have been put to productive use.
In this sense I see the controversy as an enormous waste for two reasons. The first, as I indicated above, we could have used an economic means to resolve this conflict and instead lots of valuable resources (physical and otherwise) have been wasted in this debate. Second is that in all of this, the key property rights issue has rarely if ever been raised.

The property rights issue is manifest in two ways. The first I will only mention in passing, the second merits a little more comment.

  1. So much for the idea that we “own” our property in the sense that we have the exclusive authority to determine how that property is used. And no, you cannot invoke externality arguments here (i.e. “the mosque offends me”) any more than you would invoke them for my choice to build a split-level ranch instead of a charming arts-and-crafts home on my lot here in Rochester. The “deal with it” argument is actually a scientific one, and deserves far greater support (for long term reasons) than I see it given right now.
  2. Ironically, I wonder if anyone in this “debate” understands that “freedom of religion” is actually a property right to secure the means to practice one’s chosen religion. The idea that we can have freedom of religion without secure property rights is a joke. What would it mean to be “free to practice Catholicism” if to do so, for example, you had to petition the “public” for access to paper to print bibles, for access to materials to build churches, and for access to land to assemble on. It would be a mockery to say Catholics were free. This, if one is to invoke freedom or religion in defense of the Islamic center here, that invocation ought to be on the above grounds and not some opaque notion that “we should tolerate other religions.” In other words, if the US had clearly defined and protected property rights, this whole thing could not possibly be an issue.

… that the nature of this issue is wildly misunderstood, and that has implications far beyond the “mosque” in question. But I would not expect hysterical people to pause to reflect on this.

3 Responses to “The Ground Zero Mosque “Controversy””

  1. Harry says:

    Right on, Wintercow!

    Being an owner of cows of all seasons, I have always been sympathetic with owners of desireable real property. That would be a disclaimer had I not sold eighty acres several years ago, but there remains in my veins a need to defend the property rights of my neighbor, including everybody in the United States.

    Around here we have similar controversies. A local person bought a property from someone else, and wants to quarry it. Many neighbors are upset. Many neighbors. Many neighbors who have the means to buy all the land of the quarry, and the other eight hundred acres.

    I knew, but was not a close acquaintance of, the guy who owned the land. Thirty years ago, had a few of the people who live on the edges of his property offered him a million bucks, they could have bought their view, their privacy, and all of the stone under the damn quarry.

    I do not want to speculate on what they did with their money instead.

    But when you move into the country and buy your half-acre lot across the farmer’s cornfield, that does not make you a feudal Earl. You cannot go back to the King and get him to take the cornfield across the street for your benefit.

    However reprehensible and evil the developers of the Mosque may be, can’t there be someone who will buy that property? For under a Billion?

    The problem here is the same as the quarry. People want other people to sacrifice their money, so they do not have to make a more difficult sacrifice.

    I know it would kill Mike Bloomberg if he personally had to pay an arab a multimillion premium for a property in downtown Manhattan; whatever it would take, I sure would not want to be part of the deal.

    It is time for NYC people to buy it, give the Arab his profit, and move on in defence of freedom.

  2. M says:

    I read in the news that Trump offered to buy it to put an end to the controversy but they wouldn’t sell.
    http://www.rttnews.com/Content/TopStories.aspx?Node=B1&Id=1415145

    I think it’s more complicated than the economics of the situation.

  3. Michael says:

    I’ll have to agree a bit with M on this one. The problem is I don’t really know had to address this without being arbitrary, but in a sense this is to me a difference in common and statutory law. They have every right to do it under property rights, but there are important institutions about how we conduct ourselves that aren’t written down. This part, under common law, is why it shouldn’t be built. Fortunately, common law also tends to enforce itself, so the mosque will probably not be built because no business is going to be willing to build it.

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