Siren songs

by Henry on July 23, 2003

Tyler Cowen has a couple of posts suggesting that there is a serious libertarian argument against initiatives like the US government ‘do-not-call’ list for telemarketers. His argument is that government shouldn’t be in the business of restraining peoples’ spontaneity.

(warning: lengthy argument follows)

To quote the core of Cowen’s argument:

Take those people who have put themselves on the list. Do they really not want to be called? Maybe they are afraid that they really like being called. That they will buy things. That they will be impulsive. Arguably those people have a rational controlling self, and an impulsive buying self, to borrow some language from Thomas Schelling. Why should we assume that the rational controlling self is the only one who counts (do you really want a life devoid of spontaneity?)? Why should our government be in the business of altering this balance in one direction or the other? Isn’t the market a better mechanism for balancing the interests of the conflicting selves? How many of you out there will be consistent? How about a government list for people who do not want to be allowed into casinos? Do not want to be allowed to buy cigarettes at the local 7-11? Do not want to be allowed to order dessert?

Cowen seems to have gotten a lot of email from people who argue either a that telemarketers are evil (which is self evidently true, but beside the point), or b that they themselves never buy from telemarketers. But this doesn’t address Cowen’s two main claims. First, he suggests that the government shouldn’t favour our propensity for self control over our propensity for spontaneity. Second, he states that the market likely provides a better mechanism for balancing spontaneity and rationality than the government. Even if he’s advancing these arguments half in jest, they’re worth thinking about, as they involve some tricky questions for political theorists, philosophers, economists, and others who pontificate on such matters.

Turning to the first point. For starters, no libertarian I, but it seems to me that when Cowen (correctly) argues that people aren’t consistent in their preferences, he’s jumping up and down on some very thin ice for libertarians. Ideas about individual autonomy, and how it’s best expressed through free choice in certain political and economic contexts, usually rest on the implicit claim that there is an individual there, who knows more or less consistently what she wants. If you start positing different ‘selves’ within the individual, with different ideas of what they would like and how to get it, you’re coming dangerously close to saying that people don’t really know what they want. And this, in effect, is what Cowen is arguing. If we want to “balance” rationality and spontaneity, then we want to limit the circumstances under which we can make rational long term choices that constrain us, and prevent us from behaving spontaneously in the future. In short, some kinds of choice should (sometimes) not be open to individuals, even if those choices are likely to harm no-one but the individual herself (and, even then, these choices will only ‘harm’ one aspect of the individual, her spontaneous self as opposed to her rational, controlling self). This seems to me to be a rather tricky argument for a libertarian to make, and to sustain. In fact, it’s the reverse image of some of the arguments made against libertarians – for example that addictive drugs should be illegal, because once we start shooting up, we may not be able to stop. Anti-libertarian arguments of this sort appeal to our long term self-interest as opposed to our short term, ‘spontaneous’ interest in getting high. Cowen’s argument does the reverse, suggesting that our ability to make long term choices should be limited lest it constrain our spontaneity. But, as should be apparent, the two arguments aren’t that far off each other – they both state that we should ‘limit’ one form of choice, in order to facilitate the other. And I suspect that they’re both, in the end, antithetical to libertarianism.

Second, let’s look at the claim that governments provide an inferior means of balancing spontaneity and long term interests than markets. There seem to me to be two claims; one implicit and one explicit. The first doesn’t hold, as far as I can see, and Cowen doesn’t actually provide any evidence in support of the second.

The first more or less implicit claim, is that the do-not-call list is problematic because it’s the government that is organizing it. This seems to me to be a non-starter. The government isn’t constraining choice here, it’s enabling it. More precisely, it is offering a new choice to consumers which they previously didn’t have – of telling telemarketers not to call them. If the government is “altering the balance,” it is doing so by opening up choices rather than shutting them down – i.e. it isn’t restricting the kinds of liberties that libertarians get het up about. It’s not coercing consumers to sign up. The only people who are being coerced are the telemarketers, who are being coerced only to respect the right of others to choose not to be called by them. To put it another way; would libertarians find the scheme objectionable if it was being run entirely by private actors? Say, for example, if the Direct Marketing Association had put together a really workable do-not-call list (rather than the half-arsed effort that it had). I suspect that libertarians would see this as laudable evidence of market forces at work. But the effects on individual consumer choice would be precisely the same.

The second claim that Cowen makes is that markets are a better way of balancing our controlling selves and our spontaneous selves than governments. He doesn’t adduce any real arguments or evidence for thinking that this is likely to be so, and I suspect that he’d have trouble in finding them. 1 In order to evaluate the respective merits of different means to balancing, you’d really have to have some valid and convincing metric for “deciding” the appropriate balance between the different claims of long term enlightened self interest, and short term spontaneity. And damn me if I know of any way of doing this in an intellectually defensible way. I suspect that Cowen’s claim, if you look at it closely, boils down to something like the following. “Markets are more likely than not to favour spontaneity over long term rationality. By and large, I prefer free scope to be given to spontaneity, rather than careful long term planning, when the two come into conflict. Therefore I, and people like me, should prefer markets over government.” Which is all very well and good, but isn’t going to convince people with dissimilar preferences.

Now this is a rather lengthy response to a throwaway argument, but I think there are some interesting issues buried in here. How well does libertarian claims about social order work, if you assume that people are subject to certain kinds of inconsistency? My suspicion, as articulated above, is that they don’t work well at all. How do libertarians deal with individual forms of choice that are deliberately meant to foreclose future choices that the individual might make? Surely, some libertarian, somewhere, has dealt with this set of problems. The only person I know who has done serious work on this is erstwhile analytic Marxist, current day unclassifiable leftie, Jon Elster. Two of his books, Ulysses and the Sirens and Ulysses Unbound, show that these problems are endemic to many important forms of choice.

1 Broader efficiency claims for markets rest, of course, on assumptions about the consistency of preferences, which Cowen has junked at the beginning of his post.

Update: Ogged has further criticisms.

Addendum: Reading over Cowen’s post again, it strikes me that precisely the argument that he’s making over the do-not-call list can be made with regard to the sale of pension plans on the market. Pension providers, by giving us the choice of signing up to schemes where we put away a chunk of our disposable income every month, are altering the balance between our rational controlling selves and our spontaneous selves. As already noted, the actual nature of the provider (government in Cowen’s example; a private firm in mine) is a red herring – the important bit for the argument is how their provision of something affects individual choice.

Addendum II – David Glenn emails to point to this very interesting paper by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, which starts from similar arguments about limitations in human rationality and consistency, to argue on behalf of a “libertarian paternalism.” Good, thought-provoking stuff.



Michael C 07.23.03 at 8:20 pm

I find Cowen’s argument strangely un-libertarian as well. Of all the rights that libertarians recognize, they usually hold the rights to private property and privacy dearest of all. Isn’t the easy libertarian case for the do-not-call list as follows: Consumers, acting through their own choice, are signing on to a government service which prevents telemarketers from violating their privacy and (more arguably, perhaps) using their private property (their telephone line) because they don’t wish to be hectored to transfer their hard-earned wealth to the telemarketers? We’re not talking here about a public venue, like a street or a park, where it could be claimed that producers have a right to market to individuals, but about people’s private phone lines. The essence of the libertarian position about government, as I understand it, is that government action is warranted to protect fundamental individual rights from abuse, exploitation, etc. I would think the do-not-call list would be a paradigm case of justified government intervention on libertarian grounds.


SKapusniak 07.23.03 at 8:21 pm

That is a really peculiar argument Cowen has there, at least as far as do-not-call lists are concerned.

Surely if I have a sudden impulse to buy lots of stuff I can quite easily phone a seller of stuff myself and satisfy that impulse? Allowing myself to be randomly hassled at random times on the off-chance I might have an impulse to buy right now, seems a remarkably inefficient way of going about things.

As a non-Libertarian I can think of a much ‘better’ Libertarian argument against government do-not-call lists…

…that is that the problem of telemarketers is fundamentally a pricing problem. My time is valuable to me — sometimes more valuable, sometimes less valuable — however the price of calling me is entirely determined by the telco, I have absolutely no control of it.

It’s invariably too low for people I don’t want to talk to, or at times when I’m busy.

This is entirely incorrect and inconsistent with Libertarian utopia!

The fundamental cause of the telemarketer problem is that I can’t price them out of the market for calling me, and therefore they end up free-riding on the valuable resource of my time.

The solution to unwanted sales calls would be for my telco allow me set charges for incoming calls, based on who is calling me, time of the day, etc. etc. I should be able to do this price setting operation from my phone, after all it does have this nifty numeric keypad!

The telco would either charge me a fixed amount for each call, or we’d have some sort of revenue sharing deal, depending on our contract.

If I had that sudden impulse which made me desperate for random calls I could drop my prices. Since prices in Libertarian utopias are always public and extremely transparent enterprising telemarketers would instantly notice my low low prices and start calling me.

The question then becomes, why has no enterprising phone company come into existence that offers this service? For a committed Libertarian the answer should be obvious — regardless of whether it’s true of not — the highly government regulated nature of the teleco industry has stifled all innovation along these lines!

A government enforced do-not-call list makes the matter even worse by now destroying the market for call pricing services such as I describe above.

Curses! Libertarian Utopia foiled Again!


Morat 07.23.03 at 8:51 pm

Under libertarian ideology, shouldn’t the choice of how much to constrain either the “rational” or “spontaneous” sides be up to the individual?

And isn’t that what signing up for that list is? People deciding to restrain their own “sponteneous” side? And people like myself, who hate telemarketers but haven’t bothered to sign up, are possibly making the other choice?


Will Baude 07.23.03 at 9:17 pm

Would a Libertarian be kinder to a privately-run do-not-call list? Absolutely. Why? Not because there’s something better about private people doing what the government does, but because private people can’t subject people to criminal fines or prosecutions for making telephone calls.

The good libertarian argument against do-not-call lists is that it restrains the freedom of people to make unpopular telephone calls. You don’t want to open yourself to unpleasant calls? Don’t buy a phone. Or leave the ringer off. Or use call-blocking. Or put in an answering machine and screen them (as Miss Manners points out, the answering machine is our century’s version of the Butler who politely wards off callers).

The fact that the list is voluntary lessens the evil but does not eliminate it. A seriously liberty-based belief in free speech should respect the right to speak to those who don’t want to listen, so long as they open themselves up in some way, either by going out in public, or by plugging in an intercom/alarm (i.e., a telephone) that let’s the public come to them.

In other words, if you don’t want calls, don’t take them, but don’t fine people for calling you.


Michael C 07.23.03 at 9:34 pm

Re: Will Baude’s post:
I’m not a libertarian so perhaps I’m not too sympathetic to this line of argument:
“A seriously liberty-based belief in free speech should respect the right to speak to those who don’t want to listen, so long as they open themselves up in some way, either by going out in public, or by plugging in an intercom/alarm (i.e., a telephone) that let’s the public come to them.”
Two problems here: (1) How is that you’re “opening up” yourself to telemarketers by owning a phone? Having a phone is a private arrangement between you and the service provider, and it doesn’t give the rest of the world carte blanche to do whatever they want over the telephone lines. Remember: You pay for your phone line. Why should someone have the right to use it in ways you oppose? The right of free speech doesn’t mean I have to PAY for others’ speech directed at me.

(2) You make it sound as if telemarketers are an aggrieved political minority, urging us to pay attention to overlooked social issues or something. Telemarketers are not contributing to public social or political debate by calling us alll at home. Not all speech is important enough to deserve unlimited First Amendment protection. Whatever telemarketers are selling, it’s not political, artistic, etc., speech of the sort that obviously deserve legal protection. That’s precisely why the do-not-call lists don’t apply to political organizations — so that protected political speech doesn’t get cut off by this regulation.

I also agree with the earlier post about there being a pricing problem here, with the telemarketers free riding. If only you could pay more, say, to a phone service provider who would refuse to carry these calls, but I’m pretty sure that’s technically unfeasible.


mezzrow 07.23.03 at 11:29 pm

I don’t buy it. I personally have no patience for telemarketers, who are the illustration of the “tragedy of the commons” in that their abuse of my access by phone has resulted in my hanging up as soon as I can hear the boiler room buzzing in the background – any good will I once had toward my fellow man trying to make a living is completely gone. We have in the past supported charities who abuse our support by telemarketing us – early, often, and forever. These organizations get enough information from us to convey the fact that we are now former supporters due to their choice of using telemarketing to raise funds. The calls keep coming, nonetheless. These days they dial several numbers at once, and shuttle the first pickup to their operators, then hang up on anyone left hanging on the queue. Find yourself being called and hungup on more and more these days?? That’s why – I’m in the IT business and once interviewed for a job that turned out to be cooking up the software that does this very thing (didn’t take it). The only thing that will drain the swamp of these predators is when it no longer pays to pursue this strategy. When enough individuals decide to put those who telemarket out of business by not doing business with them anymore, thus making the decision not to telemarket the only wise business decision, only then will this abuse end.


Jason McCullough 07.24.03 at 12:01 am

“The good libertarian argument against do-not-call lists is that it restrains the freedom of people to make unpopular telephone calls. You don’t want to open yourself to unpleasant calls? Don’t buy a phone. Or leave the ringer off. Or use call-blocking. Or put in an answering machine and screen them (as Miss Manners points out, the answering machine is our century’s version of the Butler who politely wards off callers).”

In other words, my rights related to my phone are inferior to everyone else’s rights to my phone. How about that.


Dodd 07.24.03 at 1:48 am

As a libertarian, I disagree with Mr. Baude. I like SKapusniak’s point about the value of his time, and I agree with it, but the reason I wholeheartedly support this particular government “intrusion” is much simpler: I pay for my phone. As michael c noted, no-one has a “free speech” right to force me to pay for them to speak at me.

The Miss Manners method still steals my valuable time and attention from whatever I would choose to be doing during the time I must spend determining whether or not to answer any particular call. Add up all calls I receive and that’s a lot of time. Why on Earth should it be anti-freedom to, as Henry put it, provide me a choice previously denied me to forbid any such thefts of my time and the resource for which I paid? I doubt very many people think it appropriate for telemarkers to call cell phones, many of which still charge by the minute. There is no fundamental difference between that and a flat-rate for receiving calls at home – we’re still paying for it, not the caller.

In short, the balancing point between the ‘free speech’ rights of telemarketers and my right not to be forced to subsidize that speech is not for me to forswear the use of one of modernity’s most fantastic inventions. It is to provide, at a minimum, the choice to opt-out.


cafl 07.24.03 at 4:46 am

“You don’t want to open yourself to unpleasant calls? Don’t buy a phone. Or leave the ringer off…” Will Baude’s argument ignores the fact that telemarketers use “war dialling” to call persons who have unlisted numbers. Telemarketers do not distinguish between those who have not made their numbers available and those who have. Free speech arguments don’t convince me that random commercial interests have the right to use my resources to annoy me.


Tristan 07.24.03 at 7:11 am

Re: Will Baude’s Post:

Protecting free speech implies protecting unpopular speech, which means “speech no one wants to listen to”. I also don’t buy the argument that my paying fot the telephone makes telemarketing a form of theft, since the telemarketers pay for their own calls (that argument does hold for email SPAM, though).

However, I don’t see why unwanted speech has to be protected on my private communication pathways. When I turn on ad-subsidized television, I make a bargain with marketers – I will sit through their commercials in exchange for free programming. When I walk in a public venue (the street), I make a similar bargain – people have access to me there, and can accost me with their messages.

I made no such bargain with the telephone company. When telemarketers, whether commercial, charitable, or political, call me at home, they substantially reduce the value and usability of my telephone. Hanging up, turning off the ringer, and screening with an answering machine (which I do) all interfere with my ability to communicate with associates (for example, when my mother called me from NYC on 9/11 at 7AM California time, I screened and lost the call). Why should anyone have the right to pollute my private communication channels with unsolicited noise? I think that no-call list should include ALL telemarketing, including political and charitable (with a possible exception for telephone surveys, though I recognize the possibility for abuse there – “hello sir, I am calling to do a ‘survey’ on your preferences with regards to buying our new vacuum cleaner”). And add door-to-door sales and noisemaker-based street vending to the list as well – when I’m in my own damned home, I want to be left alone, unless I explicitly choose to use a non-private communication channel such as a television, newspaper, or window.

There are hundreds of ways for people to get their messages out. I’m a reasonably open minded guy; I’ll listen to your message if you present it in a legitimate venue (hell, I’m reading this blog, so I must be looking for ideas). Democracy can limp along without telepredators interrupting my breakfast, vendors blowing bicycle horns for an hour at a stretch while walking slowly up and down my street, and scientologists banging at my door.

I don’t care if this is accomplished by government mandate or some sort of commercial arrangement (purchasing an ad-free line from the telco, for example). I’d prefer a non-law-enforcement solution, but the overriding concern is that it work reasonably well.

Of course, I haven’t even signed up for the DNC list. I’m waiting to see if the charity and political TMs, who are excluded from it, actually purchase the list from the government, and use it as a source of known-good numbers.


Bob 07.24.03 at 12:40 pm

Does the estimable Tyler Cowen really mean that I’m obliged to continue to take and listen to several calls a week for the foreseeable from the same double-glazing company in the name of free speech?


Martin Wisse 07.24.03 at 2:03 pm

“The fact that the list is voluntary lessens the evil but does not eliminate it. A seriously liberty-based belief in free speech should respect the right to speak to those who don’t want to listen, so long as they open themselves up in some way”

If you believe this, you should be consistent and let me a) spam your e-amil address, b) use your website to talk to you and c) believe no media company has the right to refuse anybody making use of their systems.

Your freedom of speech is balanced by my freedom to not listen. It does not guarantee you an audience.

(This neatly illustrates why I believe any political philosophy based on some absolute right breaks down sooner or later, because they don’t provide guidance for what happens when rights conflict.)


Will Baude 07.24.03 at 3:41 pm

Too much here to respond to justly in full, so forgive me if I make a sort of running slalom through a few of the many good points y’all have made:

1: The “I pay for it” argument. Well, yes, you pay for the installation of your phone line, but the mere fact that you let people communicate with you when you don’t have to doesn’t necessarily mean you should be able to enact *criminal* penalties against people who then communicate with you in ways you don’t like. I’m not sure how y’all would feel about a government rule that gave five years in jail to anybody who talked politics at the dinner table without the host’s permission, or any houseguest who proposed a commercial transaction to somebody who’d put himself on some list. If those seem like reasonable restrictions to you too, then what we have is an interesting disagreement in philosophy of property, although even then I think telemarketing has a right to *more* protection, not less. Why? Because a telemarketer never comes onto my property, and the only way he *influences* my property is through a means I open to him. The only reason to have a telephone that rings is to get called.

2: The aggreieved political minority/this isn’t real free speech argument. Firstly, I *do* think telemarketers are an aggreived political minority. Whatever you think of them, there’s little denying that. Most people support restrictions on telemarketers (thus the democratic telemarketing restrictions we’ve passed) and enact penalties against them through the political process.
Now a lot of people think that since telemarketing transactions don’t have artistic or political or scientific or literary value, they shouldn’t be protected. Two thoughts there: Firstly, do to those who think that “Whatever telemarketers are selling, it’s not political, artistic, etc.,” do you therefore think that these telemarketing restrictions should have exceptions for: political organizations (they do), non-political organizations engaged in political speech (Nike urging you to support its corporate PAC, journalists hawking their new book, newspapers and newsmagazines offering your subscriptions, etc.), those hawking art (video subscriptions, davinci prints, playboy) or music, those selling books, or those engaged selling the products of science or learning (my university or some other university soliciting donations, eli lily telling me about the fabulous new things its doing, etc. etc. etc.)? I mean, a lot of commercial transactions *do* bear on the speech that “obviously” deserves protection.
Even so, the greivance against “commercial speech” is one that lots of Libertarians (including Eugene Volokh and Judge Alex Kozinski) fight against. Why is speech worth less just because money is involved? What is it about a transaction to buy, say, cruise tickets, that makes it so much less worthy of protection than a transaction to, say, paint a watercolor?

3: I’m by no means advocating that one has an obligation to open oneself up to telemarketers, or that media providers have an obligation to make their services usable by all. No such thing. Instead what I’m saying is that your “right not to be called” isn’t of the same nature as a property right– it’s not the sort of “right” that we should trot out the police to defend, it’s more like the “right to be free of neighborhood eyesores,” or the “right to be free of annoying KKK protesters in downtown skokie” or even the “right to be free of big advertising billboards that you can see out of your kitchen window.” I understand that some people support these sorts of restrictions, but most Libertarians don’t support most of these, most of the time (yay equivocation!). The first question is whether the phone line running into my house is more like my property or like the outside world, and the second question is whether the person who’s calling it is trespassing it, or whether he’s simply dialing numbers into the public telephone grid, and by hooking up to it, I agree not to throw anybody in jail for the calls that come my way.
Yes, screening has its costs, as does turning your ringer off, or hiring a butler. Some people maintain two phone lines (relatively cheap in this day and age), one public accessible line which they screen and one private line which they don’t. An even better solution is to get a pass-code answering machine and no ringer, which screens all incoming calls UNLESS the caller dials the special passcode (which you set and can change). This way, your mom can call you on 9/11 but you don’t have to talk to that guy selling you a new long-distance carrier, AND telemarketers can still place telephone calls without going to jail. Pareto.

4: Consistency. If you believe this, you should be consistent and let me a) spam your e-amil address, b) use your website to talk to you and c) believe no media company has the right to refuse anybody making use of their systems.

As I hope I’ve explained, b and c are no-gos. If I set up a “Comments” section on my blog (, I’d have no grounds for throwing people in jail depending on what they posted, but I’d be perfectly in line to delete the comments I didn’t like, to technologically block the people I didn’t like, or to simply not have a comments system altogether (which I don’t), for this very reason (and because I love getting email, which you should feel free to send).
As to Spam, again no *obligation* to make it easy for people to send me Spam email, and I’m perfectly free to have addresses that receive email only from those who know the password (as i do) or to simply take the spam and block annoying addresses, or use a spam filter.

Incidentally, feel free to spam me if you feel like it– my address is and i’m well acquainted with my delete key, so I have no trouble getting rid of the dozens of daily offers i get to naturally increase my breast size.

All of this reminds me: David Friedman proposes a solution for Spam that I much like, and I think it could be turned into a solution for the telemarketing problem too. Re-rig phone charges so that anytime person A wants to place a call to person B, he pays 5 cents. The money goes not to the phone company, but from the caller to the callee. No money is lost for people who call back and forth a lot, but those who call millions of numbers a day in the hopes that a few of them will respond will have to face the economic realities of internalizing the externalities they cause.
If you want to add a second layer of nuance to this plan, you could also let people set up a list of “friendly” numbers that don’t have to pay the 5 cent fee. Then the only people who would have to pay would be those who you don’t particularly care about talking to. 5 cents is nothing to anybody who’s actually got something to say (and likely to wash out in the end) but a great deal to somebody who’s calling my number at random.
There you have it– the real Libertarian answer to the “telemarketing problem”.


Jeremy Osner 07.24.03 at 6:03 pm

Mr. Cowen argues today that a market in willingness to listen to solicitations could emerge, that it may now be emerging in Europe, and that the don’t-call list hinders the development of such a market. This seems precisely backwards to me; once there is such a list, it becomes important to telemarketers to find people willing to listen to them; one way would be to pay them. When there was no way of opting out, there is no reason to convince people to opt in. What am I missing? Why would Telemarketers want to create such a market when people’s ears are available to them for free?


dsquared 07.24.03 at 7:09 pm

I have to say I think Will Baude has a point and the “it’s my property” argument is weak. Your doorbell is also your property, but there is loads of well settled common law to the effect that unless you have specifically told someone not to ring it, themselves, they are presumed to be acting with your permission when they do so, because that’s what a doorbell’s for.


Michael C 07.24.03 at 7:16 pm

Yes, “unless you have specifically told someone not to ring it.” That’s what a do not call list is: the telecom equivalent of “no solicitors” or “no trespassing” signs.


Will Baude 07.24.03 at 9:09 pm

Brief thought on the doorbell argument– consider that one difference between a doorbell and a telephone is that to ring a doorbell somebody has to physically enter and/or touch my property and use a physical object that i physically possess and own.
If I bought a doorbell, put it in the park, and donated it to the city, would it still make sense to retain the right to criminalize pressing it?


Jeremy Leader 07.24.03 at 9:32 pm

Suppose we wanted a market in attention-via-telephone. We want people to be able to sell the right for others to call them unsolicited, and for callers to buy such rights. So we need a way to record the existance of such “property rights”. Now currently, the government (generally at the county level here in the US) operates central record-keeping facilities where ownership of “real” property is recorded. That is, if I own a house and want to sue someone for trespassing within it, one of the things I will probably do to collect evidence for my case is go to the county courthouse and obtain copies of the documents stating that I am in fact the owner of the house, and thus have a right to exclude people from it.

So what’s the problem with the government setting up such a registry for this new kind of “property right”?

Seems to me like the kind of thing libertarians would applaud. Without property rights, how can you have a market? And for property rights to be enforceable, there must be some way to verify the ownership of the property.

Think of the do-not-call list as homesteading in the attention-property domain. By signing up, you’re excluding (some) others from trespassing on your property, which makes it much easier for you to later offer portions of that property in a marketplace.


Will Baude 07.25.03 at 12:14 am

To the best of my knowledge, most Libertarians don’t applaud efforts to create property rights out of everything– certainly not without compensating those from whom the stuff is taken.

Casting the whole thing as property and a market is one way to do it, but might not be the best analogy.

As a side question, and maybe somebody here can tell me– how do you find out who is *on* the do-not-call list? That is, suppose I, tonight, decide I want to sell some stuff and I want to start calling people. But eager not to get into trouble, I want to make sure I don’t call anybody I’m not supposed to. Can I just call up the government and get the do-not-call list complete with telephone numbers and names? Is it online someplace?


Matt McIrvin 07.25.03 at 6:46 am

Okay… Suppose the government simply adds one proviso to the do-not-call list: you can call anyone you want on the list, provided you pay them $10,000,000 per call. If you don’t, there are criminal penalties for depriving the callee of their rightful property, the $10,000,000.

In practice, this would be identical to simply forbidding all callers. But in principle, now it’s just a very high price in the telemarketing market, rather than an outright ban; the ban is on failing to pay the ridiculously high fee. Does this change the situation in any fundamental way? Is it now a legitimate question of property rights?


Will Baude 07.25.03 at 4:18 pm


If the attempt is to place a per-call fee that actually captures the approximate external cost of the telephone call, that’s defensible.


Matt McIrvin 07.26.03 at 6:25 am

So there should be government price controls on the price I’m willing to set for people to call me?

I’ve heard proposals from Cowen and others for a market in telemarketer calling privileges, but it seems to me as if the vast majority of people in such a market would want to set punitively high prices. Why can’t they be allowed to do that? Should people be forced to sell certain privileges at a low price?


Will Baude 07.27.03 at 11:14 pm

No, no, maybe I’m drawing a silly distinction, but I think there should be no rule about what price you can set to make your telephone number available, or the access code that unlocks your answering machine, or the special number that lets people bypass your ordinary screening mechanisms. That seems like a smart and good and useful application of economics to the telephone market.

I also wouldn’t have any problem with people setting up a price to receive any telephone calls, or even with a system where you set up a giant scale of rates and people, and announced the rate you would charge to each person who called you. Aunt Millie, 5 cents, Mom, 20 cents, anybody else, twenty billion dollars. Fine.

The trouble is when you set up a list whose criteria aren’t even that clear, and whose application depends on what the caller says. I can call you for free, and expound my political views, but if I throw in a request for money, I’m off to jail or paying a fine. The system attaches to speech content rather than to speaker, and a lot of people who engage in speech might not know exactly which side of the line they fall on because of that.

This is as frightening as those signs that say “by parking here you agree to pay me $5,000” that people set up on their own property; it bears a resemblance to a standard contract, but I think Libertarians should be careful about things like that, lest they run into somebody who parks in their lawn with a sign that responds “by ticketing my car you agree to pay me $50,000.”


Ottowitz Sue 12.10.03 at 4:47 pm

Perceptions do not limit reality.

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