Billboards in space

The moon in the sky like a big Pizza Hut pie

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 12, 2006 4:09PM (EDT)

If you want proof of why libertarians will never become a majority political force in the United States you need look no further than the discusion of space billboards currently taking place at the Mises Economics Blog. (Thanks to Economonitor's Felix Salmon for the tip.) The conversation kicks off with attorney/explorer J. H. Heubert plaintively wondering:

"What's so wrong with space billboards? Why is the default 'natural' view of the sky so preferable to a sky with some billboards in it? If the moon naturally, coincidentally had a Pizza Hut logo on it instead of a 'man in the moon' face, environmentalists would clamor to preserve it. Why are designs that are an accident of nature so preferable to advertisements which are, after all, designed specifically to please humans so they'll buy things?"

I guess this is what happens to people who get their law degrees from the University of Chicago: they spend their lives wondering on what rational basis some people find "accidents of nature," like, say, a redwood tree, more attractive than McDonald's Golden Arches. But the funny part about the space billboard question is not Heubert's lame attempt to make "environmentalists" look silly. It's the ensuing chatter by the folks who hang out at the Mises blog arguing about whether space billboards would impinge on individual property rights.

One discussant does let his inner aesthetic prejudices show, and labels the whole idea "atrocious". But others concern themselves with whether homeowners have "homesteaded" access to the sunlight that falls upon their property or the theory that common law holds that you "own your property from the center of the earth... to as far up as you can get." Others note that airplanes are allowed to tug banners behind them -- so why not permanent orbiting billboards?

On an abstract level, the discussion is kind of interesting, like a bunch of baseball geeks arguing about whether MVP means "best player," or "most irreplaceable player on a playoff team." But in the real world, it mostly misses the point. The limited political power of environmentalists in the United States notwithstanding, in a democracy, the majority of people don't need to think too long about why a Pizza Hut logo plastered over a full moon would be just unbelievably icky.

Don't get me wrong. I like a good advertisement as much as the brainwashed peon. But I'm also of the opinion that the stretch of I-75 in Florida between Tampa and Gainesville would be more aesthetically pleasing without the billboards pushing Jesus as the Answer, or the topless dancers at Micanopy's Cafe Risque. I'm not about to sue the local landowners in Ocala for polluting my vision, but if I lived there and an initiative on the ballot offered me the chance to ban billboards near state highways, I'd vote yes. And the same goes triple for moon logos.

Libertarians would like to remove questions of relative ickiness from the social contract. Define property rights correctly, and all flows thenceforth. But one discussant on the Mises blog did cut close to the real truth: "It is a policy question as to what we are going to grant an easement for. The buzz of an airplane and its flight over my airspace is unquestionably a trespass. But the benefits of allowing the trespass have been deemed to outweigh the costs of enforcing my rights in that 150' x 150' column of air above my property."

Societies decides policy questions like this all the time. My suspicion is the moon can breath easy, for now.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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