Itching to Change (Property Rights)

I live in southwest Florida where it is quite tropical. We don’t have four seasons. We mark the passage of time with the rainy season for 8 months and the dry season for 4 months. We also mark time with ‘season’. Season is when the snow-birds – those who live in places further north – migrate to and occupy Florida for about 4-5 months. During those times the roads are more crowded and the grocery store customers are less friendly. We can also mark the passage of time with mosquitos. January has fewer mosquitos. The rest of the year we know not to go outside at dusk.

Therefore, we have the Collier Mosquito Control District. This little government entity does several things. But I want to focus on spraying. On some nights, more so during the rainy season, the CMCD flies airplanes and sprays our inland bodies of water that are susceptible to mosquito infestation. Let’s put aside for the moment any alleged negative human health effects that spraying might cause.

I want to talk about taxes.

The CMCD operates in a well-defined area. If you live in that area, you pay a little bit more on your property taxes so that your bodies of water get sprayed. However, mosquitos don’t know where the border of that area is – and those suckers can fly. Therefore, if your property is nestled deep in the CMCD territory, then you benefit more than someone else who lives closer to the edge in the territory. This is for the simple reason that mosquitos must fly further in order to penetrate deep into the CMCD spraying area. Regardless, taxes are calculated the same way for everyone who lives inside the area.

I live in a town called Ave Maria that has a large developer presence. We are outside the CMCD, but the major developer here pays to spray our town. But, in November of 2022, we held a referendum which gave some areas just outside of the CMCD the option of joining it. Joiners would pay new taxes and receive a new service. The people living in Ave Maria would start paying a new tax and receive the same service. Although the developer paid for mosquito spraying, there’s no mechanism for the developer to pass that cost onto current residents. So, it might seem that the people of Ave Maria would vote against the proposed CMCD boundary expansion.

As it turns out, the measure passed handily. But why? I can’t say for everyone, but I also voted in favor of the change. My primary reason: Mosquitos can fly. Indeed, even though my town has been sprayed for years, the nearby swamps and marshes don’t get sprayed. That means that mosquitos are often BAD in Ave Maria. Like, “take your children inside, the chemicals won’t save you” kind of bad.

The new CMCD area includes my town and the areas all around it. That means that those pesky mosquitos will have to fly further to get to me and my neighbors. That would be an improvement for our quality of life. Of course, this homes here more attractive to own, increasing the demand, and the price. Maybe that’s why it passed. While I’ll benefit if that’s true, it wasn’t my primary motivation.

Here I sat thinking:

Way more economic value exists if we do this. More land is freed-up and made more pleasant. No, this couldn’t have been done by private contract. There would be free-riders and anti-chemical people. Coercion of some in order to help many makes sense here. If some people didn’t spray their ponds, then the mosquitos that *they* bred would come and bite *me*. Indeed, currently, property rights are not secure because I am being coerced on my own front doorstep because property owners just across the border of my town don’t spray their breeding grounds.”

At first, I wanted to write a blog about the collective action problem and how one can be comfortable with oppressing the will of electoral minorities. I expected to make a Kaldor-Hicks argument in favor the potential gain of the majority. Among free-marketers, that would be the edgy thing to do. But I realized that this referendum was fundamentally about changing our set of property rights. It’s an externality story. I am now required to pay for mosquito mitigation on my land in order to prevent the harm to my neighbor. More people live outside of Naples than did previously. This means that there are more people bearing the costs of neighbor-born mosquitos. It also means that there are more people who would benefit from paying some of their property taxes to CMCD. A critical population has been reached that makes financial sense to CMCD.  

When the costs and benefits change enough, we get a new distribution of property rights. Proving the origin of the mosquito that bit you would be ridiculously expensive. With the larger spraying area we’ve cut away any concern over costly private contracts, monitoring, and enforcement. The CMCD will take care of it. Now, we’ll just have fewer mosquitos and fewer total costs… Hopefully.

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