Today, a coworker of mine regaled me with a tale of how her little puppy, about six months old, came across an abandoned hash pipe while they were playing mini golf and managed to get himself stoned on what had been left behind in only a few minutes of chewing. Among many, especially of the libertarian variety , marijuana is supposed to be a victimless crime, the torpor and lethargy resulting from its use of harm only to the person who is using them. This sort of simplistic belief that there is such a thing as a victimless crime, though, greatly neglects the problem of externalities, and fails to recognize the extent and nature of the burden we place on others through our own actions or inaction. This burden is a heavy one, and yet if we are to come to any understanding of our impact or influence on this earth, we have to come to grips with those externalities and the seriousness of them.
To be sure, the littering of drug paraphernalia leading to an impaired pet is not itself a massive disaster. On the contrary, the discomfort to the dog and its owners was only a momentary problem that caused a slight disruption to plans (namely, taking care of the sick animal nearly led them to go to the vet and cost them the price of some luncheon meats to feed the puppy’s munchies and the second round of mini golf they would have played had the dog not gotten ill), and is the sort of caper that could easily appear on a contemporary sitcom or comedy movie. Yet even this relatively minor trouble resulted from two externalities, namely the repercussions resulting from someone’s immoral drug use, and the consequences of littering, both examples of carelessness and inattention to one’s responsibilities to do no harm to others who happen to use the same environment. Yet in different circumstances, these results could have been far more tragic and troublesome.
Second-hand smoke is a problem that has led to a great deal of burdensome regulations involving the banning of smoking indoors (even with trendy e-cigs). The problem of second-hand smoke is one of externalities. Is smoking by adults a victimless crime? (Let us note at the outset that smoking for adults is not a crime at all by the law, but in the harm it does to the smoker and to those around him or her, it certainly is a crime in the view of sin.) Not at all. In the early 1990’s, second hand smoke was found responsible for about 35,000 to 40,000 deaths in the United States per year, or about equal to all traffic fatalities . Besides deaths, there are clear increases in problems like cancer, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, and other effects that result from merely being around cigarette smoke. Additionally, families, businesses and consumers and taxpayers all face the externalities of cigarette smoking in terms of health problems, loss of productivity due to frequent smoking breaks, and the costs resulting from these problems. These larger externalities, in turn, drive up the support for regulation for those people and industries who cannot regulate their own conduct, leading to burdensome regulations that in turn increase inefficiency and reduce productivity in a society.
Even in areas of private regulation, apart from bureaucratic government, we find that externalities are the driver behind such burdensome problems as Homeowners’ Associations. In many neighborhoods, there is a desire on the part of many property owners to preserve their property values. This desire leads people to consent to various covenants and restrictions that govern the use of their property, subjecting them to the regulation by their most officious busy-body neighbors, who tend to be the sort of people who most enjoy being a part of the leadership of such associations. Some of these Homeowners’ Associations are so egregious that they even prohibit the hanging of American flags under many circumstances . Here again there are externality concerns on two fronts. For one, there is the massive externality of dealing with public humiliation over being unpatriotic and overly restrictive of the property rights of homeowners. On the other side, though, there are externalities involving how people use their property that can effect others. For example, every time I have to run my laundry late at night, I am concerned about whether the noise of the washing machine or dryer will cause problems for downstairs neighbors. Likewise, I would hope that they feel as concerned about their own noises in the morning or late at night. Our own enjoyment of our freedoms is always balanced against the repercussions of our actions for those around us, and if those consequences become too grave, one can expect that those freedoms are going to be curtailed as a matter of course.
This presents us with a larger problem that we all must wrestle with, a problem that is particularly acute in our world. All too often, we may be like little children who carelessly jump around and cause immensely expensive damage, being entirely unaware of the cumulative effect of our behaviors on the world and the people around us. The fact that we may be near-sighted or careless or selfish rather than deliberately harmful or wicked in our conduct is likely to be of little comfort to those who have to deal with the externalities of our behavior. Yet awareness of these matters requires not only that we be cognizant of our actions, but that we also benefit from communication. Few of us are wise enough to understand exactly the full reach of our actions and their consequences , which may spiral on for generations and generations. In times of crisis and heightened conflict and vulnerability, small matters may have a vastly disproportionate importance in deciding a close matter. In such an atmosphere, we must all wrestle with competing demands for authenticity and freedom and also for avoiding harm and being a blessing to others through our good conduct and behavior. A life lived largely with restraint may not be very much fun, but at the same time if we do not restrain ourselves, we may very well face far more burdensome external restraints as a result of our behaviors. How we wrestle with the consequences of our actions and respond to the actions of others that force us to deal with externalities in many ways determines the destinies of our lives. Let that destiny be a good one.
 See, for example:
 Steenland K (January 1992). “Passive smoking and the risk of heart disease”. JAMA 267 (1): 94–9. doi:10.1001/jama.267.1.94. PMID 1727204.
 See, for example: