This article was originally published by Connor Mortell at The Mises Institute.
When we think of “solar power,” we picture a field or a roof full of glass panels churning out electricity. However, this is just a more recent development in channeling the sun’s energy. Most histories of solar power will begin with stories regarding the use of magnifying glasses and mirrors to make fire. From the first to fourth centuries, the Romans began including large south-facing windows in their famous bathhouses, optimizing the heat energy the sun provided to heat the buildings.
However, this led to an interesting development. In the sixth century, not only bathhouses but also many Roman houses and public buildings trended toward having a sunroom. As such, the Justinian Code actually enshrined “sun rights” so that each individual would be guaranteed access to the sun. Once the government enshrines access to the sun as a right, it is easy to compare “sun rights” to Murray Rothbard’s hypothetical government’s right to shoes:
The libertarian who wants to replace government by private enterprises in the above areas is thus treated in the same way as he would be if the government had, for various reasons, been supplying shoes as a tax-financed monopoly from time immemorial. If the government and only the government had a monopoly of the shoe manufacturing and retailing business, how would most of the public treat the libertarian who now came along to advocate that the government get out of the shoe business and throw it open to private enterprise? He would undoubtedly be treated as follows: people would cry, “How could you? You are opposed to the public, and to poor people, wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes to the public if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? How would the shoe firms be capitalized? How many brands would there be? What material would they use? What lasts? What would be the pricing arrangements for shoes? Wouldn’t regulation of the shoe industry be needed to see to it that the product is sound? And who would supply the poor with shoes? Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?”
Once the right to the sun is enshrined, all these same questions can be asked. A sunroom raises the price of a home, and the poor will be priced out without a guaranteed right to the sun. One could cry that if one didn’t support this right, one would be opposed to people having sun and receiving vitamin D. In fact, there is a stronger argument to regulate the sun. While the sun is not an economic good—it is not scarce—it far more meets the definition of a public good than shoes do. This is because public goods are both nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. This means that one person using the good does not take away from another person’s enjoyment of the good and that the use of the good cannot be prevented in such a way that nonpayers do not receive the enjoyment of the good.
Many smarter than I have discussed the flaws with public goods theory, so this article does not necessarily mean to break the theory down on economic grounds but rather to give an example of its flawed conclusion that such goods should be regulated. While the sun is not a scarce good and thus not an economic good, it becomes so in certain manners, like if a building next to your house becomes too tall and you’re prevented from receiving sunlight in your sunroom. Thus, the sun has every ground to be regulated by this theory.
However, as we all know, we have no right to the sun. Yet, we still manage to receive sunlight although we do not all have a sunroom. It’s true that without the enshrined right to the sun, many of us have ended up without a sunroom—probably even most of us. This does not mean that we have all been deprived of our natural right to the sun but merely that we have demonstrated a preference for different sorts of sun.
While the candlemakers of the world may want to use the government to deprive us completely of sunlight, we must not go the other direction and act as though we have a so-called right to the sun. While, obviously, sun rights are not the battle of today, every time we hear an advocate coming out with a different idea of new positive rights, we must remember that each and every one of them is as ridiculous as a right to the sun.