If there is any group that enjoys Halloween the most, it is the children.
Most people can remember back to their own childhoods, ringing doorbells and begging for candy, all adorned in their carefully chosen costumes. Aside from the actual candy that trick-or-treating procures, the process of roaming neighborhood streets and collecting goodies from different houses is itself one of the most fun experiences for youth on Halloween. Trick-or-treating, though, requires that children traverse their neighbors’ properties, for they must use their neighbors’ driveways or lawns to approach their houses, walk up their front steps, and knock on their doors or ring their doorbells. Since this involves the employment of other people’s private property, any committed defender of private property rights must consider the implications of trick-or-treating.
For the most part, libertarian theoreticians recognize the homesteading principle as the key criterion for property ownership. This states that a piece of unowned property may be acquired by an individual only if they were the first person to use it. Thereafter, it belongs solely and distinctly to that first user (unless he transfers the property title to someone else). No other user of the property – whether he be the second, third, fourth, or nth user – has a legitimate claim over the property, and thus has no right to use it without the consent of its owner. The property of others may only be justly used as long and as far as the owner permits. Trespassing upon someone else’s property is an infringement of their property rights, and is, hence, a moral evil that should never be promoted for any reason whatsoever.
The Halloween Problem
Some people are friendlier to trick-or-treaters than others. On the one hand, there are those whose front yards are filled with homemade gravestones and undead animatronics, and give out king-sized Hershey bars. There are also those, on the other hand, who want nothing to do with trick-or-treaters or with Halloween at all. Whether they are scaredy-cats, religious fundamentalists, or just plain curmudgeons, it must be recognized that they have the right to not participate in Halloween, and to exclude all trick-or-treaters from their properties if they so choose. This, though, is easier said than done. If such anti-Halloween property-owners simply go about their daily business the night of October 31, they may be inundated by a host of goblins, princesses, and astronauts, each incessantly ringing their doorbells and knocking at their doors. What are they to do, then?
A de facto rule has emerged in many areas, stating that those who are not welcoming trick-or-treaters are to turn off all the lights in their houses. Most candy-seekers know what a dark house is code for: the homeowner will not open the door and no candy will be received. Bearing this in mind, trick-or-treaters tend to only approach illuminated houses, seeing as that any other strategy would be a waste of time and energy. To have one’s house avoided by sugar-starved children, then, one simply must turn off all his lights for the night of October 31st (and then hope that his house is not egged and TPed as a result!). Though this solution has been successful for many, it cannot be considered just. It essentially makes non-participants undergo a blackout under duress, which they must do, or else have doorbells rung continuously for hours. They are forced to turn off their lights or face the consequences.
Another technique has been used to avoid the oft-bothersome behavior of trick-or-treaters. Some have taken to placing a candy-filled bowl on their doorsteps, with a label reading “take one piece,” “take a handful,” or something to that effect. The children themselves are responsible for taking the candy from the bowl, with the homeowner not having to answer their door or play any other role. They can sit inside their houses without having to worry about their doors being knocked upon or their doorbells rung, all while keeping on as many lights as they want. Of course, there is much wrong with this solution too. It similarly makes people act under duress, for if they do not place candy bowls on their doorsteps, their houses as well will be battered by constant knocks and rings. In addition, trick-or-treaters still have to make use of homeowners’ driveways, lawns, and doorsteps in order to get the candy, and thus homeowners would also have to allow public access to their land for the night.
Needless to say, neither solution may be seriously adopted. Both coerce property-owners to act in an undesired manner, in order to avoid an outcome they consider even more burdensome. While each person may have his choice over which option he takes, the fact is that the choice is thrust upon him by force and he is are prevented from conducting his own affairs fully on his own terms.
On the face, it appears that this issue solely hurts those who dislike Halloween. This, however, is not the case. Trick-or-treaters themselves are made worse-off due to the unintended, real-world effects of using force against property-owners. For instance, once it has become common knowledge that keeping one’s lights off denotes non-participation, homeowners must keep their lights on in order to denote participation. This runs contrary to the allure of Halloween, though, which emphasizes the spooky darkness of the night. As such, violating the property rights of non-participants artificially stimulates the use of lights in neighborhoods on Halloween night, making the experience much less authentic and enjoyable. In fact, since there is often a gray area between which houses are considered to have their lights on and their lights off, those who want trick-or-treaters to knock on their doors are incentivized to make their houses especially bright, further ruining the eerie mystique of the night.
Where homeowners tend more so to put candy bowls on their doorsteps, rather than turning out the lights, such problems do not arise. Instead, other problems arise with this option, which impact some trick-or-treaters quite favorably, while others are completely rooked. In short, regardless what sort of instructions a homeowner labels the bowl with (e.g. “take one piece,” “take two pieces,” “take a handful,”) many children will take as many pieces of candy as they want. Especially if their parents are waiting by the road, and they are accompanied solely by their friends, it is clear that many boys and girls will disregard the wishes of the homeowner and take much more candy than they actually should – potentially even the whole bowl’s worth. This act, common as it is on Halloween, constitutes petty theft, or the taking of low-value property without the permission of its owner. The homeowner may not feel that they have been “robbed” per se (although, indeed, they have been), but will certainly be bothered that their instructions were transgressed. Those who may be bothered the most, though, are late-coming trick-or-treaters who approach the house, only to find a candy bowl that has already been completely raided. There may then be little to no candy left for them – rendering the pursuit of that house a waste of time and energy, and leaving them feeling cheated.
As well as this, the use of force against non-participants makes the very institution of Halloween much more rigid and resistant to change. If neighbors could celebrate their own Halloween traditions and customs freely, the night of October 31st could be better arranged to suit individuals’ specific values and preferences. Indeed, many non-participants may even begin to participate! However, in traversing homeowners’ properties, whether they consent to it or not, and heedlessly ringing their doorbells, trick-or-treaters are initiating force against people who may rather celebrate Halloween in a different matter (or, of course, not celebrate it at all). Thoughtlessly approaching the houses of non-participants clearly has many unforeseen social consequences, as do nearly all infringements of property rights
Certainly, some of the children benefit from the anti-property behavior; scaredy-cats and early trick-or-treaters surely appreciate the increase in bright houses and doorstep candy bowls, respectively. They are, though, privileging themselves at the expense of all other trick-or-treaters (and many homeowners) who thence enjoy their Halloween nights less than they might have otherwise. But, interestingly, even those who lose more than they gain have the incentive to continue acting as they do. If a single individual began to respect the property rights of others on Halloween, the neighborhood-wide effects of other trespassers would hardly change. The community at-large would hardly be affected since property violations would still readily occur. The actions of single persons would not mitigate such large-scale trends very much, and they would unfortunately be assuming new (and, yet, quite moral) psychic costs in their efforts. For this reason, it is in the hedonic interest of trick-or-treaters to continue to approach houses without taking property rights into account – including those who, on net, lose out. Even if all the members of a neighborhood were to assemble and agree to certain terms of trick-or-treating, people from other communities could still freely enter the neighborhood and wreak whatever havoc they wanted, due to the public accessibility of most roads. The true protection of non-participants would instead require a move toward a system of governance that prioritizes private property rights.
All that libertarianism prescribes is that property rights are not violated. Halloween does not necessarily violate the rights of non-participants, but does so only in certain popular iterations of its celebration. As such, libertarianism and trick-or-treating are not mutually exclusive, but can exist in accord with one another. Truly, Halloween would thrive in a free society.
Some people, in the name of making Halloween more safe and kid-friendly, have organized “trunk-or-treat” gatherings. This is when children assemble in a central, predetermined location, where people (usually their parents) have parked their cars and put candy in the trunks. With each trunk bearing a different theme, trunk-or-treaters go around to different cars – rather than different houses – to receive candy. This idea satisfies the libertarian requirements for Halloween, in that property rights are never violated. All participants willingly meet up by agreement, and those who do not wish to participate in the trunk-or-treat are not forced to. Everyone benefits.
Many apartment buildings also encourage trick-or-treating within their walls. This is also entirely acceptable, as the owner of the building will have permitted children to knock on doors and ask for candy on what is rightfully his property. If some tenants happen to oppose Halloween – for whatever reasons – it is their own tough luck, for they agreed to the building’s rules ahead of time. If anti-Halloween attitudes became a sizeable issue, of course, the owner would likely try to find some sort of compromise, or even require that trick-or-treating be done elsewhere. They would take into account different tenants’ preferences, and try to find the most satisfactory solution to maximize profit, as is characteristic of capitalist enterprises.
Such a model looks similar to what might exist in the privately-owned covenant communities that Hans-Hermann Hoppe has theorized. These communities would be founded on the voluntary contract of different property-owners in an area, who agree to a common set of rules for themselves, instead of having rules and regulations crafted by inefficient government bodies. A covenant community could easily allow trick-or-treating within its domain, permitting children to cross onto neighbors’ doorsteps for a certain duration of time. As with apartment buildings, there may be some members of the community that detest Halloween and wish that their doorbells would not be rung. The answer to this is the same: they agreed to the terms of the covenant community in prior, and have the full right to leave, should it bother them that much. It all occurs within the voluntary sphere of interaction with the full assent of property-owners, and thus constitutes a moral, libertarian alternative.
Must children in the modern world avoid classic trick-or-treating altogether, though? Do they have to pursue trunk-or-treat gatherings, live in apartment buildings, and found private, covenant communities? Surely not. Again, all that is required is that they respect property rights. There is clearly nothing wrong with a child trick-or-treating on neighborhood streets as long as they approach only the houses that they know are giving out candy. As long as this requirement is met, children are free to go house-to-house in pursuit of candy. It can sometimes be pretty well assumed that a person wants trick-or-treaters to come up to their house, especially if they have an abundance of supernatural decorations leading up to their front steps. Other times, homeowners can be seen from the road opening their doors to other trick-or-treaters (possibly those who have been much less careful in respecting property rights); obviously, it is acceptable to approach these houses as well. In circumstances such as this, though, it can be frustratingly tricky to rely on one’s incomplete knowledge. If there is no prior arrangement in place (as there is between trunk-or-treaters, apartment tenants, and the members of hypothetical covenant communities), it difficult to determine ex ante which houses are pro-trick-or-treaters and which are not. Difficult as this quandary may be, the answer is, once again, not trespass.
The embracement of property rights would lead to far fewer impersonal attitudes existing in community interactions. Since owners have to explicitly allow others to use their property, they are not liable to allow everyone to use their property. In fact, many property-owners are bound to be quite selective. For Halloween, this may mean that trick-or-treaters would have to stay within their own neighborhoods, and could not simply outsource their candy-hunting efforts to richer, more populous communities, to which they do not belong. They may only be able to approach the houses of those that they personally know – those that they have real connections with. Under a system of fully-protected property rights, property-owners may not take kindly to the trespass of total strangers upon their land – on October 31st as on all other days of the year. If children they are familiar and comfortable with were to cross their land and greet them on Halloween night, though, they might very much giving them candy and having their company. Instead of using their neighbors as mere means to the end of acquiring a large stash of candy, trick-or-treaters might, in this case, have to engage in meaningful interactions with them. In the hyper-atomized world we presently live in, these sorts of community relationships may seem daunting, but they were once the social norm, and with effort, could be again. A free society, then, would permit trick-or-treating from house-to-house, but the circumstances under which it would occur would be quite different from what we see today, and probably much more personal.
It is, without question, difficult to imagine what Halloween would look like if it was molded in accordance with the principles of freedom, but this serves as a sufficient, skeletal model of how it might look. Rather than destroying the institution of Halloween, libertarianism clearly strengthens it. In prescribing that the initiation of force be eliminated, a libertarian Halloween would be a much more wholesale holiday, to be enjoyed by everyone on their own terms. Those who are especially festive would be free to celebrate how they wanted, and those who wanted nothing to with the holiday would be left alone (with everyone in the middle being able to pursue their own traditions as well). As wonderful as October 31 st is already for so many, it could evidently be made so much better if only private property – the very bedrock of our civilization – was consistently upheld.