Steve Chapman has a piece up today at Reason.com which discusses some obscure recent efforts to regulate the wearing of headphones on or near roadways. I think Chapman’s first paragraph gets to the nub of the issue: it is annoying that more and more people (mainly young people but also people old enough to know better) insist on using earphones and listening to music, or carrying on electronic conversations of various kinds, in every kind of public venue and at all times. What’s most annoying, for me, is those who must listen to their music all day and everywhere, including times where alertness to danger would be advisable, or the possibility of old-fashioned social interaction (I believe it’s called conversation) looms large. In my view, and I know that at least some share it, it’s rude to come into a public place with earphones on: it implies that everyone else is mainly an annoyance, that you wish they weren’t there so you could just be listening to your own music and doing whatever it is that you want to do. At the very least it cuts off any chance at the simple exchange of pleasantries that mark a civilized society.
I would agree that passing new laws isn’t the right solution, but would suggest that the offending behavior be treated as a social faux pas instead. Most people would rather break laws than commit faux pas. Such mechanisms, sometimes referred to as “shaming,” used to be in wide use, but where are these mechanisms now?
If you grant that I may have a point, you may then ask where is it acceptable to listen to music through earphones, and where not? I admit it can be a tough call. Sitting in a school library study stall would seem to be OK: it’s public, but you are in a private nook which is there to cut off disturbance from those around you. But in an airport lounge? A bus stop? Walking into the Post Office? Crossing a busy street?
Can the enforcement of social norms, to the extent that they even exist at this point, solve this “problem” without need of idiotic laws? Many in the Reason.com crowd will say there is no “problem” in the first place, and maybe they’re right. But such answers will likely add to the common perception that libertarians are excessively atomistic, and that libertarianism is not consistent with a well functioning society.