Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Libertarian Take on a Sinking San Francisco High Rise

The following exchange took place between Walter Block and me.

Hi Walter,

As you may be aware there is a very expensive, state-of-the-art San Francisco luxury high rise that is sinking, Millennium Tower. 


Apparently, at this time, it is unclear what is causing the building to sink. However, one theory holds that it is the construction of the adjacent TransBay Terminal. The theory goes something like this: dirt has been removed by Transbay on their property and this has caused nearby dirt on the property of the high-rise to slide.

TransBay Terminal is a government construction but let us assume it was a private sector construction and that the removal of the dirt was indeed the cause of the sinking at the nearby building. How would you rule as to responsibility in this case if you were sitting on a private libertarian court? Would you rule that Transbay must pay damages or would you basically say "tough luck" to the condo owners in Millenium Tower?


Dear Bob:

I would rule that Transbay must pay FULL damages. No. Scratch that. Full damages plus be considered a criminal trespasser.

I wrote about this sort of thing here:

Tullock, Gordon. 1996. "Comment on 'Roads, Bridges, Sunlight and Private Property', by Walter E. Block  and Matthew A. Block," Journal des Economistes et des Etudes Humaines, Vol. 7, No. 4, December, pp. 589-592.

Block, Walter E. 1998. “Roads, Bridges, Sunlight and Private Property: Reply to Gordon Tullock,” Journal des Economistes et des Etudes Humaines, Vol. 8, No. 2/3, June-September, pp. 315-326;

There, my coauthor and I wrote about digging a tunnel under someone else’s property (slant drilling); that to be legal, it MUST NOT cave in any of the other guy’s buildings, barns, trees, etc. This is not exactly on point, but, I think it is close enough.

This material is included in this book of mine:

Block, Walter E. 2009. The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors; Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute.


  1. I suspect that in an operating An-Cap society, these types of issues would be resolved through mutually reciprocal easements and contractual agreements and arrangements. However, there would still be a place to apply "libertarian law" between parties not in contractual privity. To avoid surprises, I suspect that most private defense, court and insurance agencies with which one has a contract would have contractual provisions to resolve these types of issues which might vary from "libertarian law" including provisions regarding the interaction of these agencies and their interactions with different properties and neighborhoods.

    That would make the issue of shooting the 10-year-old apple trespassing apple thief moot for practical purposes.

    1. A set of privately maintained building codes and standards for construction practices would exist. These can would then be used to settle who was in the wrong. Compliance of course would be voluntary but one would need good reason not to have complied if/when something went wrong to defend their position in the dispute.

      This is how things often work even now where government has not taken the standards away from the private sector.

  2. In this hypothetical society, what if the owner of the land north of the tower was planning on putting up solar panels? Would the tower builder owe them damages? What about for the obstruction of the view? Or the increased heating cost because of less passive heating from blocking the sun? Would they owe them for lower property values caused by any of this? What if they had solar panels before the tower was built, would this change anything?

    1. Great question. I'm interested in the answers.

    2. The view is certainly homesteaded and its obstruction would need to be purchased from the owner. I would think solar aspect would follow the same pattern.

    3. In my totally amateur opinion (and not having read the Block paper) I would say the solar panel owner has a weaker case than the sinking skyscraper owner. At least the skyscraper owner can claim to have "homesteaded" the support function of the ground beneath him, whereas it would be difficult for the solar panel owner to claim that he has homesteaded photons that haven't (yet) fallen onto his property.

  3. Millenium Tower? What a metaphor.

  4. Does he cite Trump in that book?

  5. RW, did you push back on Block's answer? I don't see why TransBay can't move around dirt on its own property without liability; Block's ruling effectively gives Millenium Tower rights over TransBay's property. I could agree with Block if TransBay were digging under the neighbor's property, but that's not the case here. Maybe Millenium Tower should have identified this as a risk and put down some stabilizing structures.