Reports of Spare the Air Days (henceforth SD) in this and other newspapers often elicit comments having three basic themes: 1. Appreciation that regulation can tackle the issue of local air pollution. 2. An observation that the air seems fine, so the SD seems unnecessary. 3. A wood fire is a basic right that cannot be regulated away; I'll have one if I want to.
Let me say up front that air pollution does not bother me personally. I am lucky to have good lungs. I probably accumulate long-term damage to my respiratory system at the same rate as most healthy people, so I have a few decades more before I notice anything amiss, if ever there is. I also don't have wood fires in my home, though I understand their attraction. And air pollution of this sort is not particularly bad for the environment at large. So I have no personal interest in the issue itself one way or the other.
Concerning type-2 comments. Look at a landmark on the horizon when the sun is near zenith on a sequence of days. On windy days, the landmark will be clear. On subsequent still days, especially when there is an inversion layer above us, the landmark grows increasingly smudged. Importantly, a blue sky above does not correlate with air quality; looking at a distant landmark is necessary. My observation has been that, if anything, SDs are not called frequently enough. My guess is the regulators maintain a higher threshold than they would like so SDs do not become too onerous.
Now for type-3 comments. Here Benjamin Franklin's oft-quoted observation is germane: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." The context of this quote, by the way, is quite interesting; it lends it some meaning that I think is not otherwise readily apparent; see Web Link . The two words "essential" and "temporary" are I think particularly relevant. Is burning wood an essential liberty? Is the benefit of not burning it only temporary?
I want to argue that, in fact, it is not giving up an essential liberty to comply with local regulations of air quality. (Certainly the safety is not just temporary.) Rather, we trade one benefit (burning wood) for another (cleaner air). That is the purpose of regulation in a society. We rank, by majority, the various goods we perceive to be possibly in our possession; recognizing that some goods conflict with each other, we then, according to the ranking (though the ranking is not always explicit), establish regulations to favor the better goods over the worse. We cannot have both wood fires regardless of weather and clean air, and we have, by majority, agreed that clean air is the better good.
An interesting problem arises for the individual who disagrees with a particular regulation. If it is not enforced effectively (as SD is not), is there a good reason not to violate it? It depends on the regulation. I want to argue as follows. If the trade-off the regulation makes is clear and reasonable, and one simply disagrees with it (by ranking the traded goods oppositely of the majority), then it is reasonable to comply with the regulation anyway (I'll say more about this below). In contrast, if the trade-off is unreasonable (for example, because an essential liberty has been traded for a temporary safety), then there is good reason not merely to ignore it, but also to fight it as wrong. In the case of wood fires, one might prefer the fire to cleaner air. But one certainly must recognize that both are goods. So this is the type of regulation to which one reasonably must assent despite one's preference.
Why is it reasonable to comply with a regulation that is reasonable even if not preferred? Complying with regulations is part of being in a society. It is both a burden and a benefit. To violate a reasonable regulation is simultaneously to enjoy the benefits of society without bearing all of its burdens. If everyone violates reasonable regulations according to their preferences, then we no longer have a society, and so we no longer can enjoy the benefits of society. To be plain, if there is no society, then one no longer owns a house; anyone can take it by force, and if one has not sufficient defense, one has no recourse when the house is lost.
By the way, it's worth mentioning that we can in fact have fires going in our fireplaces on Spare the Air Days: just retrofit a gas fireplace. A bit of incense and one can have a nice aroma, too.
Happy holidays, all.