Jeff Jacoby

Conversely, the Times's international business editor, Damon Darlin, is just as adamant in defense of his right — not his wish or preference, mind you, but his right — to attach a disabling clamp to the seat in front of him.

"The real problem is undefined property rights over the same four or five inches of space," Darlin maintains. "The person with the recliner button holds an advantage. The Knee Defender reallocates the rights."

Au contraire, argues the Financial Times in an editorial. An airplane ticket "is a contract that guarantees very few things, but the right to recline your seat at cruising altitude is one of them."

A plane ticket, of course, guarantees no such thing. Just as a concert ticket doesn't guarantee the right to view the stage unobstructed by a tall person right in front of you. Just as a hotel room reservation doesn't guarantee the right not to be disturbed by sounds from guests in the adjacent room or the corridor.

You can't always get what you want, to coin a phrase. That's routinely true of public accommodations, where our experiences — travel, dining, lodging, entertainment — must be shared with other human beings, in all their not-always-congenial variety. It makes life worse for all of us when people become so obsessed with their own satisfaction that they convince themselves they have a guaranteed right to it. Common courtesy and self-control used to be esteemed as indispensable to a healthy society. But the more we rely on law and regulation to maintain social order, the less we seem to emphasize good character and values.

Most air travelers, most of the time, don't descend into rudeness and selfishness. But as the obnoxious "I-have-a-right" mindset grows ever more entrenched, clashes like the one involving the Knee Defender are apt to proliferate. Barro wants to be paid not to recline into the lap of Darlin, sitting behind him. Darlin claims the freedom to "reallocate" Barro's ability to move his seat. Compromise? Consideration? Thoughtfulness? Nothing doing. For some people, the right to be a jerk trumps all.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.