Protecting The Environment Without Stealing Liberty

SACRAMENTO – Restaurant owner Gary Honeycutt says a push in California’s Legislature to ban the plastic foam containers he uses to serve up takeout meals could cost him thousands of dollars in an industry where profit margins are razor thin.

via Calif. could be first state to ban foam containers –

TAL Commentary: If styrofoam containers really are an environmental nuisance, the way to solve the problem is not to ban their sale, but to privatize all property.

In a government with any kind of democratic apparatus, like ours, public property suffers from the tragedy of the commons. When no one privately owns a pasture, but everyone has the right to use it, everyone’s only incentive is to put as many cattle on the pasture to eat the grass as quickly as possible, before someone else does. But if the pasture is privately owned, the owner has an economic incentive to maintain its future value even as he exploits its current productivity.

When no one owns the streets, beaches, parks, and sidewalks, individuals don’t have an economic incentive to keep them looking nice, and so they tend to pollute and litter. The only natural restraints on their conduct are courtesy and their expected future use. If a passerby doesn’t care about trash on the sidewalk, he won’t avoid littering unless he feels a duty to others.

Without these natural restraints on his conduct, the only other incentives have to be invented; so we have laws. You have to make it illegal to litter or pollute, and impose penalties for violating the law. At the same time, you pay maintenance and grounds crews to clean up. How cheap is it to pick up your own napkin? How expensive is it to pay a public worker to pick it up for you?

Elected officials don’t own the public property, but they can exploit its current use. They get elected by shouting loudly about the litter problem. They create more public sector jobs by hiring people to pick up your dirty napkins. These new workers vote for the official, of course, but you’re paying his salary, pension, per diem, health insurance, and educational stipend.

But of course the elected official doesn’t really want the streets and parks to be clean, because then he loses an election issue. What gets him elected is pretending to solve a problem. If there’s no problem, we don’t need him. Therefore, the politician exploits the public property by making sure it stays dirty. If there’s any doubt about that, it’s already illegal to litter in the streets and beaches of San Francisco, yet here they are proposing to ban the foam containers.

If there was a private owner, he would keep it as clean as possible to please himself and those who come to his property to do business. Have you ever seen how clean it is at Disney?

What about disposal? The environment-demagogues allege that you can’t properly dispose of foam containers, but disposal is only a problem in public landfills. Remember the public pasture? A public landfill works the same way. The public has every incentive to throw all their garbage indiscriminately into the public trash without any regard for the damage done.

If you want to control pollution in landfills, you have to privatize all of them. Only an owner of the capital value of a landfill will internalize the costs of pollution. If his conduct affects an adjoining property owner, a nuisance claim in a common law court determines the property rights.

That’s how to deal with styrofoam in a free country.