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Home | Mises Library | Defending the Litterer

Defending the Litterer

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Tags Free MarketsLegal SystemInterventionismPrivate Property

07/14/2010Walter Block

[Excerpted from Defending the Undefendable. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]

"Hey, Bozo, you want a citation for litterin'?
Pick up that matchbook cover!"


The litterer today will find few defenders. He is beset on all sides, bearing the brunt of the barbs of do-gooder groups. Radio and television stations beam anti-litter messages as a "public service," and neighborhood and parent-teacher associations, church groups, and civic organizations are in agreement on the issue of littering. The film industry, which must pass over many topics as too controversial, is united in its hatred for litter. Litter is a great unifier.

There is, however, one small, seemingly insignificant detail that destroys the case against litter and the litterer. Litter can only take place in the public domain — never in the private domain. The ads showing the supposed evils of litter take place on highways, beaches, streets, parks, subways, or public bathrooms — all public areas.

This is not because most littering occurs in public places. It is definitional. If something resembling littering in all other aspects were to occur in a private place, it would not be considered littering. When large crowds leave a ballpark, movie, theater, concert, or circus, what remains among the seats and aisles is not and cannot be litter. It is garbage, dirt, or waste, but not litter.

After normal working hours in the downtown area of our cities, a horde of cleaners descend upon the privately owned banks, stores, restaurants, office buildings, factories, etc. What they do is clean, and under no circumstances do they pick up litter. Concurrent with this, the department of sanitation cleans the public streets and sidewalks, picking up litter.

Now there is no real distinction to be drawn between leaving garbage in public places and leaving garbage in private places. There is no reason to call the former and not the latter "littering," since what is being done in both cases is the same. In both cases the creation of garbage is a concomitant of the process of producing or of consuming.

In some instances, leaving garbage to be picked up later is the optimal solution. For example, it is too time-consuming for a carpenter to clean up the wood shavings as he works. It is easier and cheaper to allow the "litter" (wood shavings) to accumulate and be swept away at the end of the day or at periodic intervals.

The factory manager could institute an anti-"litter" campaign and force the carpenters to keep their work area free of any accumulation of wood shavings. He might even enforce this edict with the threat of a $50 fine. However, with these rules his workforce might quit, or, if they did not quit, the costs of production would rise inordinately, and he would lose business to competitive factories.

In the medical practice, on the other hand, littering cannot be tolerated. Operating, consulting, or treatment rooms must be sanitary, well-scrubbed and free of debris. Failure to adopt a strong anti-litter campaign here would involve the administrator of the hospital in financial failure, as it became known that his institution was unsanitary.

In the case of consumption, most restaurants, for example, do not pursue anti-litter campaigns. There are no signs on restaurant walls forbidding the dropping of forks, napkins, or bread crumbs. A restaurant could prohibit litter, but it would lose its customers to other establishments.

What these seemingly disparate examples have in common is to illustrate that in the market, the decision of whether and how much litter to allow is based ultimately on the wishes and desires of the consumers! The question is not treated simplistically and there is no general outcry to "get rid of litterbugs."

"In the market, the decision of whether and how much litter to allow is based ultimately on the wishes and desires of the consumers!"

There is rather a careful weighing of the costs and benefits of allowing waste materials to accumulate. To the extent that the costs of garbage collection are low and the harm caused by garbage accumulating is high, there tend to be frequent collections and severe penalties for leaving garbage around, as in the example given of littering in a medical facility.

If the costs of garbage collection are high and the harm caused by the accumulation is low, there tend to be less frequent collections and no penalties for littering. These differences in policy are not the result of any governmental law, but are a result of the market process. Entrepreneurs who do not act in accordance with an accurate cost-benefit analysis lose customers, either directly, as customers stalk out in anger, or indirectly, as the higher costs of operation allow the competition price advantages.

A system that is based on the needs and desires of the people involved is very flexible. In each example, a policy on littering was tailored to the requirements of the specific situation. Moreover, such a system is capable of responding quickly to changes, whether they be in the costs of litter collection or in the harm caused by uncollected litter.

If, for instance, a system were installed in hospitals enabling litter to be taken out at very little cost, or if consumer desires regarding litter underwent a marked change, hospital administrators would have to relax their stringent anti-litter stance. The hospitals that failed to adjust to the new technology and tastes would tend to lose patients to competing institutions. (These are private, profit-making hospitals. Public hospitals, which obtain their funds through compulsory taxation, have no such incentives to please customers.)

On the other hand, if it were discovered that soda cans and popcorn boxes left under the seats at baseball stadiums were disease carriers, or interfered with the viewing of the game, the stadium rules concerning litter would be changed automatically by stadium owners, without any government edict.

In considering litter in the public domain, there is no finely attuned system responding to the needs and desires of the people. Rather, the public domain is the ward of the government, and the government treats consumer demands in a rather cavalier manner, virtually ignoring them.

Government enterprise is the only enterprise that will deal with an increased desire to litter with a steadfast determination to eliminate it, thereby refusing to adapt to either consumer desires or changing technology.1 The law is the law. The government can function this way because it is outside the market. It does not obtain its revenues from the market process of voluntary trade. It obtains its revenues through taxation, a process completely unrelated to its ability to satisfy customers.

The governmental argument against litter is that it is done out of disrespect for others' rights. But this argument is without merit. The whole concept of private litter is a case in point. If litter were a violation of rights and a refusal to consider the comfort of others, what of the "litter" in restaurants, ballparks, factories, etc.? Litter comes about in the private market precisely as a means of satisfying the desires of consumers for comfort. One no more violates the restaurant owner's rights by littering than by eating, since both are paid for.

"Government enterprise is the only enterprise that will deal with an increased desire to litter with a steadfast determination to eliminate it, thereby refusing to adapt to either consumer desires or changing technology."

How is the government's failure to maintain a flexible litterbug policy in the public sector to be interpreted? It is not entirely due to indifference, although it is far simpler to totally prohibit something than to deal with it in a reasonable manner. The explanation is that no government, no matter how interested or beneficent, could maintain a flexible litterbug policy.

Such a policy must be supported by a price system — a profit and loss system — to measure the cost and benefits of littering, and to automatically penalize managers who failed to adjust accordingly. If the government enacted a system of this type, it would no longer be a governmental system, for it could not rely on the bête noir of government — a tax system completely unrelated to success in satisfying the wants of consumers.

The inability of the government to be flexible can occasionally take strange turns. For many years there was no effective restriction in New York City of dog owners who allowed their dogs to defecate on the streets and sidewalks. Presently there is a movement afoot to prohibit dog defecation on any street or sidewalk, launched by citizens' groups organized under the banner of "children before dogs."

The flexibility of the market is completely ignored by both of these factions. Nowhere is it realized that dog "litter" can be restricted to certain places. The issue is seen as a choice between prohibiting it altogether or allowing it everywhere. Imagine the beneficent results that would ensue if the streets and sidewalks were privately owned. A greater flexibility would result because of the rewards entrepreneurs would gain for devising methods of satisfying both groups.

Some might object to the private ownership of the sidewalks on the grounds that dog owners would have to pay for the use of a "dog lot" that they now use free (assuming there is no prohibition of dog defecation). But this is incorrect, because no individual, including the dog owner, has the free use of the sidewalks. The sidewalks, as all other goods and services provided by the government, are paid for by the citizens through taxes! Citizens pay not only for the original cost of the sidewalks, but also for upkeep, maintenance, policing, and cleaning services.

It is difficult to anticipate the exact way a free market would function in this area, but some guesses may be hazarded. Perhaps several enterprising entrepreneurs would set up fenced-in sandy areas that dogs could use. These entrepreneurs could have two separate contracts, one with the dog owners, which would specify the fee for use of the area, and the other with garbage truck owners, specifying the cost of maintaining the areas. The exact location and number of these areas would, as with any service, be determined by the needs of the people involved.

In the light of the inflexibility of the government, and its apparent lack of interest in accommodating public tastes, how is the litterbug to be viewed? The litterbug treats public property in much the same way he would treat private property if he were but free to. Namely, he leaves garbage around on it. It has been demonstrated that there is nothing intrinsically evil about this activity, and that but for governmental calcification, it would be as widely accepted in the public arena as it is in the private. It is an activity that should be regulated by people's needs, not by government fiat.

We must conclude, therefore, that far from being a public enemy, the litterer is actually a hero. The courage exhibited by the litterer, given the intense campaign of vilification directed against him, is considerable. Even more important, the behavior of the litterer who purposefully "takes the law into his own hands" can serve as a protest against an unjust system.

  • 1. Only a nonprofit government agency could react to increased consumer desires for road use (traffic jams) with a threat to ban cars. Only a government agency free from the necessity of earning profits could react to increased consumer desires for park use by forbidding people to enter parks after dark.
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