This Butt’s for You

I saw you PCI 3798. I saw you blithely flick a cigarette butt out your car window whilst I was trailing you in traffic. But you’re not alone. I often see smokers discarding their used cigarettes with the casual lack of concern befitting the monarchs of old. Why do others and I find such littering so disturbing? Is it merely because of the visual damage to our surroundings? No, I think the animus runs beyond mere cosmetic harm. Our outrage toward the litterer is a result of recognizing the arrogance the litterer holds to believe they are so important that it is the job of others to clean up their mess (no, cigarette butts are not biodegradable). But wait – isn’t that what we do when we go to a nice restaurant (expect others to clean up our mess after we’re done eating)? Aren’t we expecting others to provide a service for us whenever we purchase a good or service? But this expectation is not arrogance because we in fact provide something in return by paying for such services. The litterer expects (dare I say feels entitled to the notion) that someone else should clean up after them without giving anything in return. It is this sense of entitlement, this sense of “others should bear the cost of cleaning up my mess” that we object to.

How did we as a society arrive at a framework wherein it can occur to someone to feel they are entitled to others cleaning up after themselves at no cost? What created this framework? Government naturally. Only government can create “public” resources by decree. Public ownership of resources is that paradoxical state wherein a resource is owned by everyone and no one simultaneously. Any public resource carries with it the burden of the “free-rider” problem, which is a subset of the “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy of the commons refers to the use of “free” public resources in a disproportionate manner that maximizes individual benefit. Overuse occurs because there is no direct cost linked to such usage. Direct costs act as a feedback mechanism to meter usage. “Free” public resources have no such feedback and thus overuse results.

Whether it is roads or healthcare, anything made “public” will be utilized disproportionately by some because the over utilizers are able to acquire the goods at artificially lowered free-ride prices paid for (subsidized) by others. In the case of public road, litterers over utilize the limitless ability to litter because others bear the clean up costs. And which “others” bear this cost? Not the government. The government is a terrible environmental steward. They do not as a matter of policy clean up litter. Public roads often bear much similarity to public bathrooms for this reason. Rather, private citizens and organizations freely choose to sacrifice their time in road beautification efforts. Would there be no littering on private roads? Of course not. However the ability to shift more of the direct cost of littering (through tolls) onto the litterer would tend to decrease the frequency of littering. It is also possible behavior would not change at all, in which case road owners would simply clean up the mess and incorporate the cost of clean up into the tolls. But at least the roads would be clean. That is not the situation today.

We really can’t blame the litterer. He has rationally determined the cost of littering (to him) is $0 due to the warped incentives made possible by government interference in the market. In fact we should praise the litterer! He serves as the ubiquitous example of the result of government interference in society. If we can see that socially undesirable behavior is the result of government, then perhaps it will give us reason to reflect on what other kinds of less obvious damage government is inflicting on society (runaway housing, healthcare and education costs perhaps?).