The Litterer as Hero


There is practically no one, nowadays, who will defend the litterer. The litterer is beset upon from all sides. He bears the brunt of the barbs of all the "do-gooding" groups that ever were. Radio and television stations beam antilitterer messages as a "public service." Neighborhood associations, parent teacher associations, church groups, civic organizations are all united on one thing: Stop Litter! Boy scouts and girl scouts, cub scouts and brownies all have antilitter projects. The kiddie film industry, which must pass over many topics as too controversial, is united in its hatred for litter. Sometimes it almost seems that all their cartoons have an antilitter message. Litter is the great unifier. Everyone is against it. On what other topic do we find unity between blacks and whites, gays and straights, conservatives and liberals, left wingers and right wingers? Even the god damned commies are against litter, for goodness sake.

We must start out with a deep and abiding suspicion that if everyone agrees with a proposition, it is almost certain to be false. (Using this guideline, I sometimes come to doubt that 2 + 2 = 4. At other times I doubt that everyone really thinks that 2 + 2 = 4, at least with the same degree of certainty that they hold litter to be an abomination.) And if we cast our eyes about suspiciously, we find one small, seemingly insignificant detail which is an important part of an argument that completely destroys the case against litter and the litterer: litter can only take place in the public domain, never in the private domain. Now this is a fact that is never mentioned in discussions on the problem of litter, even those purporting to be scientific and thorough. But all the ads showing the evils of litter take place on public highways or public beaches or public streets or public parks or public subways or public bathrooms. Think about it. And try to remember a case of litter in a private place, either on the radio or television or newspaper ads, or discussions with friends. It cannot be done.

And it is not just a case of most littering in public places and some littering in private places. It is definitional. If something resembling littering in all aspects were to occur in a private place, it could not be littering. It would be called something else. When large crowds leave a ballpark, movie, theatre, concert, circus or whatever, what remains among the seats and aisles is not and cannot be litter. It is garbage, or dirt, or wastes, or remains or whatever else we want to call it. But not litter. After 6 p.m. when the customers and workers leave the downtown area, a horde of cleaners descends upon the banks, stores, restaurants, office buildings, factories, bus depots, train and airline terminals. What they do is clean. They under no circumstances pick up litter. While this is going on, men from the department of sanitation also descend upon the downtown area to clean up the streets and sidewalks. They, however, do pick up litter as they clean up.


Actually, however, as must be painfully obvious by now, there is no real distinction to be made between leaving garbage around in public places and leaving garbage around in private places. There is no reason whatsoever to call leaving trash around "littering" when done in public places and not when done in private places. This tends to erase in our minds the fact that what is being done in each case is really the same thing. What all cases where garbage is left around to be picked up later all at once have in common is that they are necessary concomitants of the processes of producing or of consuming. In the case of production it simply does not pay to insist that each carpenter immediately clean up his own wood shavings as he works, for example. It is much easier and cheaper to allow the "litter" to accumulate and be swept away at the end of the day or at periodic intervals. The factory manager could insist on an anti-"litter" campaign and force the carpenters not to allow any accumulation of wood shavings whatsoever. He could even enforce this edict with the threat of a $50 fine for any wood shaving found near a carpenter's workbench. He could. But if he did, he would find that his work force would quit. Or if they did not quit, that the costs of production had risen inordinately, with consequent losses to competitive factories who could now undersell him.

In other branches of production it most certainly does pay to adopt a strong, not to say ferocious, anti-"litter" program. And to embellish it with the strongest penalties imaginable. In the field of medicine, for instance, it simply will not do to allow surgeons to leave forceps, bandage wrappings or used gauze pads in the patients stomach. Here, failure to adopt a strong antilitter campaign, besides being grotesque, would involve the hospital manager in financial failure, as the word got out and his patients departed for greener fields.

In the case of consumption, most restaurants do not pursue fanatical antilitter campaigns. The very mention of such a possibility will strike many as ludicrous. There are no signs on restaurant walls forbidding the dropping of forks, napkins or bread crumbs. Yet restaurants could insist on the prohibition of litter. If they did, of course, they would lose their customers to other establishments. But imagine if you will a restaurant of the future on an interplanetary spaceship in free fall. Here, any litter could prove to be disastrous, as there would be no floor for it to fall upon and stay; it would float around with the cash customers, interfering with the running of the spaceship. In this case a strict antilitter policy would be followed. There might well be fines of $50 or more for those who failed to keep their foods in the assigned nippled bottles.


What these four seemingly disparate examples all have in common is that they illustrate that on the market, the decision of whether and how much litter should be allowed, and for how long, is based ultimately on the wishes and desires of the relevant consumers. There is not the simplistic question of "getting rid of litterbugs." There is rather the careful weighing of the costs and benefits of allowing waste materials to lie around. To the extent that the costs of garbage collection are low and the harm caused by garbage lying around is high, there will tend to be frequent garbage collections and severe penalties for leaving garbage around. Examples given were litterbug surgeons and spaceship restaurants. To the extent that the costs of garbage collection are high and the harm caused by garbage lying around is low, there will tend to be less frequent garbage collections made and no penalties for littering. And there is no governmental law that ensures that this be so. It is strictly a result of the market process: those entrepreneurs who do not act in accordance with this cost-benefit analysis tend to either lose customers directly, as they stalk out in anger, or indirectly, as the higher costs of operation allow the competition price advantages.

The great flexibility of this system can be demonstrated not only by how effectively it tailors the business establishment to the appropriate litterbug policy, as has been seen above, but much more so by considering changes either in the costs of litter collection or in the harm caused by litter left around uncollected. If for instance, a vacuum system were installed in spaceships which enabled litter to be taken out of the air at very little cost, or if consumer desires to litter underwent a marked change, then spaceship entrepreneurs would tend to relax their stringent anti litter stance. A spaceship restaurant would come to resemble more closely the earth-side restaurants in their unconcern for the problems of litter. Those spaceship owners who failed to adjust to the new technology and tastes would tend to lose customers to their competitors who provided better service without the added cost of vacuum nipple bottles. On the other hand, if it were suddenly discovered that the peanut shells and popcorn boxes left under the seats at baseball stadiums were disease carriers, or interfered with attendance at the baseball game in any way, the stadium rules concerning litter would be changed. They would be changed automatically, without any government edict being enacted, as if by an invisible hand, as the stadium owners changed their policies so as better to be able to earn money from the consumers they must please.

Now let us return to litter in the public domain. Here, there is no finely attuned system tending to encourage litter when it is the preference of the consumer to litter. Rather the government treats consumer demands in a rather cavalier manner: it virtually ignores them. Government enterprise is the only enterprise that will deal with an increased desire to litter with a steadfast determination not to give in. Not to accede to either consumer desires or changing technology. The law is the law, and to hell with the litterbug. The reason it can continue such a procedure, of course, is because it is outside the market. It does not obtain its revenues from the market process of voluntary trade. It obtains its revenues through the process of taxation, a process completely untied to its ability to satisfy customers.

The usual governmental argument against litter—that it is done out of disrespect for others' rights—can easily be shown to be without merit. The whole concept of private litter is a case in point. If litter were a violation of rights, a refusal to consider the comfort of others, we could scarcely account for litter in restaurants, ballparks, factories, etc. Rather 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. Both are paid for. If anything, according to the internal logic of this objection, one would have more right to leave garbage around in the public sector than in the private sector because at least in the public sector there is the (ludicrous) argument that "we all own it". Well, if we all own it, one can always at least maintain the fiction that when we litter the public sector, we are littering our part of it. In the private sector, it is impossible to maintain even this fiction, for when we litter, we litter property that is entirely not our own.


The explanation for the failure of the government to maintain a flexible litterbug policy in the public sector is not entirely due to government indifference. Although it is far simpler to just prohibit something than to deal with it in a reasonable manner, the point to be stressed is that even if there were a beneficent government, it could not maintain a flexible litterbug policy without a price system, without a profit and loss system, to measure the costs and benefits of littering, and to automatically penalize the government managers who failed to adjust accordingly. If the government somehow managed to install a system of this type, it would be a governmental system no longer, for it could no longer rely on the bete noir of government, a tax system completely unrelated to success in satisfying the wants of consumers.

This inflexibility can sometimes take strange turns. In New York City for many years there was no effective restriction whatsoever on dog owners allowing their dogs to defecate in the streets and on the sidewalks. Now there is a movement afoot to prohibit dog defecation altogether on any street or sidewalk, launched by citizens groups organized under the cry of "Children before dogs!" The flexibility of the market is completely ignored by both of these warring factions. Nowhere is it realized, it would seem, that dog "litter" can be restricted to some places and not either prohibited altogether or allowed anywhere at all. Imagine the grotesque results that would ensue were people to believe that litter in restaurants should be either prohibited altogether or allowed anywhere at all. Imagine also the beneficent results that would ensue if the streets and sidewalks were privately owned; the greater flexibility; the automatic rewards given to those entrepreneurs who could best devise methods to satisfy both groups.

Although it is difficult to anticipate the exact way that a free market would function in this presently unfree area, some guesses may be hazarded. What would probably happen would be that several enterprising entrepreneurs would set up fenced-in sandy areas on perhaps every street where man's best friends could repair when they were so moved. These entrepreneurs would then make two contracts. One, with the owners of the dogs, would specify the price for use of the area, whether by the number of minutes spent there, the weight of the fecal matter deposited, or on a standard retainer contract. The other, with the owners of garbage trucks, would again specify the costs of maintaining the areas in a clean, "unlittered" manner. The exact locations, numbers of such areas per street, and other details would be as impossible to specify as the exact locations and quantity of any other service. All we know is that these disposal stations will tend to locate in areas where there is a proportionate demand for their services. Thus we see that the entrepreneur functions as somewhat of a middle man between the owners of dogs and the owners of garbage trucks (and dumping grounds).

What the litterbug actually does is to treat public property in much the same way that he would treat private property. Namely to leave garbage around on it. We have, I hope, amply demonstrated that there is nothing intrinsically evil about this type of activity; that but for governmental calcification, this activity would be as widely accepted and as widespread in the public arena as in the private. It therefore becomes an act of bravery to insist, by littering in the public sector, upon the intrinsic right not to have to compulsively watch out for every speck of dirt that might be left behind. Such bravery, over and above the call of duty, in this day and age of bigoted antilitterbug feeling, can only be characterized as heroic.

Dr. Walter Block is assistant professor of economics at Baruch College of the City University of New York. His article is from an irreverent series Block is writing on "Economic Scapegoats."