Your article on garbage ("Talking Trash," Aug./Sept.) missed the can. The true property-rights approach to environmental issues requires everyone to responsibly dispose of their own waste—i.e., recycle it on their own property or pay someone else to haul it away and recycle it.
Consider disposable diapers. As you correctly point out, government prohibitions and privacy-invading trash police are not the answer. Nevertheless, your position as libertarians ought to be to disapprove of the use of disposables on the grounds that they represent a shortsighted use of environmental capital. The plain fact is that the payload of disposable diapers is human feces, which represent a health hazard to everyone who comes into contact with them. People who throw these things into any handy trash bin are exporting their children's feces into other persons' environmental domain. In no private-property scheme I know of can someone dispose of waste this way.
Publicly provided trash removal is a huge subsidy to the manufacturers and consumers of disposables, who pay only a fraction of the actual cost of disposing infant waste. In a truly private system of waste treatment, they would and should be expected to pay the entire cost. Individuals must keep the environment clean so government won't have cause to regulate it.
Frederick J. Oerther
Department of Economics
Virginia Postrel and Lynn Scarlett reply: As we argued in our article, garbage-disposal services can and should be provided without subsidies to trash producers. Those producers are not disposable-products manufacturers but the consumers who throw stuff away—whether the stuff is orange peels or disposable diapers. To advocate an end to subsidies is not, however, to advocate the mandatory recycling Professor Oerther seems to favor. Nor is it to know in advance, as he seems to think, which exact allocation of resources is best. In a "true property-rights approach," private landfills could continue to operate and might very well choose to accept disposable diapers. To say that such an arrangement would violate property rights by introducing feces into "the environment" is an argument against digestion.
What distinguishes the garbage-disposal problem from such tricky environmental issues as air-pollution control is that the waste involved is easily containable. All negative externalities can be internalized simply by removing subsidies, allowing landfills to compensate their neighbors for any inconvenience or loss of property values, and then letting the markets clear. This is a problem that can be solved, but only if we stop equating "waste" with "pollution."
Our county legislative meetings are regularly attended by Greenpeace activists who incessantly hound the legislators with statistics and facts on the danger of too much garbage. We aren't proposing to dump garbage on their doorstep or asking them to live in the landfill or anywhere near it. We're only asking them to allow us the freedom to fill a human need—disposing of our garbage in an orderly and efficient manner. The government should heed Frédéric Bastiat's admonition: "The only moral law is, Mind your own business."
To the Limit
I found James Payne's article on term limitations enlightening and well researched, but I still disagree with the principle invoked ("Bad Influence," Aug./Sept.). Uninterrupted public service is a sign of voter apathy and cannot be effectively combated by simply shortening the number of years an official can serve. The only effective counterweight to self-promoting government is local participation by the people through such methods as privatization.
Term lengths are linked directly to the estrangement between the citizens and their government. A politician who is controlled by a strong electorate (one that does not use the government for self-aggrandizement) can no more pass expensive legislation in his 20th year of office than in his first. And the less money and power he has to throw around, the less appealing the prospect of a long career in office.
William S. Spicer
Brink Lindsey overlooked an important argument for adopting a unilateral free-trade policy ("Reciprocity for Disaster," Aug./Sept.): Domestic industries that might be harmed by unilateral free trade are precisely the same ones that might be harmed by universal free trade. If eliminating trade restrictions is the goal, there is no reason not to do so unilaterally. To the "harmed" industries, quick unilateral action should even be preferable to a phased-in, international agreement since it would give them time to adjust while their foreign competitors are building new factories and distribution systems.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".