Backed Up Toilets


A man's home may still be his castle. But in late 20th century America, neither the king nor queen are free to choose their thrones.

Not long ago, Congress got the bright idea that what America lacked most was a federal toilet policy.

Lawmakers passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in '92. The new law mandated that by '94, the vast majority of new toilets may use a mere 1.6 gallons of water per flush, down from a standard 3.5 gallons.

Congressmen began hearing from constituents soon after the mandate took effect. New home buyers and bathroom remodelers complained of the extra effort required to complete their morning routines. Where one flush used to do the job, now two to three were required. Builders told tales of a burgeoning black market in commodes.

So Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., introduced a bill to repeal the toilet mandate. His toilet-liberation legislation now has 77 co-sponsors and has garnered plenty of positive press.

But even if Congress' calendar weren't constipated, the bill wouldn't pass any time soon.

That America has a national toilet policy, much less that it can't be repealed, says much about the dynamics of American government. There are some important lessons here.

If a policy proves beneficial someplace in America, it will benefit all of America.

We live in a large and geographically diverse nation. The late Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, said that all politics are local. But the feds routinely fail to apply O'Neill's observation when passing laws. Dozens of states and municipalities required tiny toilets and other water-saving gear in '92, when Washington decided to butt in. The mandate was redundant.

American businesses eagerly employ government coercion when it suits their interests.

A 69-page report released in April called "Saving Water, Saving Dollars," says the "plumbing industry" lobbied Congress for national toilet mandates to "pre-empt differing state standards."

Edward Osann, the report's co-author, said the law "was only enacted because the industry came to support it."

One-size-fits-all is good for some manufacturers, so why not urge Congress to mandate it? Because consumers benefit from diversity in products, ranging from computers to cars, ketchup to coffee and, yes, even commodes.

America's technocrat elites hold a distorted view of the market.

"Market mechanisms" are often praised by those who pull the levers of power—but only as long as those mechanisms are serving collectively determined goals. "(M)arket forces will continue to resolve performance issues," concluded "Saving Water, Saving Dollars." Of course, if markets were left free, there wouldn't be any "performance issues" to solve.

People should be free to enter into voluntary agreements. Markets don't have goals, other than providing individuals with a secure context for free exchange.

It's easier to start a stupid program than to kill one.

If Americans were polled on whether the federal government should regulate toilet size, they'd no doubt reject the idea based solely on a healthy dose of common sense. No president would propose such silliness, and few legislators would run for office on such nonsense.

But once the program is in place, interests will rally to preserve it. A coalition dubbed the "tiny toilet consortium"—an amalgamation of water districts, plumbing manufacturers and consultants—pooled its resources and produced the aforementioned report, which touts Americans' satisfaction with their truncated toilets.

Americans, however, are writing another story in their checkbooks. Plumbing suppliers in Windsor, Ontario, are doing brisk business with American buyers. U.S. border guards report stopping toilet- toting Americans at the Canadian border.

Humorist Dave Barry, after dedicating a column to tiny toilets, writes of receiving "a huge quantity of letters -some of them far more detailed than I would have liked—from Americans who care DEEPLY about the issue of their toilets, and the vast majority of them hate the new ones."

Americans may hate their new toilets, but Washington's not about to flush away any of its power. All new toilet owners can do is hope that the third time is the charm in the new flushing order.