recycling regress

TrashWhen the current governor of Wisconsin proposed a state budget that would eliminate mandatory recycling, he discovered that even his Republican Party allies considered such a move too extreme. "Some officials worry," one editorial said, that "Wisconsin communities will revert to a sort of Wild West dumping ground if Gov. Scott Walker’s budget passes as is."

Notice the appeal to a progressive theory of history: if the government cuts spending on a favorite program, communities will revert to an earlier stage of history.

Conservatives, classical liberals, libertarians, and all other skeptics of the so-called progressive agenda have long been smeared as reactionary, backward, even Neanderthals.

Today the model is so well established that we rarely question it: what’s old is bad; what’s new is good. We must continue to move forward. Don’t let them take us backward to the bad old days.

Our libertarian forebears deserve some of the blame. They were the English Whigs, and the Whig theory of history is the precursor of the current progressive model. Opponents of the old regime of kings, nobles, and a privileged priesthood — of a strict feudal caste system and ever-centralizing coercive authority — the liberals of the day (we now call them classical liberals) saw science, reason, and free markets as the way forward out of medieval oppression and superstition. What’s more, the Whig theory saw this social and political progress as inevitable: we would learn ever more through science and reason, abandoning superstition and the coercive authority that depended on backward thinking.

But then, in the 19th century, the progressives split on the question of private property. (See my post "liberté, egalité.…") The opponents of property were called socialists. For a while at least, the defenders of property continued to be called liberals, but the socialists took over the language of progress, and it’s their model that we seem to be stuck with: government management and regulation take us forward; spontaneous order and individual freedom are for cowboys and cavemen.

In the opening chapter of For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Murray Rothbard writes,

One of the ways that the new statist intellectuals did their work was to change the meaning of old labels, and therefore to manipulate in the minds of the public the emotional connotations attached to such labels. For example, the laissez-faire libertarians had long been known as "liberals," and the purest and most militant of them as "radicals"; they had also been known as "progressives" because they were the ones in tune with industrial progress, the spread of liberty, and the rise in living standards of consumers. The new breed of statist academics and intellectuals appropriated to themselves the words "liberal" and "progressive," and successfully managed to tar their laissez-faire opponents with the charge of being old-fashioned, "Neanderthal," and "reactionary." Even the name "conservative" was pinned on the classical liberals.

The same editorial that cast the end of mandatory recycling as a return to the "Wild West" of 19th-century America went on to make these claims:

  • recycling is cleaner than garbage
  • recycling trims energy use
  • recycling creates jobs
  • recycling keeps tons of waste from ending up in landfills

The political establishment of Wisconsin may have bought it (or they may have had less noble reasons to pretend to buy it), but when applied to present-day recycling programs each of these claims is either outright false or based on a falsehood.

Mandatory recycling causes more pollution and consumes more energy. The jobs "created" by such programs are typical of all politically manufactured jobs: they are the visible result of the less visible economic destruction in the private sector. (On this point, see 19th-century classical liberal Frederic Bastiat’s "That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen" or Henry Hazlitt’s update to Bastiat: Economics in One Lesson.) Recycling may in fact keep tons of waste out of landfills, at least at first, but (1) that is not necessarily a good thing, and (2) 40 percent of all recycling ends up in landfills anyway. The history, economics, and overall virtues of landfills deserves its own article; we do not have the space for it here.

But our current model of recycling isn’t the only one. In fact, the "bad old days" of the 19th century offer us a free-market version of recycling that was cleaner, more efficient, and completely voluntary.

As Floy Lilley wrote in "Three Myths about Trash,"

Private recycling is the world’s second oldest, if not the oldest, profession. Recyclers were just called scavengers. Everything of value has always been recycled. You will automatically know that something is of value when someone offers to buy it from you, or you see people picking through your waste or diving into dumpsters.

Steven Johnson writes about the complex network of scavengers in 19th-century London in The Ghost Map (2006). His opening chapter describes the filth and dangers as well as the spontaneous complexity of this market-driven system. He also makes some economically naive statements and judges it "the correct response" that modern-day Westerners would tend to "fulminate against a system that allowed so many thousands to eke out a living by foraging through human waste." I take him to task for these things in my blog post "dirty work" and explain why I think modern-day, free-market scavenging would not be a move backwards. From our current circumstances, it would count as progress.

(By the way, Doug French’s article "What the Turks Can Teach Us about Recycling" tells us about the interesting case of modern-day scavenging in Istanbul, which stands in between the developed and undeveloped worlds.)

But The Ghost Map takes an interesting turn in its last chapter.

All the characters of the Victorian underground economy — the mud-larks and toshers and costermongers — may have largely disappeared from cities in the developed world, but everywhere else on the planet their numbers are exploding.

Squatter cities lack most of the infrastructure and creature comforts of developed metropolitan life, but they are nonetheless spaces of dynamic economic innovation and creativity.

He even makes a point right out of Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City:

The squatter communities are not, by any measure, sinkholes of poverty and crime. They are where the developing world goes to get out of poverty.

Johnson doesn’t exactly take a radical turn. "Governments will obviously need to play a role," he writes of the sanitation challenges faced by these extralegal cities. (The need for a government role is so obvious, apparently, that he feels no need to justify the assertion.) But that "obvious" qualifying clause is for an interesting and unexpected statement: "There may be new technologies that enable the squatter communities to concoct public health solutions on their own…"

It inspires some hope in me when thoroughly mainstream authors begin to embrace spontaneous order and recognize that the solutions of the future may have to come from bottom-up organization.

I look forward to a time in the 21st century when the top-down, central-planning impulse of so many environmentalists seems as quaint and misguided as the 20th century’s Prohibition Era seems to us now.

Recall that Prohibition was the product of last century’s so-called Progressive Movement.


7 Responses to recycling regress

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    “It inspires some hope in me when thoroughly mainstream authors begin to embrace spontaneous order and recognize that the solutions of the future may have to come from bottom-up organization.”

    In my role as private-police dispatcher at the desk of my self-assigned precinct in the Austro-literarian Quarter of New Web City, I often declaim over the World’s Tiniest Microphone carrying my All-Points-Bull, “Be on the lookout” for just that very sort of author, whether your goal, for whatever reason, is that of what some candle-burning, world-saving pietist do-gooders like to call “meaningful social change”, or, as in my case, simply inhaling great drafts of the sweet, sweet smoke of that old-time mind expansion in ways yet to be declared actionable at law. Much as Henry Hazlitt, while for over fifty years drawing his paychecks from within the very heart of the much-demonized “mainstream media”, not least on their divers books pages, did likewise, while with fine discrimination criticizing the halfway-housed enemies of tyranny for their varied vulnerabilities if not to the fires of Bolshevism, to the termites of social democracy – see, e.g., in The Free Man’s Library from 1956, his tub-thumping on behalf of such distinguished men and women of metropolitan letters as Joseph Wood Krutch (for his award-winning anti-scientism critique The Measure of Man), Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism), Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, the latter two at once praised for their stark unmaskings of murderous Leninist-Stalinist tyranny – and scored for the surviving utopian idealism of their sustained commitments to the dream of socialist deliverance. Then there was “old Ludwig von”, whose many exquisite footnotes (Leipzig: 1797, Brockhaus ed., n.s.), fruit of his long apprenticeship in the groves of fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian scholarship, are chockablock with gateway drugs to bibliographic freiheit in an only partly-wertfrei world.

    Now if only some of our latter-day “thoroughly mainstream authors” would begin to embrace not just spontaneous order but … Invisible Order as well, and, as they pass their hands over the Wellsian space between the collars and floating hats of its principals’ web-page avatars, deposit into those collars a goodly percentage of the sales receipts of their forthcoming bestsellers.

  2. Scott Lahti says:

    In my partial reconaissance of part-time friends of freedom among mainstream authors friendly to spontaneous order and “bottom-up organization”, I meant to say a bit about the wholist, organic counterculture that attained proverbial status in the 1960s but whose Perennialist/Traditionalist roots may be traced back throughout divers world religions East and West, in Theosophy, and throughout the various Romantic, Blakean, Thoreauvian, Tolstoyan, Gandhian, pietist, war-resisting, conscientious-objecting, back-to-the-land, back-to-basics, &c, strains within world culture and social thought at all times of felt turbulence. A handy template is to hand in the form of the authors most discussed over the forty-one years (1948-1988) of MANAS, the anti-authoritarian philosophical weekly edited anonymously, and largely so-written as well, by Henry Geiger, a self-taught, astonishingly well-read ex-New Yorker, Los Angeles Theosophist and commercial printer. Having spent hundreds of hours since 2005 in the MANAS archives, I can attest in spades to the wealth of inspiration afforded by its sympathetic expositions of the ideas of assorted anarchists, peace campaigners, 1960s humanist psychologists, decentralists, storefront-school operators, advocates of the third way and the third sector, radical critics of the unholy alliances between scientific research and the imperatives of the corporate and national-security state … and yet, in tandem with many of the above, many thinkers, often from the ecology movements of the 1970s and 1980s, not just ignorant of economics but proudly so, often making the category error common among sweet-natured, children-of-light humanists that because economics does not compass all that is most important in man’s earthly estate, it compasses none of it, and so may be blithely ignored in petal-strewing, lotus-eating, Sermon on the Mount heedlessness. Such so-close-yet-so-far disparities in clarity of vision, alas, will always be with us, requiring constant cross-pollination and weeding among those of us hoping to grow more than one strain of ideational crop when it comes to the judging of both ends and means.

  3. Scott Lahti says:

    “Today the model is so well established that we rarely question it: what’s old is bad; what’s new is good. We must continue to move forward. Don’t let them take us backward to the bad old days.”

    I think here of the response of a friend of mine two years ago to a recent article on the 1970s decentralist E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful):

    “See, I feel this is where people, both pro- and con-, often get this wrong: it is not about, it is never about, returning to the past, were such a thing possible. It is, I think, about saying that anything done can be undone, that any question seemingly answered definitively in the past can be asked again and a new answer arrived at, and any decision made can be revisited. Because the die is never cast, because human beings can change, because we do have a choice.

    “And, I always try to remember what [Lewis] Mumford said in The Conduct Of Life:

    “‘It is not enough to say, as Rousseau once did, that one has only to reverse all the current practices to be right… If our philosophy is well-grounded we shall not merely react against the ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ of our present culture; we shall also carry into the future many elements of quality that this culture actually embraces.'”

  4. Scott Lahti says:

    An earlier thread here, “2 cheers for ideological impurity”, comes to mind when I think of the benefits to libertarian outreach of remembering one’s role as that of arm-unfurling, ambassadorial freshman-year educator to green youth of all ages, a process in which the sympathetic, step-by-tutorial-step meeting of one’s “students” – many of whom, humbly enough (and I have, per the old joke, much to be humble about), may within their own excellencies be our teachers in turn – on the native turf of their own personal engagements, thence in suavely-controlled cruising to the logical extensions entailed over successive chapters, seems to be, at least for this laid-back Perry Como (especially in Eugene Levy’s horizontally-propped …. Como-tose parody) of liberty, a better method than the usual peremptorily pre-emptive state-effing common among choir-preaching right-libertarian hardhats, performance artists of the “Libertarian Macho Flash” whose fearless rope-a-dope swinging turns from Tarzan to George of the Jungle, as in terms of worldly inroads made they from the vantage of their pancake compression upon the bark of the nearest mighty oak stand revealed as past masters of propertarian preaching and present ones of little else, not that their wafer-thin reading and limited range of reference would have led anyone above the mental age of two to expect otherwise.

    Yale historian of modern Europe Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands, &c.), reflecting on his conversations with the late English-born NYU historian Tony Judt, published in 2012 as Thinking the Twentieth Century:

    “Both Tony and I think that when you teach or write history, you ought to be giving people a coherent picture of a series of events. You want to aim for understanding rather than deconstruction. Historians and literary critics and psychologists and others are fond of saying, ‘Those things you think you know–well, you don’t really know them. They aren’t really true.’ And as important as that exercise can be, it’s not clear to me that’s what we should be saying and publishing, at least initially: it destroys the very few reference points people already have.”

    Kerry Howley, in “Are Property Rights Enough?”, a 2009 reason symposium with Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthy:

    “Seavey worries that libertarianism will be even less popular if we point out the confluence between it and other philosophical leanings. This is silly. I write this response from a café in southern Guatemala, where you can’t walk into a Catholic church without being confronted by Mayan animist iconography. Unimpeachably devout Catholics cart booze and cigarettes to an effigy of Maximón, a badass, cigar-smoking saint I promise you will not find in the Vatican.

    “The most successful missionaries did not come to Guatemala and insist that their religion had nothing whatsoever to do with the lives of those they sought to convert. They tried to convince the locals that they had been Catholics in spirit all along. Every evangelist on earth knows his task is to find connections between old, entrenched beliefs and whatever newfangled doctrine he is looking to sell.

    “Perhaps it would be instructive to consider a hypothetical conversation between Seavey and a potential libertarian.

    Potential Libertarian: What’s libertarianism?

    Seavey: A philosophy of freedom and property rights.

    Potential Libertarian: Oh, right. Freedom like civil rights?

    Seavey: No, not that kind of freedom.

    Potential Libertarian: Oh. Freedom like the freedom to be openly gay?

    Seavey: No. That has nothing to do with liberty.

    Potential Libertarian: Oh. Um…

    Seavey: Let’s talk about easements!” …

    • bkmarcus says:

      Scott, can you expand on what you mean by libertarianism 101 and 2.0?

      I think your interpretation of Johnson’s premise may be more generous than mine.

      • Scott Lahti says:

        Not an attempt at precision taxonomy so much as a thumbnailing of an instance where Johnson engaged economics, free market or otherwise, more directly than elsewhere. “2.0” plays on the Silicon Valley angle.

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