May 15, 2013 7 Comments
When 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.