Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

November 9, 2010

If The Gov’t Doesn’t Pick Up The Trash, It’s Rat-Infested Black Plague For Us All

by Brad Warbiany

It seems that Radley Balko has gone playing whack-the-left again, this time smacking around John Cole of Balloon Juice for an overreacting tirade against people who are overzealously overreacting. It seems that Fountain Hills, AZ had competitive trash pickup, and the city council wanted to bid out trash pickup as a single-provider city service instead. The people of Fountain Hills reacted like a bunch of 1950’s anti-communists, calling it socialism and likening it to Obamacare. John Cole and his comment section went ape-shit, in the original post and follow-ups here and here.

Quite a few commenters suggested that if we don’t have municipal trash collection, we’ll look like third-world countries where people just bury, burn, or leave their trash out on their property to rot. Strangely, I hadn’t heard a single report of uncollected trash in Fountain Hills leading to this change. Even more fun, one commenter proved the old adage that everything that’s not compulsory shall be prohibited:

Actually, oddly I agree that cities shouldn’t have uniform trash pickup, if only because I think we should move towards having zero waste as individuals. (Reusable bags for food, no consumer goods, and composting.)

I couldn’t have drawn up a caricature this flat if I’d had a projector to trace it with on my wall.

So why am I wading into this morass? Because I’ve actually lived this. One of the features of competitive services is that if they don’t live up to my guidelines, they don’t get my business.

When I first moved to Georgia, I lived in unincorporated Cobb County, where there was no monopoly muni provider of trash pickup*. There were about 3 or 4 competing services. I ended up choosing one, and despite repeatedly saying they’d deliver a trash can, they neither did so nor did they haul away my trash. Now, I don’t think they’re a bad company. I think they just had a few repeated screwups. As we all know, occasionally government has screwups, like raiding the wrong address for drugs, or putting 8-year-olds on TSA no-fly lists. Unlike government poor service, though, I had, and took advantage of, the right to fire them. When my needs weren’t being met, I had an alternative.

The problems didn’t quite end there, of course. I then received a bill for “set-up fees” for the account, despite the fact that they’d never provided services. Rather than face collections, I paid the bill up front, and then sent an email to their customer service demanding it be refunded. They quickly and cordially acceded to my request, with no hassle whatsoever.

You can just ask the same Radley Balko how easy it is to get money he’s owed from the government, even when he’s done everything right and hounded them repeatedly for an explanation.

Municipal trash service isn’t really the hill to die on for a libertarian. It’s one of those services that straddles the line of public good vs. private market. Our HOA actually debated whether to consolidate to a single provider, as some of the families in the neighborhood were concerned about large trucks coming through on multiple days rather than a single day. It didn’t happen (at least during the 2 years I’d lived there), but I understand the argument and even as a libertarian I wouldn’t have moved out of the neighborhood over such a small issue. The best-run competitively-bid single-provider service can probably achieve economies of scale and efficiency that a competitive market (in this case) cannot — which of course isn’t to say that local governments always provide the best-run single-provider system. But it’s ridiculous for those opposing a competitive system to suggest that it doesn’t work, or that there aren’t actual benefits to customer service in a competitive system.

* PS – No, we didn’t have a problem in the neighborhood with people refusing to have their trash picked up at all, burning it, or letting it just pile up on their property. It seems that comparisons to third-world countries don’t really apply in this case.

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  • Colin

    I think what you call “ape-shit”, most folks call a thread full of deliberate and often successful attempts at comedy. I particularly liked the 1984 Orwell parody. They were making fun of Fountain Hills. Lord knows, that kind of zealous behavior begs for it. On the other hand, you are right about both the benefits and downsides to competitive trash service. The best model for trash might be an opt-in, democratic bidding system by neighborhood.

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