Your Rights Down the Drain

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

If you went to me ten years ago, and told me that our government would threaten to throw you in jail for washing your car, I would have laughed in your face.

And yet, that day is near at hand:

One county has banned rinsing car-wash detergent down storm drains; another city plans to restrict Boy-Scout car-wash fund-raisers; another has proposed to ban washing your car at home. Potential penalties include tickets or jail. Reasons: detergent pollution and water waste. Alternatives: commercial car-washes or "waterless" soaps that require no rinsing.
William Saletan of Slate then links to a detailed news account and goes on to list five complaints about such legislation, not one of which is that such intrusion violates individual rights. (The first is close, but not explicit enough about the principle. Some of the rest are worse than saying nothing at all.) Until and unless that objection starts making lists such as this more often than not, we won't have to worry about detergent going down the drain. Our freedom will already be there. File another one under "Why I Write".

For anyone who happens by and thinks that environmentalists are genuinely interested in saving the earth for future generations, I ask you this: What good will a pristine earth do them if they haven't the freedom to enjoy it?

We are at the point where the government sees fit to meddle in the most mundane and even personal areas of our lives. This is not government fulfilling its proper purpose, which is the protection of individual rights. This is tyranny, camouflaged as a concern for nature.

-- CAV


: Minor edit.


Dismuke said...

Criminalizing car washing will only be a temporary problem that we will have to be "mature" enough to deal with: the same crowd is also pushing to outlaw cars altogether. When that happens - well, we won't have to worry about washing them, will we? After all, folks who live in Havana don't have to worry about freeway congestion the way folks in Houston do!

Monica said...

I know we're simply talking about detergent going into a storm sewer to be treated by a municipal wastewater plant in this case, but I don't think people have the right to put whatever they want down their drains or into rivers.

Forgive me for sounding testy, but I'm a little sensitive in this arena. My mother grew up on Rickmeyer Rd in Rome, NY, not far from Griffiss Air Force Base. As a small child, I'd observe that the creek 40 feet from my grandparents' house (directly downstream from Griffiss) was a different color practically every time I went there (including colors like pink and neon green). Every dog they ever had died of tumors, and my mother came down with three cancers at the age of 24. Here's a map of their house, showing it's proximity to the Base, which is now designated a Superfund site because it's so polluted.,+Rome,+NY&sll=43.223692,-75.378227&sspn=0.055414,0.160675&ie=UTF8&ll=43.213434,-75.383978&spn=0.055423,0.160675&z=13&om=1

With my mother nearing remission, residents on most of the streets near them, including my grandfather, were approached by several lawyers to sue. He declined. The Air Force Base eventually ended up paying for city water to be installed in the neighborhood, which was the right thing to do.

These local regulations about car washing are absurd. But I do know that too often, people think that if they dump something on their property, it stays there. That would be nice, but it's hardly reality. Or worse, they don't even care what happens to the stuff they dump down their drains or in rivers that end up in someone else's well. PCBs, lead, chromium, and VOCs are not good for the human body. These are all things that were found in my grandparents' well when it was tested about 25 years ago. Were these things dumped and stored improperly before they were known to be health risks? Probably. Can I prove, conclusively, that they caused my mom's cancer? I don't think I ever could. That doesn't mean there isn't a probable, causal link:

The whole situation surrounding my mother's cancer just doesn't seem very coincidental, and it doesn't sit right with me. The damage is done, and no amount of money the Air Force could have dished out to her would ever bring her strength or lovely hair back (which never regrew). Detergent down a storm sewer is one thing. It goes to a wastewater treatment plant where they probably test for harmful compounds. Synthetic organic chemicals in a river is another, though. Those belong in a hazardous waste disposal, not buried or dumped. Lots of those chemicals may never even have been dumped in the creek, as they have been documented as being stored on-site. All of us could probably stand to be a little more conscientious about our actions and the effects they may have on others. That's all I'm saying.

Burgess Laughlin said...

In the spirit of preparing ourselves, as advocates of objective law, for debate with others, I have two questions:

1. What is the issue here? In other words, which rights are being violated here?

The issue doesn't seem to be about banning car-washing on your own property with the runoff going only into your own fish-farm. Instead, the article seems to indicate that--at least in some cases--what is being banned is not car-washing but car-washing that dumps substances into the water system (owned by "the people") and thereby damaging "public" property and perhaps raising costs for all clean-water users.

This point leads to the next question.

2. What would the situation be in a laissez-faire society?

This area isn't an area of expertise for me, so I will leave this for others. I do have one initial observation: Is not this situation simply one more example of the "conflicts of rights" that arise as a result of earlier statism? Statism fixes statism fixes statism ... and so forth.

Gus Van Horn said...

(1) What is at issue is WHY people are being threatened with jail over washing their cars. It's to protect nature as nature, vice as the property of "the people" (which would be better, but still wrong), or as private property.

(2) Yes, as you imply, there could well be situations in a fully free society where a car-washer could land himself in jail.

Shooting from the hip, ...

I would hope that two things would make it more unlikely, though: (a) culturally, people would be more aware of the issue of damaging the property of others (e.g., not dumping detergent into a fishing pond) and (b) such restrictions as there are would be for objectively dangerous activities. (e.g. washing close to a pond as opposed to miles away, where the effluent would seep harmlessly into the ground. Of course, contaminating well water could still be an issue.)

So in the end, car-washing might indeed be rarer in a fully free society -- but for the right reasons!

Very thought-provoking questions, Burgess


And as I am still in a time famine here, if anyone else wishes to chime in.....

Gus Van Horn said...


My apologies for posting your comment so late. It simply did not show up in the queue until this morning (along with Dismuke's above and several others.

The capitalistic solution to such problems as the river you describe -- and this is what Burgess was driving at -- is to properly recognize and protect property rights.

Long ago, property lines included parts of river beds. Eventually, the state "fixed" this to encourage industrial development (i.e., by allowing the dumping of such waste into rivers). Were property rights nver tampered with, what you describe would never have occurred.


Tom Rowland said...

On top of this comes a an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which if current trends are any indication, would lead to outlawing divorce on environmental grounds... You see, divorce leads to more housholds, which leads to more rooms per capita, which leads to more energy use, waste, cleaning compound use, etc. All backed up by the latest in junk science and written in the tone of a hell and brim-fire sermon.

Gus Van Horn said...

Ah. You must be using a feed reader!

Blogged it yesterday under "Anti-Happiness"....

Monica said...

Long ago, property lines included parts of river beds. Eventually, the state "fixed" this to encourage industrial development (i.e., by allowing the dumping of such waste into rivers). Were property rights nver tampered with, what you describe would never have occurred."

Well that would certainly be the the case for private parties wishing to sue one another. But in this case, the polluter was one of the few legitimate government entities. Under Objective law, who has jurisdiction over a legitimate government entity such as the military or the police, when those entities violate the rights of others? I assume it would also be the courts, as in the case of a conflict between two private parties?

Gus Van Horn said...

RE: Recourse through the courts: I would think so, although this degree of carelessness, being an abuse of government power, it makes such recourse seem dubious for obvious reasons.

(Even if all these chemicals weren't known to be health risks, simply dumping huge amounts of them seems ridiculous to me, given how many things can be dangerous over long periods of chronic exposure.)

The power of the government ultimately comes from the governed. I think that our government's long history of not respecting private property rights in this context made its dumping behavior less remarkable than it should have been. Imagine a government entity trying to behave like this when similar behavior is also not tolerated by industry.

Although not directly applicable to the outrage which you describe, I think that greater government protection of individual property rights would make such things really stand out and people, not accustomed to having industrial effluent in their back yards, would be far quicker to complain.

A government that consistently violates our rights "just a little" numbs us to things that would have properly incensed our forefathers.

Kyle Haight said...

I would also note, purely rhetorically, that government misbehavior cannot be used as a justification for government regulation of the private sector. If the government cannot be trusted to "protect the environment" in its own operations, then why should we think it would be any more responsible in overseeing the operations of private businesses?

Gus Van Horn said...

Quite true.