Friday, July 9, 2010

The Lawn Bag Mandate: Immoral and Impractical

On Wednesday I complained about the city's mandate that citizens use biodegradable leaf bags. Two readers responded with suggestions on how I could deal with the situation. One suggested that I buy a mulcher (perhaps sharing the cost with neighbors) and use the mulch in my beds. Another suggested that I hire a private company to haul away my yard debris. Both of these are certainly alternatives, but they miss my primary point.

(I hasten to add that posts such as this are not intended to discourage comments. I often do not have sufficient time to respond to comments as fully as I would like, and rather than leave a comment sitting in limbo, I approve it and write a brief response. Posts such as this provide me with the opportunity to respond more fully.)

Neither reader questions the city's "right" to impose such a mandate upon the citizenry. Both imply that this is proper and we must toe the line. Both suggest alternatives that would allow me to avoid the mandate.

While it is true that I have choices, those choices have been limited by government fiat. As one example, I cannot choose from among the wide assortment of lawn bags available--I am limited to one type of bag.  Both readers argue that I have other choices--such as mulching or using a private company--so what is my complaint? Such suggestions ignore the nature of those choices, as well as the full context.

Through my tax dollars I am already paying the city for solid waste service, and I have no choice in that matter. To use a private company (or buy a mulcher) means that I must spend additional money for a service that I am already forced to pay for.

To illustrate this point, consider another service provided by government and supported by tax dollars--education. A parent who is unhappy with public schools certainly has the option of home schooling or sending their children to a private school. But the cost can be significant, and many, if not most, middle class families cannot afford that expense because they are already forced to spend their education dollars on the sewer that is public education. In reality, most parents really don't have a choice in the matter. To claim otherwise is to drop the context.

Admittedly, the cost of a mulcher or a private trash service is considerably less than a private school. But the principle is the same--I am forced to pay for a government service regardless of my own judgment, needs, or desires. And if I don't like the service that I receive, I must pay for it again.

Few of us would tolerate this from a private company. We would complain to the company and demand that we get the service that we paid for. We would take our business elsewhere if the company refused to provide satisfaction. But we wouldn't be forced to pay 2 companies for the same service. Yet, when government is one of the service providers, this is precisely what occurs.

When government expands beyond its legitimate function--the protection of individual rights--it necessarily limits our choices. Government intervention necessarily limits and restricts our ability to act morally--according to our own rational judgment. My readers suggest that there are practical alternatives. But there is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical. When my choices are limited, whatever choices remain cannot be deemed practical for they necessarily limit what I can achieve in practice.

For example, if I pursue the mulching suggestion I must spend at least $200 to get one that would be sufficient for my needs. If I immediately place the mulch in my beds I will then have to deal with a nitrogen deficiency in those beds--decaying organic material depletes nitrogen. I would then need to add nitrogen to my soil, which would require additional expense and time. Further, I would need to regularly test the soil to be certain that I am adding the proper amount of nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can promote certain fungal diseases and too little can stunt plant growth. The time, effort, and expense involved in this process must necessarily come from somewhere.

This allegedly "practical" solution would require that I give up other values. If I must spend money on a mulcher, soil testing, and nitrogen supplements, I will necessarily have less money for other values. If I must spend time mulching, spreading the mulch, testing soil, and adding nitrogen, I will necessarily have less time for other values.

I have a moral right to live my life as I choose, so long as I respect the mutual rights of others. Government's purpose is the protection of this right. Yet, the city's bag mandate prohibits me from acting as I judge best. It forces me to spend money and time contrary to my own judgment, whether I use the city's bags or pursue some alternative.

Certainly, this is not the most threatening issue facing the nation or the city. But if we accept such minor violations of our rights then we pave the way for much more egregious violations. It isn't a matter of degree, it is a matter of principle.

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