What to Do About Water Bottles

Everybody agrees there is too much plastic but regulation is the disease and not the cure
October 26, 2019 Updated: October 26, 2019

Why do we have so many water bottles? Millions and millions of them. Maybe, even billions? Trillions, anyone? I don’t know the exact number, making the heroic assumption that such a statistic would even be available. But I know there are a lot of them.

This is more than passing curious. After all, we have water fountains all over the place (don’t ask me to find out exactly how many there are). This seems to fly in the face that old economic adage: if they are giving it away for free down the street, it is difficult if not impossible to set up a business charging for it.

The case gets more curious when we reflect upon the fact that these plastic water bottles have become an actual menace. They litter up the place. They occupy hundreds of square miles of oceans (don’t ask how many) causing needless and unprofitable deaths to the sea creatures (lots of them).

Is this some sort of market failure? Has capitalism gone off the rails, creating a product that everyone buys, but is not really needed? Worse, one that creates positive harm? Not a bit of it. Rather, the difficulty lies, as always, with socialism.


Well, not exactly socialism. But something pretty close: municipalization. The garbage dumps are inevitably owned and operated by the city government. It charges a flat fixed annual fee for waste disposal. Does it charge higher prices for those pesky plastic bottles? No.

How would a private firm operate in contrast? If these plastic bottles were indeed as invidious as the watermelon (green on the outside, red on the inside) the fee charged to dispose of them would tend to reflect this fact. This would of course reduce their usage.

This by no means exhausts the level of pernicious government interference with this sector of the economy. Guess who is in charge of providing water for homes, factories, business establishments? Go to the head of the class if you mentioned the all-loving government apparatus.

But people simply do not trust the bureaucratic provision of this service. The Flint River near Detroit is only the most high profile case of government failure in this regard. Many people try to save themselves with water purifiers. But even this is not satisfactory, given the quality of what all too often comes out of those pipes. No wonder relatively expensive bottled water is able to compete. Who would have thought you’d have to pay $2 and more for a glass of H2O?

Private Effectiveness

How would this industry function in private hands? Well, for one thing, those in charge of the Flint River, were this a private corporation, would long ago have been driven into bankruptcy.  If a private corporation owned the Mississippi River and was responsible for the some 1900 deaths in New Orleans due to a failure of their ill-constructed levies, they would have likely sought Chapter 11 protection and bothered us no more with their ineptitude. But the responsible party, the Army Corp of Engineers, is still in business.

We rely on profit seeking firms to supply us with a myriad of goods and services, with relatively few dire consequences (yes, there is the current Boeing 737 Max challenge; should we nationalize airplane construction? Perish the thought). Let us put the water industry in the much more capable hands of private entrepreneurs, and the plastic bottle scourge will be brought to heel.

How could a river be privatized? One way is simply to sell it by auction. The problem here is that the government already has far too much of our hard-earned money. A far better way would be to borrow a leaf from philosopher John Locke, and base this transfer on homesteading. There must be a hundred thousand people who own land on the shores of the Mississippi River and thus use it, or ply those big boats up and down it regularly. They could have one share each in the new M.R. corporation.

The objections to this “modest proposal” will come thick and fast, particularly from our friends on the left. Even those predisposed to free enterprise will think it is a bit more than can be chewed to advocate privatization. “Why, you can’t privatize rivers and lakes! The idea is preposterous,” they might say. No.

This part of our economy has simply been Sovietized. If we have learned anything from the practically controlled natural experiments of East and West Germany, North and South Korea, it is that government control of industry is a disaster, it doesn’t matter which industry. Water, too, is an industry just ripe for being turned over to free enterprise.

If the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination can advocate more and more statist interventionism, we can at least seriously consider a move in the very opposite direction.

Walter Block is the Chair in Economics at Loyola University, New Orleans. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Mises Institute and the Hoover Institute.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.