More on the Recycling Myth

In a recent post I covered and elaborated on some of the points in an article I had published on mises.org February 4th discussing the Swedish recycling scheme. This kind of article is obviously scarce in the market for environmental discussion – it immediately became the third most Digged article in Digg’s environment category. And it has been a reason for discussion on numerous discussion forums, and the object of commentaries on blogs and ezines. I have also received plenty of comments by e-mail.

What strikes me about almost all of these comments is the total lack of interest in what I am trying to say. Rather than attacking the main point in my article, that recycling schemes based on force and power don’t work and that they are generally very bad ideas (for multiple reasons), most commenters seem to conclude that I am against recycling or against the environment.

It thus seems my article created quite a big market for straw men.

I readily admit that the point about coercive systems might not be very clear for anyone reading the article. The reason for this is not my inability to express myself using English (which has been insinuated), even though it is my second language, as it is a conscious choice. The article was written for publication by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The institute is very clearly pro-freed markets and anti-government; in other words, the audience is already aware of the moral problems of government and would not be interested in an introductory course in the moral costs of coercion.

The article therefore doesn’t focus on this fundamental statement as much as it describes the Swedish government-enforced system for recycling to further elaborate on the general point that coercion is wrong.

This is probably one of the reasons so many seem to just not get what it is I am saying. But I suspect it isn’t even half of the reason; environmentalism is more of a religion than it is a science – if you do not whole-heartedly believe in all governmental measures to protect the environment, you simply don’t care about the environment. I do not need to elaborate on the philosophical fallacies in drawing such conclusions. Let us instead have a look at one of the most outrageous statements on my “opinions” about the environment.

I don’t intend to discuss statements such as “Bylund is against recycling” or “Bylund doesn’t care for the environment” (usually expressed in terms of “Bylund wants everybody to destroy the environment”). Such statements are nothing but stupid, and when reading the article without the intent to find support for one’s bias, it should be pretty obvious that they are totally groundless. Instead, I would like to address a very interesting anti-market argument that has been expressed in different forms in a number of places. I’ll quote one of the more clearly articulated commenters:

The Swedish recycling policies, as Bylund describes them, place responsibility on the individual for their waste products. He maintains that such a system of personal responsibility is extremely socialist and bad for the market: “Imagine a whole population spending time and money cleaning their garbage and driving it around the neighborhood rather than working or investing in a productive market!”

So personal responsibility equals socialism, because the government is making Swedes assume responsibility.

I find this comment interesting in many ways, partly because of the masterful use of contradiction to “prove” that my opinion (as it is described here) is… well, crazy. I call it “masterful” because I think it is: it is completely unfounded and obviously based in total ignorance of who I am and what I stand for, but it is so simple and clear a critique that anyone can see what a nut job I am.

It is also interesting in how it turns most of the concepts on their heads, calling it “personal responsibility” to be forced at the barrel of a gun to do something and saying that I think it is [state] socialism to take responsibility. In a sense, the comment is totally correct while being totally wrong and at the same completely miss the point of the article. It is right in the sense that I do consider the current Swedish recycling scheme [state] socialism and that I am totally against any such (i.e., [state] socialist) schemes.

But it is totally off the scale in claiming that to be forced to do something is the same as assuming responsibility. As a matter of fact, I am strongly in favor of private and personal responsibility and there is no doubt in my mind that people would have to take full responsibility for their trash in a free market (and I am for that too).

In a freed market (call it a free society, if you will) there simply wouldn’t be anywhere to put your trash except for in your own garden, and people definitely don’t want to live in a dump. So they would want to get rid of the trash, and for such a service they would have to pay – and such services would likely be cheaper the more efficient the garbage collector would be in taking care of the “problem.” And the more can be turned around and sold in the market, the more profitable the business would be.

But to get to this point you need to understand how the market works and reason in multiple steps. Most bloggers and commenters “out there” lack both of these qualities. Instead, they tend to apply their faulty statist logic on my reasoning (if you don’t have a clue, go with what you know…): if I am against a state-enforced, coercive system for recycling it is concluded that I am against recycling; if I am against government force used to make people take care of their trash in a certain way, it is concluded that I am against people taking care of their trash.

Being convinced by fallacies being truth, most seem to conclude the opposite is also true. Their conclusion that I am against recycling per se means I would like to see the environment destroyed; the conclusion that I am against people taking care of their trash means I want people to be able to (indeed, they should) throw their trash wherever they see fit, without any thought of consequences. My being convinced that the guns of government cannot be used productively, interpreted as my disbelief in private responsibility, leads to the conclusion that I want everybody to be able to act without ever having to take responsibility or face the consequences of their actions.

This would be as far from my real views as one can get. Actually, this latter statement is similar to the actual state of affairs in the Soviet Union (in other words, a lot of government) just before it collapsed under its own weight, rather than any market I am aware of. As a matter of fact, the beauty of the freed market is that it is based on each individual acting and making the choice to act – and with each individual having the same right to act, there is no way of avoiding the consequences of one’s actions. Personal responsibility is absolute in a freed market; it is only possible to avoid taking the consequences of one’s actions through directly making someone else take on the costs. That would mean force, which, in turn, would call for a counter-action and increased costs as a result – perhaps even destroyed reputation and therefore increased costs for acting in the future.

As a market anarchist, with political, philosophical, economic, and moral views somewhere between agorism and mutualism, such a system of total personal responsibility for one’s actions is the very basis of any sound and moral society. However people voluntarily agree on cooperating to distribute or assume collective responsibility is fine; the only thing that isn’t fine is forcing someone else to bear the costs of one’s actions. And this is exactly what the government does. On a daily basis.