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Liberty and Trash

April 27, 2010

On April 20th the Manitou Springs City Council considered adopting an ordinance to limit trash collection to one trash hauler.

The hearing was packed and my friend Steve, a self-described socialist, was in favor. Small and narrow streets mean that three competing companies are causing too much road damage with six collections per week. Much better is a city contract that allows only one trash hauler. Residents won’t be forced to buy the trash service; they will just have to do without. For Steve and many in Manitou Springs, the “greater good” rules.

He didn’t think much of the “libertarians” who argued against the ordinance on the basis of individual rights. Trash hauling isn’t such a big deal after all. One Colorado Springs resident lamented the fact that his city has not three but six trash companies.

Our Constitution comes down on the side of the libertarians. The sole purpose of government is to secure our liberties and provide us with those public goods such as safety and defense that only government can provide. Trash collection or utilities in general? I don’t remember that being one of the enumerated powers. Until the advent of electric utilities in the 1930s, government did not control any utilities: FDR sought to control them at the federal level but largely failed.

Local jurisdictions do run utilities and states have Public Utility Commissions to regulate them. By practice, then, such utilities may fall into a category of public goods that government controls, especially local government.

The idea of the “greater good” is more troubling than the issue of trash collection. It comes from the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and is usually formulated as “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

That again is not constitutional in theory: the Constitution is based on respect for individual rights not the collective. The greater good leads to tyranny of the majority in which the majority can trample minority rights. We have numerous protections against this collectivist principle, including the limitations on eminent domain which prevent government from seizing your property unless for a necessary public use and then with fair compensation. (This is under attack as well.)

But the citizens of Manitou Springs don’t seem too concerned. The only thing preventing the ordinance now is a misunderstanding in the terms of the contract between the city and the chosen vendor.

  1. Jan T permalink
    April 27, 2010 1:00 pm

    Too bad some folks never learn that humans are not perfectable. When citizens have a single trash hauler, they will find that may also create some problems.

    A single hauler might have a strike. You will have no recourse and trash will pile up.

    A single hauler may wake residents at absurd hours. You have no recourse but to get used to it.

    A single hauler may raise fees and surcharges. There will be little recourse.

    A single hauler may restrict the size, number and content of trash items. Tough.

    A single hauler may require special bins, special sorting of items, may miss your residence or block, unionize, hire thugs, Etc.

  2. April 27, 2010 1:36 pm

    I would also point out that electricity is a “natural monopoly” in economic terms, trash collection is not. AC, any ideas on the state and local laws on this? Seems illegal to me.

  3. April 27, 2010 9:58 pm


    I grew up in Milwaukee–run by socialist and Democratic mayors since the 1920s–we had City trash pick-up so it was something of a surprise to me when I came to Colorado to find actual competition here. I don’t know whether any state laws would prohibit a city-controlled trash service but I would hope the Manitou Springs city attorney would have looked into it. Since at the last city council meeting he and the trash hauler (Bestway) had different opinions about what the contract said, it would not surprise me to find out he had not done his homework in the legal department either. I know a few people I can ask.

  4. April 27, 2010 10:46 pm

    Thanks for following up, AC. Good not to be surprised about the being looked into part. FYI, even here in Mexico, we have competition and our HOA has gotten a very good deal on excellent trash pickup work. And not to get astray of topic, but MX even has the equivalent of a GOP president! Wouldn’t that be nice in US.

    All of this is so Econ 101 it’s frustrating and ridiculous to hear these accounts of people who just don’t get it. Check out SD 11 candidate opposing John Morse, Owen Hill. I love his home page. We don’t need new ideas. In essence, Econ 101 has proved itself just fine, thank you Dems.

    Finally, I laughed out loud about new learning experience re much more complex subject than Econ 101. That would of course be figuring out the complexities of Colorado’s electoral process. Even LB at the DP had to ask me about it.

  5. April 27, 2010 11:00 pm

    I’ve met Owen a couple of times: he’s a fellow Zoomie and I agree he’s pretty awesome. He’s on my “Candidates” page.

  6. April 27, 2010 11:14 pm

    Of course. The Air Force connection. Fantastic. Please let me know about any other bright young stars that should be getting more coverage than they are.

    It’s encouraging that in gloomy economic and governmental situation (obviously related!) we have something to be optimistic about.

  7. April 28, 2010 2:40 pm

    Great blog! I’ll definitely link to this from the site I manage at for Manitou Springs.

  8. April 28, 2010 5:35 pm

    Thanks! I like your community-centered site: what a great idea!

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