Here’s why recycling poses a policy dilemma: To keep people from dumping their trash on their neighbor’s lawns (or, when they burn it, in their neighbor’s lungs), we have to keep the price of landfill space artificially low. But once you’ve made landfill space cheap, you weaken the incentive to recycle, so arguably we get too little recycling. One solution is to pump up that incentive by casting recycling as a moral imperative. Unfortunately, once people believe recycling is a moral obligation, we’re liable to get too much of it.
This month’s issue of Cato Unbound is titled “The Political Economy of Recycling”, with a lead essay by Michael Munger of Duke University expanding on these and related points, with responses by Edward Humes, Melissa Walsh Innes and myself.
Over the course of the next month or so, we’ll be posting responses and re-responses to each others’ essays, as the mood strikes us. The best of your comments here might well find their way into some of my posted responses there.
Below the fold, a brief teaser from my essay:
When you cast policy issues in moral terms, you degrade the character of public discourse. You lead people to see conflicting priorities as an occasion for battle, rather than an occasion for compromise. You send the message that policy is best decided by appeals to one’s inner conscience (or, more likely, to the polemics of demagogues), rather than by appeals to impersonal cost-benefit analysis. And this is a very bad thing. If overusing landfills is a bad habit, then branding everything you don’t like as evil is a far worse one.
If we’re determined to instill blind moral instincts that make people behave better most of the time, I’d like to nominate a blind moral instinct to respect price signals and the individual choices that underlie them—an instinct, for example, to recoil from judging and undercutting other people’s voluntary arrangements. I like it when my neighbors dispose of their beer cans properly. I’d like it even more if they’d stop trying to dictate other people’s wages, working conditions, housing contracts, and drug habits.
By concentrating our moral resources on recycling, we not only crowd out that nobler mission; we actually undercut it, by sending the message that price signals are unreliable. Of course, some price signals are unreliable, but the whole point of the moral suasion agenda is to get things right most of the time, not all of the time. Every time a misguided locavore makes the world a poorer place by choosing expensive local food, it’s because she’s absorbed the false lesson that prices are generally a poor measure of social cost – a lesson first absorbed, I suspect, at the feet of the recycling propagandists she first met in elementary school.