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The Dirty Business of Government Trash Collection

In Austrian Economics, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy on November 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This article originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

I moved to Auburn, Alabama, in January 2013. I love Auburn.

It’s been nearly ten years since The Wall Street Journal profiled the Mises Institute and claimed that Auburn was an ideal spot for studying libertarian ideas and the Austrian tradition. I don’t know how much has changed since then, but I arrived in Auburn expecting a free-market sanctuary, a veritable haven where the ideas of Menger and Mises and Hayek were in the air and imbibed by the majority of people who weren’t members of the Auburn faculty, and even by some who were.

Once settled in Auburn, I realized I’d been quixotic and naïve. Even before national media picked up the story about the officer who spoke out against his department’s ticket and arrest quotas, even before the city of Auburn squeezed out Uber with severe licensing regulations, even before Mark Thornton highlighted the Skyscraper Curse in town, there was the matter of my trash bin.

I bought my house from a relocation company, the previous owner having been assigned a new position in another city. He was, this owner, in a hurry to move. Before he left town, he and his family rolled their trash bin to the side of the home, away from the street, where the garbage collector refused to retrieve it. They had stuffed the bin with garbage: food, paper, cardboard boxes, dirty diapers, and other junk. There was so much trash in the bin that the lid wouldn’t fully close. It looked like a yawning mouth. The house was on the market for approximately eight months before I purchased it, and I assume the bin had been sitting there, at the side of the house, the entire time. Naturally it had rained during the last eight months, so, with its half-open lid, the bin was flooded with soupy garbage and untold parasites. And it reeked.

The City enjoys a virtual monopoly on garbage collection; it tacks its fees onto the City’s water and sewage bill. The few private garbage-collection companies in town service mostly restaurants and businesses: entities that simply cannot wait a week for garbage pickup and need a service provider capable of emptying whole dumpsters full of trash. The City does allow residents to opt out of their collection services, but this only masks soft coercion with an illusion of consumer choice.

Government opt-out clauses are malicious precisely because of the impression that they’re harmless if not generous. Contract law is premised on the principles of mutual assent and voluntary agreement. Government opt-out clauses, however, deprive consumers of volition and bargaining power. They distort the natural contracting relationship by investing one party, the government, with power that the other party cannot enjoy. Not contracting for services is not an option, and government is the default service provider that sets the bargaining rules; the deck is stacked against the consumer before negotiating can begin.

The onus, moreover, is on the consumer to undo a contract that he’s been forced into, rather than on the government to provide high-quality services at competitive rates in order to keep the consumer’s business. Opt-out clauses make it difficult for the consumer to end his relationship with the government provider, and they force potential competitors to operate at a position of manifest disadvantage.

My wife and I took turns calling the City to ask about getting a new trash bin. No amount of cleaning and sterilization could rid the current bin of its stench. We couldn’t keep the bin inside our garage because of the oppressive odor. We left voicemails with different people in different departments at the City, begging for a new bin and explaining our situation, but our calls weren’t returned. There was no customer service of the kind a private company would have. After all, there was little danger of losing our business: the City was the service provider for nearly every neighborhood in town because of the difficulty private companies had breaking into a market controlled by government. We were, for now, stuck with the City’s inefficiencies and unresponsiveness. With much persistence my wife was eventually able to speak to an employee of the City. She was informed, however, that we could not get a new trash bin unless ours was broken or stolen. That stunk.

I learned in time about other drawbacks to our government-provided garbage service. During the holidays, collection schedules changed. When my wife and I lived in Atlanta and used a privately owned garbage company, our collection schedules never changed. Our collections were always on time. Our garbage collectors were kind and reliable because, if they weren’t, I could hire new collectors who would materialize in my driveway the next morning with shining smiles on their faces.

It’s simple enough to follow an altered holiday schedule, so that’s what we did in Auburn, only the collectors declined to follow that schedule themselves. After Thanksgiving, when trash tends to pile up, we placed our trash bin out on the street according to schedule. So did our neighbors. Yet nobody picked up our trash. Our entire street tried again the next week, on the appointed day, and once again nobody picked up the trash. A concerned neighbor called the City, and we were able to remedy the now-messy situation, but not without spending time and energy that could have been channeled toward better things.

When I was a child my brother and I were tasked each year with clearing trees, weeds, and shrubs that were growing along the pond in our backyard. We would pile sticks and sawed-up tree trunks and other debris on the curb of our driveway, along with bags of grass clippings, and our garbage collectors, who worked for a private company, would always pick up these items without question or complaint. We were so grateful that sometimes we’d leave them envelopes with extra cash to express our thanks.

In Auburn, however, I was once unable to squeeze an additional garbage bag into our trash bin, which was full, so I rolled the bin to the street and placed the additional bag beside it. I then lumbered inside for my morning coffee, when all of a sudden the garbage collector drove up and parked beside my bin. I watched from the window as he descended from his truck, shook his head, climbed back into his truck, picked up a pad and paper, and began scribbling with his pen. The next thing I knew he was issuing a yellow citation for an alleged infraction. It turned out to be a mere warning, but it indicated, right there in bold letters, that the next time we did something so egregious as putting our trash out for collection without using the bin, some repercussion — I forget what — would visit us.

When I think about the things the garbage collectors would remove from our driveway in Atlanta — an old door, a broken toilet, a malfunctioning lawnmower — I marvel that the City requires you to purchase tags at the Revenue Office if you wish to place things like dryers, water heaters, refrigerators, or microwaves on the street for garbage collection. Yet I remain optimistic, and not only because Joseph Salerno is coming to town to hold the newly endowed John V. Denson II chair in the Department of Economics at Auburn University.

I’m optimistic because I see some positive change. We recently organized a garage sale and came to discover, two days before the big day, that the City required a permit for such events. This time when we called the City to ask about the mandatory permit for garage sales, we received good news: those permits were no longer required as long as we conducted the sale in our own driveway. However minor, that’s progress. Perhaps it’ll spill over into other sectors of our little local community. Until then, War Eagle!

[UPDATE:  Two weeks after the Mises Institute published this piece, the City showed up on my driveway, removed the old trash bin and replaced it with a new trash bin.  Causation has never been established, but coincidence seems unlikely.]

Hayek, Statistics, and Trade-Cycle Theory

In Academia, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on February 11, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

Austrian economics is often caricatured and criticized because of its approach, or deliberate lack of an approach, to mathematical models, multivariable calculus, and econometrics. Attacks are leveled against Austrians such as Mises, Rothbard, and Kirzner for their failure or refusal to avail themselves of applied empirical research in their scholarship. The Austrian methodology most frequently targeted is praxeology.

It is not the purpose of this short article to refute these attacks or to explore their errors and merits. That has been done ably by others (see, for example, the series of debate-essays available here, here, here, and here). Nor does this article attempt to stand up for the deductive reasoning of praxeology or to defend its claims about a priori truths, a task better suited for a lengthy work of scholarship, not a short article. This piece instead asks one simple question: does Hayek’s early work on trade-cycle theory complicate stereotypes about the methods of Austrian economics or clarify the manner in which Austrians can and do approach economic theory? The answer, of course, is yes.

Hayek proposed that the purpose and function of trade cycle theory was strictly limited: it was “to explain how certain prices are determined” and “to state their influence on production and consumption.” Expanding trade cycle theory beyond that purpose and function was, he believed, fallacious. “Any attempt to forecast the trend of economic development,” he claimed, “or to influence it by measures based on an examination of existing conditions, must presuppose certain quite definite conceptions as to the necessary course of economic phenomena.” But economic development — and the trade cycle in particular — is too important and complex to be guided by mere suppositions regarding matters about which there is much disagreement.

That is precisely what was happening in the 1920s when statistical designs and methods were growing in popularity and replacing general equilibrium theory, away from which Hayek himself moved later in his career. Economists at this time were beginning to treat statistics as conditions or proxies for theory (and even as theories unto themselves) rather than as mechanisms for testing and verifying established theories such as basic deductive inference or feature-by-feature comparison of the natural rate of interest (i.e., “equilibrium”) with the existing market rate.

According to Hayek, empirical research either affirms or discredits given methodologies but does not introduce new theories to explain fluctuating trade cycles. Amassing statistics, he maintained, is not the same as adducing or formulating economic laws. Statistics are nevertheless useful because, he explains, “there can be no doubt that trade cycle theory can only gain full practical importance through exact measurement of the actual course of the phenomena it describes.” Statistics, however, will not cultivate theoretical excellence of a kind that should direct trade-cycle theory or the policies that flow from it.

Statistics are useful in the negative sense: they disprove and discredit theories rather than affirm or prove them. They are corroborative but not ultimate guides; they are useful only to the extent that they enable us to make accurate predictions about future conditions, e.g., “to infer from the comparative movements of certain prices and quantities an imminent change in the direction of those movements.” Once statistics are gathered, a theory must be extracted from them–-they create inferences to be studied and aggregated, not comprehensive theories to be canonized. That is why Hayek declares that the “value of statistical research depends primarily upon the soundness of the theoretical conceptions on which it is based.” Statistics can be made to prove different points, but only a theoretically sound approach to classifying and elucidating statistics will bring about reliable forecasts.

Correct business forecasting depends on correct theorizing; therefore, Hayek propounds, we must labor to attain correct theories, never settling with what we perceive to be complete knowledge. Traditional equilibrium theory is not enough for him because it does not adequately account for money, a commodity or medium of exchange whose very status as such depends on its wide use and general acceptance on the market, not to mention its ability to reflect the subjective values of producers and consumers. The production of money and the often arbitrary increase in its supply by banks distort the natural interest rate and call into question the usefulness of equilibrium theory in a money economy.

Hayek demonstrates in his early work on the trade cycle that statistics and theories can be interactive and participatory so long as the former isn’t treated as a substitute for the latter. Statistics alone aren’t pure math, of course, and the creation of economic simulacra in the form of models and diagrams can lead to the type of scientism — the privileging of data over theory — that Hayek decries. Math is a term for what is done with data already gathered; it refers to many topics of study but in this context to the deductive and systematic study of facts and figures and their observable patterns to arrive at true concepts and accurate measurements regarding the concrete conditions of our phenomenal world. So understood, math is not the ultima ratio but an indispensable tool, not an end but a means to an end. Only from this premise does Hayek’s trade-cycle theory become fully comprehensible, and although his paradigms of trade-cycle theory and equilibrium evolved over time, his foundational approach to the role of statistics and theories remained crucial to his thinking.


Note: Quotations come from F.A. Hayek, Prices and Production and Other Works: F.A. Hayek on Money, the Business Cycle, and the Gold Standard. Edited with an Introduction by Joseph T. Salerno. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008.

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview with Troy Camplin, Interdisciplinary Scholar and Author of Diaphysics

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Communication, Creative Writing, Humanities, Information Design, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Theatre, Western Kentucky University, Writing on May 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall interviews Troy Camplin.


Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas.  He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.  


Q:  Your interdisciplinary background seems to lend itself to commentary on this site.  Tell us a bit about that background and a bit about your thoughts on the value of interdisciplinary scholarship.

A:  I have an unusual educational background that I only made more unusual in my independent studies. My undergraduate degree is in Recombinant Gene Technology, with a minor in chemistry, from Western Kentucky University. When I am interested in something, I spend all of my time learning about it. So, as an undergrad, I not only learned about molecular biology through my classes, but also in my independent reading. I read the journals and I read even popular works on molecular biology. This led me to John Gribbin’s book In Search of the Double Helix, in which he talks a great deal about quantum physics. I didn’t know a thing about quantum physics, and I really didn’t understand what he was saying about it in that book, so I decided to read his other books on quantum physics, including In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. I cannot say I understood quantum physics much after reading that book, either, but I was hooked, and read every popular book on quantum physics I could read. In addition, I ran across several other popular science books that introduced me to what would become much more central to my thinking, including Gleick’s Chaos and Ilya Prigogine’s works on self-organization. These provided several of the seeds of my development as an interdisciplinary scholar.

Another element to my interdisciplinary development was a class I pretty much lucked into. Undergraduates have to take several required courses, of course, and one semester I wanted to take a New Testament class with Joseph Trafton (who was highly recommended, and whose class I eventually did take), but it was full. So I took an Intro. To Philosophy class just to get the hours in that section in. By chance I chose a class taught by Ronald Nash—a random choice that ended up changing my life completely.

Nash taught his class using three texts: a collection of Plato’s dialogues and two books Nash himself wrote. One of the books Nash wrote was Poverty and Wealth: A Christian Defense of Capitalism. It was through Nash that I was introduced to free market economics. I was hooked. I read everything I could find in the university library with the word “capitalism” in the title or as the subject. I read Walter Williams, Milton Friedman, Hayek, and a little book titled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal  by Ayn Rand. The latter, of course, led me to Atlas Shrugged, and that led me to the rest of her work. Rand hooked me on the idea of being a fiction writer and made me interested in philosophy. I began reading the fiction writers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why) and the philosophers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why). I read and fell in love with Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky, Aristotle and Nietzsche. Particularly Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, whose tragic worldviews were deeply appealing to me. Nietzsche deepened my appreciation for philosophy, and introduced me to tragedy. Read the rest of this entry »


In Austrian Economics, Libertarianism on November 14, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Check out MisesWiki, a new project dedicated to advancing Austrian economics.

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