What’s Wrong with Waste?: An Answer, with Leftist Implications

Evan Linn, Spring 2015

By: Evan Linn, PC ’17, for the Spring 2015 Issue (PDF version)

What’s Wrong with Waste?: An Answer, with Leftist Implications

What’s wrong with waste? To be clear: I think there is something wrong with it. This puts me at something of a disadvantage, at least among contemporary American leftists who think our “cult of productivity” is so pernicious that wasting time, for instance, might be the only way to escape it. I think the cult of productivity is also wrong, but not because it wants us to use our time efficiently. Rather, it’s because it exalts efficiency for the wrong reasons. Efficiency, after all, just means using some resource well, so it can only be a meaningful value if we work to understand what it means to use something well.

This is where the cult of productivity goes wrong. It assumes that using all resources well involves using them with an aim to producing something else that will appeal to someone else. For college students, that “something else” would be an assignment; for food service workers, that would be a satisfied customer and a paycheck; for a parent, that would be a successful, “well-adjusted” child.

It’s clear even from such a small list of potential “products” that the member of the cult of productivity needs to rethink her sworn creed, since it certainly looks like the reasons for which a franchise employee works to create a satisfied customer and the reasons a college student works to produce a well-crafted essay are different. (If these two “workers” are housed in the same body, that worker is faced with a whole set of difficult second-order considerations. Which kind of work should she prioritize? And according to what set of criteria?) If those reasons are different, the standards for evaluating each kind of work will be different also. In turn, we should be open to the possibility that “waste” could mean radically different things in relation to different kinds of work.

Here, then, are some ways that waste could be wrong, which need not be mutually exclusive.

(1) Waste could be wrong because by engaging in waste one wrongs oneself. I could tell myself, for example, that I’m wasting my money by spending it on useless widgets. Or that I’m wasting my musical talent by performing terrible songs at a terrible club in order to impress people I’ll never see again. In cases like these, I’m doing myself a disservice by misusing something that belongs to me.

(2) Waste could be wrong because it wrongs someone else. For instance, I may tell a friend that she’s just “wasting my time” because she’s troubling me with something that’s objectively insignificant (say, the plot of a favorite TV show that I can’t stand) or even with something that’s objectively significant but relatively insignificant compared to my concerns at the time (say, she had a fight with a friend but my mother just died).

(3) Waste could be wrong because it wrongs the very thing that is wasted. I could waste my priceless Miró by using it as a makeshift curtain, or by selling it to pay off my mounting widget-debt.

It’s not clear to me that either of these options stands out as the correct analysis of “waste.” But I think leftists should favor (2), because it will help us to explain some of our discomfort with private property as it’s commonly understood.

Imagine you’re stranded on a desert island after a powerful storm. You have three other friends with you. Suppose there are just 100 coconuts available on the island and each of you, being friendly and egalitarian, takes just 25. However, one of them (call her Sheila) foolishly fails to store her coconuts properly; as a result, 15 of her coconuts rot immediately and she is left with just 10. If we take (2) seriously, this situation may be one in which you are wronged by Sheila’s failure to care for her possessions adequately. After all, if you had known ahead of time that Sheila was a poor coconut-steward, you wouldn’t have let her take so many coconuts. In a sense, then, she has abused your trust, since if you had only been able to foresee her foolishness you all would have been better off, since if you kept upholding your good leftist egalitarian credentials, you’d each have 5 additional coconuts (15 ÷ 3). As it stands, however, everyone is worse off compared to the ideal scenario except Sheila, who has exactly as many coconuts (10) as she would have had if you’d known how poor her coconut-husbandry was.

You don’t have to believe private property is a myth or ought to be abolished (though, of course, you well might) in order to accept the results of this thought experiment. You only have to believe that rights to property entail certain obligations on behalf of the property-holder; in particular, these obligations require the property-holder to exercise care, prudence, and perhaps even respect for the property they own. For even if we do have strong property rights, it’s not as if the property we own has been ours for all time. Rather, we acquired it by some means—and the means by which we acquired it area consequence of the system of distribution that’s made various decisions about how, when, and why people have legitimate claims on property. And those decisions may not be ethically defensible. In particular, a system is not defensible in ethical terms according to the argument I have advanced if it apportions economic resources such that they are likely to be wasted.

On the view I’m suggesting here, waste is wrong because it wrongs people by disregarding their claims on the resource that’s wasted. This view has the advantage of providing a reason to think that property rights may be consistent with other more traditional commitments of the Left, such as radical redistribution of wealth. For if property rights come with concomitant duties— in particular, duties of stewardship with regard to the property in question—then they are consistent with redistribution, and indeed will help to explain how and when it is justified. Redistribution will be justified on this view when a property-holder is reasonably thought to be wasting, or likely to waste, the property she holds. For, like Sheila, this property holder will be just as well off under redistribution as she would be otherwise: if she’s wasting some of her property, then if the wasted share is redistributed to others she will be doing just as well in that case as she was originally.

Waste is wrong because it wrongs people by disregarding their claims on the resource that’s wasted.

But, you might point out, doesn’t this view ask too much of us? Surely if we have rights over anything, we have rights over our own talents and capacities. But if our rights over productive property are only justified insofar as we don’t waste that property, then it seems to follow that we only have the right to control the use of our own talents insofar as we direct them toward some socially useful end. And that looks like it has some pretty pernicious consequences for freedom of choice. If that’s true, then the leftist’s alternative to the cult of productivity doesn’t look much like an alternative at all: the member of the cult of productivity wants us to work all the time at someone else’s direction for profit, while the leftist wants us to work all the time at someone else’s direction to avoid waste.

The leftist could offer a few potential solutions to this puzzle. First, she could suggest that property rights can only be meaningfully assigned over resources that can be transferred from one person to another. If talents aren’t transferrable in this way, then it will not follow that we ought to use our talents to the fullest extent possible to bring about socially useful ends. Relatedly, she could advance a distinction between requiring people to behave in a certain way at the direction of others and requiring them to give up certain pieces of their property to others.

I think the second response is more promising, because it gets at the reasons we might have for eliminating waste in the first place. I’ve suggested that waste is ethically suspect because it implies a disregard for others in one’s community, a disregard which may be captured as the failure to uphold one’s duties with respect to some piece of property when one has been given a right over that piece of property. Equivalently, this requirement could be phrased as follows: rights are granted over a piece of property in order that the property be put to appropriate use. This implies that when the property is not being put to a use that could reasonably be regarded as appropriate, the right is to that extent no longer operative.

The caveat that the use must be “appropriate” is important here, because it implies that the standards for the use of one kind of property may be different from those that govern the use of other kinds. In particular, it may be that personal talents are appropriately controlled only by the people whose talents they are. But the same does not seem to hold, say, of a coconut, because there is no basic standard by which we can ascribe coconuts to owners that lies outside our standards for what it means to put property to decent use.

This returns me to where we started. At the beginning of this article, I urged us not to evaluate all uses of all resources in the same way; i.e., according to some standard of what ends we should be (efficiently) pursuing. What I’ve tried to accomplish since then is to show that it’s still possible to understand what waste is even if we take my advice. On my account, waste isn’t wrong merely because it’s inefficient according to some standard of what goals we should efficiently pursue. Rather, it’s wrong because it denies others the chance of pursuing any goal at all with the resources that have been wasted. It is wrong because it implies a disregard for the reason why property is justified: namely, as one way for societies to give its members the ability to make use of available resources. Waste is wrong, then, precisely because it involves no use whatsoever of the property it squanders.

Image: Ian Burt