Mark Landsbaum: Water woes could lead to ‘the hammer’

The State of California can now fine you, if you water your lawn and a drop of water goes into the street. If someone thinks you are using too much water on your plants, you can be reported and you can expect a visit from the cops—since they are no longer catching and detaining illegal aliens, they have time to harass you about over watering your petunia’s.

Instead of a stick, how about a carrot. Let water be put on the free market. Allow private firms build dams and drill for wells. When government controls an item, or taxes it, we get less. We need more water, and for the people to decided where best used, not a cop or politician.

“Unlike the free market, government will either ration or impose arbitrary price penalties unrelated to supply and demand. A free market would allow supply and demand to drive prices to reflect water’s true value, and whatever rationing that resulted would be freely chosen by buyers, not capriciously imposed by bureaucrats and politicians.”



Mark Landsbaum: Water woes could lead to ‘the hammer’

Free market would be better at solving water distribution problems than government fixes.

By MARK LANDSBAUM, LA Register, 7/16/14

In some parts of the United States, people are experiencing drought. Not everywhere, of course – the U.S. is a diverse nation. It’s plenty wet in Pennsylvania, New York and New England, but in California and Texas not so much.

The problem is, when the going gets tough, people turn to the government rather than to what works to solve problems like drought. What works almost always is the free market’s unfettered decision-making, without government interference. Instead, what we see are schemes such as in Fresno.

The city of Fresno announced not long ago it will impose a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use for all residents and businesses over the summer. Previously, the city urged a voluntary 10 percent reduction. Voluntary doesn’t work. People accustomed to using as much water as they please see little need to voluntarily reduce how much they use.

Unlike the free market, government will either ration or impose arbitrary price penalties unrelated to supply and demand. A free market would allow supply and demand to drive prices to reflect water’s true value, and whatever rationing that resulted would be freely chosen by buyers, not capriciously imposed by bureaucrats and politicians.

When government decides it is time to get serious, compliance isn’t voluntary. Government will monitor your water meters, spy on you hosing down your driveway and scrutinize your lawn sprinklers. When you exceed government’s standard of “too much,” the hammer will drop. You will be fined, otherwise financially penalized or, who knows, maybe worse. Looking for an easy fix to life’s travails, you have given them the power to do this.

Government regulation, such as how much water you may use, is a blunt instrument. All government controls are.

For example, the 1 million people who the Washington Post reports are being paid either too much or too little in taxpayer-funded subsidies. The clumsy means the government uses to determine subsidies is the blunt instrument. It can’t even give away money effectively.

Nevertheless, the nation’s inclination increasingly is to turn to government’s blunt hammer to quickly fix what an unfettered free market would naturally correct. Granted, water is a complex problem, in large part because there are great quantities of it in some places and not much elsewhere, and much of it is not owned in common. Still, the problem, even during periods of drought, isn’t a lack of water, it’s the distribution of water.

If water were treated like bread or even gasoline, supply and demand would solve the problem. If users saw the price of their water soar, they would use far less of it. As prices rise, solutions like desalinization, treatment of sewage and other “used” water and the importing of water via pipelines from distant lakes and rivers become more practical. That leads to greater demand for those alternatives, spurring investment and development, ultimately making them more affordable.

Many government agencies and quasi-public agencies like water districts eventually will resort to higher prices by imposing fines and penalties to curb use. Fines and penalties are essentially surtaxes on the price of water. No one asks the taxpayer how much tax he wants to pay.

Government’s arbitrary financial penalties are nothing like fluctuating prices in a free market, where supply and demand, not bureaucrats and politicians, determine highs and lows. The market determines the actual value of what is bought and sold. Politicians and bureaucrats determine an artificial value, greatly influenced by non-market factors, not the least of which is rewarding favored constituencies and meeting politically inspired (and entirely arbitrary) goals of “fairness.”

Because government’s blunt instrument doesn’t correct the underlying cause of a problem, like water distribution as opposed to its alleged shortage, the best result only temporarily conceals the problem. Inevitably, the government’s interference either worsens the situation or creates a new problem.

To a blunt instrument like government’s hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The hammer-wielders aren’t likely to voluntarily lay aside their instrument and allow free markets to fix what the government has made worse. The next inevitability is that government applies more interference to fix the problem created by the previous government interference. When rationing and fines don’t solve the problem of water distribution, be prepared for the government to impose more rationing and fines.

The nature of government is the same everywhere. The government may ask for voluntary compliance, which Fresno demonstrated is a fool’s errand. But inevitably government will turn to what it does naturally – force compliance.

Why would you be surprised that if you give people power over you, they use it?

Resorting to the uncomfortable adjustment of supply and demand wouldn’t solve the water distribution problem overnight, and wouldn’t happen without complaint. But it would work. Resorting to government’s blunt instrument will generate discomfort and complaint too. But it won’t work.


About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.


  1. I think I’ll jump the gun here, and call in on SF Bat area, and Hollywood…

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