The Septic State

by Tom Ender

I like to observe and note instances of universal principle in my everyday life. The habit supplies me with examples which are often helpful when trying to explain large ideas to others. As an example, when I discuss spontaneous order, which I consider a very important idea, I don’t usually start by giving the example of the free market. Since there are so many people who, rightly or wrongly, have an ingrained hostility to the market I choose other examples first. One of my favorite everyday life examples of spontaneous order is language. What could be more commonplace to most human beings than language? Language holds great beauty, as in a poem. On the other hand, language supports humor, as in a comic limerick. In any case, language has no controlling central planners. American English evolves over time through the common speech of millions.

Like language this essay concerns everyday things. It begins close to my home, in fact, in my backyard, literally. It begins with my septic tank. My house is on a small wooded hill in what was once a farmer’s field. As the farmer aged he reduced his farming activity. He needed less land for farming and sold some parcels of the land to those who wished to build homes in the countryside. Over the last few years the fear of “unsewered subdivisions” has generated considerable coverage in the local press. The county government now insists that I have my home’s septic system pumped out and inspected by the person who pumps it out, every three years. Before the ordinance mandating pumping every three years, I had the pumping done every two years.

Sewers are usually centrally planned systems. On the other hand, septic systems are decentralized. Both types of system require maintenance. The person who pumps out my septic tank performs a real service. That service is offered by competing businesses in the area. It is a service I need. It was also a service I actively sought before the State mandated it.

After the septic system service people finish pumping out my septic tank, they do an inspection and fill out the County Environmental Health Bureau form. They check the septic tank to make sure sewage is not leaking. Seeping sewage could spread bacteria which breed in a septic tank. After the brief inspection the septic service person gives me the filled-in form which I must turn over to the county bureau, along with a fee, of course.

I was late filing my form last year. Rather than risk a mix-up about fee amounts, because of possible late charges, I delivered the form in person, bringing my checkbook and pen. I was relieved that this visit to a county building didn’t involve a body cavity search. Prior visits to a different municipal building (on probate business) did involve metal detectors (with extensive wanding). I try to avoid such visits, but still did not want to take the chance of a situation developing with the County Environmental Health Bureau.

After I arrived at the bureau’s room it took only a minute or so to hand in the form. I was feeling mischievous, so after explaining that I came in person to avoid any possible problems with being late and then turning in the form, I asked if that was all. Of course, it wasn’t. I hadn’t given them the filing fee. This was pointed out to me and I said something like “Oh, you want the money?” The bureau employee replied, “We can’t work for free.” I wasn’t really concerned about whether they got paid, but didn’t say so.

I wondered to myself, “What service are these ‘paper pushers’ providing?” Unlike the person who pumps out my septic tank, these people were not obviously providing me a service. Their record keeping was not something I sought out when I was freely getting my septic system pumping done. Their record keeping was now mandated by ordinance. The inspection paperwork had to be filed with them and the fee paid, or I would be threatened with fines, a loss of my property and other undesirable consequences.

My initial emotional reaction was to resent the comment of the paper-pusher. I did not choose to use their service, but I was mandated by law to go through the process and to pay. However, after further reflection, someone must have been benefiting from the filing work of this office. Who?

I thought about how the details of the situation might be different in a truly free society. As a responsible person living under liberty I would have home owner’s insurance because of concern over managing the risks of liability. Having such insurance would be advantageous and not require a State mandate. In order to reduce the risks of a possible liability suit the insurance company selling me a policy in a free society might insist that I have septic system inspection papers filed somewhere, possibly with them. Such a strategy is the application of voluntary contractual means (the free market) achieving the same stated intentions as the municipal ordinance. So after some thought it seemed to me that the record keepers may actually be performing a service that would be wanted in a free society. The differences between my real world and a free society were not the result of the filing of paperwork which might occur under liberty, but were a result of the mandates of the county government.

Most record keepers (whether paper-pushers or data base administrators) have a function that would be needed in a free society often in a risk management area. They likely have little responsibility for their jobs being “nationalized” by the State. Those who react nastily to officious bureaucrats have my sympathy, but where does one draw the line? Often those “bureaucrats” are merely doing a job such as record keeping. Perhaps they should not be officious, but there are officious and irritating people in the private sector too. In considering the private sector one might say that at least they don’t consume taxes. However, that often isn’t true now, if it ever was. Consider “private” concerns that lobby for and receive huge government subsidies. There are more of them all the time.

The greatest differences between the real everyday world and a free society arise from mandates which enforce government-run / tax-funded State monopolies. Subsidies for favored businesses make for less extreme but similar gray areas, but they too are the result of State action. The people aggressing against others are the mandaters (legislators, judges, and government executives) and enforcers, the true agents of the State, not the lowly paper-pushers.

The mandaters of the State disallow people freely choosing how to pursue happiness in their lives and protect their property. Instead, they mandate the choice they see as being proper for others. They steal the freedom of the people.

As H. L. Mencken said, “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” Like a leaking septic tank the insidious effect of the State’s aggression is similar to a bacterial infection -- sepsis. The State’s aggression seeps throughout society like sewage infecting formerly healthy voluntary contractual regions and communicating the disease of coercion. In my “progressive” neighborhood people have misapprehended the importance of septic tanks and placed fear of their leaking over fear of a much greater danger: the Septic State. The Septic State and its aggression infect today’s society.

published at Endervidualism on  February 23, 2004

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