A bus stop on my way to work featured an ad that said the following:
Loyola students banned bottled water because they believe that clean water is a basic human right that should never be sold.
It went on to state how many fewer plastic bottles were sold as a result (at Loyola, of course – they were probably just sold elsewhere, since Loyola is a tiny percentage of overall water bottle demand). I hoped that the ad was exaggerating, but the relevant website uses similar language: The promoters of the ban “feel that safe and accessible water is a fundamental human right and must not be handled in ways that put profits over people.” It’s certainly not identical to water “should never be sold” but I believe it shares a similar mindset. I’ll be generous to the students at Loyola who passed this ban and assume that the majority did so because they believed it would be effective in reducing plastic use, which in turn would be good for the environment. I don’t believe the latter has been established, but we can skip that for now. The more troubling parts are the apparent beliefs of some in the Loyola student body and administration.
First, the statement that clean “water is a fundamental human right.” I understand that universal access to clean water is desirable – it can be argued that clean water is what makes our modern urban lives possible – but it’s a big step to make it a fundamental human right. After all, clean water is, among other things, a product: though it does occur in nature, clean, drinkable water doesn’t occur in nature nearly enough to support the world population. To get it to everyone requires time and energy. If clean water is a fundamental right, everyone is entitled to it. This creates a huge disconnect: suddenly everyone demands clean water but no one wants to provide it? And why?
Because, second, the promoters argue that a product that is a fundamental right should “never be sold.” I’m not entirely sure what they envision instead: perhaps water provided by government to everyone. That has been tried, and it generally fails. Even today, some of the worst outcomes occur where markets are prohibited and instead central entities engage in distribution. The prohibition on organ sales, for example, has resulted in a massive but easily solvable shortage of healthy organs for needy patients. Cows are sold, and they’re doing fine. Tigers and elephants, not so much. (Not elephant tusks, mind you. If someone owned elephants, we’d have more elephants and more ivory. But that’s for another day.)
Water today in most countries is “sold” at a massive discounts: municipal water supplies don’t charge market value for the water they supply to households. This makes water affordable for the poor, but it also creates the incentive to overuse: with prices low for rich and poor alike, there’s no reason to conserve water. This is already creating shortages – in the US, the Colorado waters are way overused by states downstream. In the world, the poorest are getting hit the hardest (good luck, Yemen). This is bound to get worse unless incentives are created for conservation, and that means pricing. And pricing means selling.
Wanting something important not to be sold shows a terrible misunderstanding of the forces that actually bring clean water (and food, and phones, and everything) to people. It is BECAUSE it’s sold that clean water is plentiful: someone makes money collecting dirty water, purifying it, bottling it, and delivering it to your local supermarket where you can pick up a refrigerated bottle for 99 cents. The only reason some people don’t have clean water is because they don’t have money to buy it. To fix the problem of access to clean water, the only workable solution is to make everyone rich enough to buy it at market prices. This isn’t easy, of course, but unlike promises of “universal high quality education” or “universal high quality medical care,” this one is achievable. I’ve promised some thoughts on poverty recently, and they’re coming. This is just an instance of the central aspect of my thoughts: to get people what they need, make them wealthy enough to afford it.