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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Decommodified Life

Why “free at the point of use” is so important…

My friend Pete Davis recently recounted the inspiring story of CEPTIA—the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, a.k.a. the reason you get to pee for free. In the 1970s, a group of high school students, annoyed by seeing pay toilets at a turnpike restaurant, decided to launch a campaign to make toilets free. At the time, there were tens of thousands of coin-operated toilets all across the country. The group, Pete says, “started a newsletter, ‘The Free Toilet Paper,’ published how-to guides for local lobbying and soon grew to 1,500 members and 7 chapters. They even gave out awards for those who helped establish free toilets in their area.” Co-founder Ira Gessel said “When a man’s or woman’s natural body functions are restricted because he or she doesn’t have a piece of change, there is no true freedom.” And they won! CEPTIA got pay toilets banned in cities and states across the country. Pete cites this as an inspiring example of civic activism getting the goods, and says that every time we use a free bathroom, we should remember that “our society need not always be how it always has been” and we get to co-create our country.

Really, free toilets are kind of a remarkable thing here in the great home of Free Market Capitalism. Europe, for all its social democratic benevolence, still has a norm that it’s okay to charge people to use the toilet. I was in Britain a few months ago and shocked that even though they have a free National Health Service they somehow think it’s reasonable to charge 20p to use the lavatory in the Underground. I found myself at Cockfosters station desperately needing to go and trying frantically to figure out which of their stupid little coins were which. (I felt distinctly unfostered.) Thanks to the high school activists of CEPTIA, we’re more socialist than Europe on one important metric. 

I have no doubt that if there was a good amount of money to be made in pay toilets, there would be substantial pressure to accept them. Because capitalism has vowed to devour every last corner of the world, I would not be surprised if they came back with a vengeance someday. It’s worth appreciating, though, just how precious what we have is, and why it’s so precious. What’s wrong with a pay toilet? Our first instinct is to think about extremely poor people, who wouldn’t be able to afford to use the bathroom. And, indeed, that does make them cruel. But the vast majority of people are capable of getting hold of a quarter. Are pay toilets bad even for those of us who can afford them?

I think most of us—at least here in the United States—would say that they are. The problem that the high schoolers of CEPTIA had was not that they were too broke to afford the toilet, it was that toilets didn’t seem like a thing that you should have to pay for at the point of use, because it places an unnecessary inconvenience between the average person and access to a basic service. “People are sick of going in and having to pay for basic necessities,” said one Massachusetts legislator who sponsored an anti-pay toilet bill. Not that people were unable to afford it, but that they were sick of it. 

The argument that unfolded in the ’70s over pay toilets was predictable. Those who operated them said that opponents were ignorant of economics: It costs money to maintain and clean a restroom, and critics were asking to be freeloaders. There is no such thing as a free toilet, Milton Friedman would have said, only paying for toilets using Other People’s Money. You’re just shifting the cost elsewhere instead of having consumers pay a small amount for the privilege of having their waste disposed of.

Why does this perspective feel so wrong to many of us? I think the answer can tell us a lot about why so many young people are drawn to socialism and to “free college” and “free health care.” The principle we operate on is: When you need to go to the bathroom, all you should have to think about is going to the bathroom. Bringing money into it adds a small amount of psychological strain, even when you can afford it. I had a pocket full of coins when I was standing in Cockfosters. I still resented having to take a moment away from thinking about peeing to think about sifting through coins.

There is something incredibly liberating about “decommodified” services. One reason a public library is so great, and they’re so popular among millennials, is that it’s a place where you don’t have to think about money. You can go into the library and sit for as long as you like and you never have to buy anything. When you take out books for research, you can think entirely about the books, without having to think about how much they cost. By contrast, I am always stressed when I walk around New York City, because if I want to sit down I know I will have to buy something, and then I’ll also be wondering how long the granola bar I bought reasonably entitles me to sit down before the staff get annoyed. Economist Noah Smith wrote about the “constant stream of mental effort” he found himself having to exert in Japan, where there were no free public parks or free wi-fi or free public drinking fountains.

For my upcoming book Why You Should Be A Socialist, I asked a lot of friends and acquaintances what their “utopias” would be, in order to get a sense of what the left vision for the world looks like. It was striking just how many of the things they described were different forms of “decommodification,” taking things off the market and making them free to access. Why do people want free college? Because debt is a terrible psychological burden, and it would be so much easier to enjoy college and flourish in it if you could just go and sign up for courses and take them. A free community college, where anyone can just go and learn, doesn’t put barriers between people and knowledge. Why are so many of us on the left horrified by the concept of “school lunch debt”? Because kids should get to just go and eat lunch. They shouldn’t have to think about money, and nor should their parents. Lunch is something children should just be entitled to have. Public school itself is the same, and I’ve written before about how disturbing it would be if we financed K-12 education like we financed college: by making children take on debt that they spend years paying off. It’s such a relief when things are free at the point of use.

As I say, this is true even when you are able to pay. My mother hates having to deal with her insurance company and hospital billing department, even though she has the money to pay her medical bills. It’s not just the poor who benefit from free health care. We all do, because we all get to focus on healing and taking care of ourselves rather than having to fill out forms and pay bills and negotiate rates. 

I was thinking of the effect that commodification has on the non-poor when I saw this horrifying proposal for a “pay-per-use park bench.” It is covered in spikes, and you have to put a coin in a slot to make the spikes retract so that the bench becomes usable. (Presumably, if you doze off and run out of time, you get impaled in the ass.) Designed in 2008, it’s supposedly an “art project” intended as commentary, but I can easily see cities someday embracing it. (After all, anti-homeless spikes are a real thing, paid toilets are a real thing, why wouldn’t this just be a logical application of the market principle that you get what you pay for?) Obviously this kind of bench would be yet another act of despicable cruelty toward homeless people, but looking at it I also realized how well it illustrates the bad effects of commodification on everyone. I, a person who could pay for a park bench, would be uneasy on this thing, even if I knew I’d paid for way more time than I needed. Paying for water fountains and benches and to go and take a walk round the park detracts from the enjoyment of fountains and benches and parks. 

I want to just be able to do things. To get on the streetcar without having to worry whether I have exact change, or to get on the subway without having to figure out how the ticket machine works and go through a toll gate. To go to school without having to figure out why I’ve got a $300 “financial hold” preventing my course registration from being approved. To be able to be pleased when I see an ambulance arrive if I’m hurt, rather than instantly thinking about the $900 it could cost. To have the question of whether to go and see the doctor be entirely about whether I need to see a doctor and not at all about whether I can afford to see one. To not have money constantly intruding into my thoughts and experiences.

My hometown of Sarasota has a beautiful beach in it, and it’s free to park and free to walk along the beach. I hadn’t appreciated how wonderful it was to have a “socialist beach” until I found out that there are places without socialist beaches (Under New Jersey’s “beach badge” system, apparently, “you can visit towns like Belmar that will charge you $2 an hour to park plus $8 per beach badge for those over the age of 16. Throw in a spouse, a couple of high school kids and the in-laws, and you’re looking at close to $60 for the privilege to run your toes through the sand.”) Of course, there are those who would argue that we’re better off charging for things at the point of use, because it’s a good way to determine who has access to scarce resources: My hometown recently started charging for parking downtown, after many years of free parking, and it’s easier to find a space now. But it also means that the experience is different in damaging ways. Now I’ve constantly got to remember how much time I’ve got on the meter, and I’ve got to waste my time going to a stupid machine between parking my car and meeting my friend. Commodification introduces new inconveniences that get between us and what we’d like to be doing.

Socialist ideas about having things “free at the point of use” are in part about making life easier and less stressful. Now, you can still have places that aren’t pay-per-use and are privatized—a shopping mall is free to go and sit in, even though it is a private space, and the post office is pay-per-use despite being public. It’s possible to have business models where you pay a bundle up front and then get “free at the point of use” services—like a gym membership or a cruise, and the “socialism vs. capitalism” distinction is bigger than just “do you pay a lump sum for many things or do you pay individually all the time”—it’s about ownership, and who gets what, and who decides things. But no matter how we constitute our economic system, getting money out of people’s worries should be one of our main goals, and it should be an absolute socialist principle that you always get to pee for free.

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