We face the inexorable tragedy of government-provided goods. Toilets, like everything else in life, come in gradations. There is a trade-off between various grades of clean versus cheap. Not everyone wants the same thing. Some might want $28.50 trips to beautiful refreshment stops. Some might be willing to put up with a bit of smell and grunginess if it only costs a quarter. No public allocation can bring itself to admit that gradations in quality versus cost are desirable. Toilet inequity! That’s where we started. We get nothing at immense cost.
The ban on pay toilets is only part of the problem. As a bit of research or basic common sense make clear, the key to clean, safe bathrooms is attendants. Real, human attendants.
This is not a fun job. It is well suited to new immigrants, especially those who don’t speak English, are not well attuned to American culture, and have little education or training. We have quite a few of such people, and they need the work. But now ask, what will happen if the attendants must be regular employees, paid $15 an hour, with an eight-hour schedule, rest breaks, health insurance, a retirement plan, overtime, e-verified immigration status, and the full complement of US labor regulation? How will it work if in addition they are unionized government employees? Staffing costs are pretty much how San Francisco got to $28.50 per flush. Doesn’t everyone deserve such a decent job, you say? Indeed they do. Everyone deserves $50 an hour. But at $28.50 per flush, you won’t have pay toilets. And the immigrants will not have any jobs at all.
Like so many problems in the US, this one can be solved with one simple policy: get out of the way. Allow businesses to build, maintain, and charge for toilets. Allow people to pay for a service so dearly needed. If we can’t free a market for a service that literally costs 25 cents, heaven help the rest of the economy.
Indeed, a good place to start would simply be to let restaurants, bars, gas stations, or retail stores charge for the restrooms they have now. The current system (legal or no), that you have to buy something to use the restroom, dramatically raises the price—now you need to buy $10 of something you don’t want instead of paying 25 cents for the thing you do want. And most stores just don’t let people use restrooms at all.
I keep waiting for America’s libertarian moment. We’ll know it has arrived when pay toilets return.
John H. Cochrane is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and distinguished senior fellow at Chicago Booth. This essay is adapted from a post on his blog, The Grumpy Economist.