This is a political science essay about public toilets.
Family obligations as well as my inclination cause me to spend four hours each weekday afternoon on a well known Santa Cruz beach. It’s Cowell Beach about which I wrote about a year ago on the occasion of another (fake) pollution scare. Four hours is a long time, even if I read there and swim quite a bit while I wait. (I would show you a picture of me in my Speedo but I don’t want you distracted from the serious point of my story.) I am practically forced to eavesdrop on young mothers and I can’t help seeing them. (Of which more another day, probably.) They spend a lot of time planning the logistics of taking one of two kids to the toilet for 20 minutes. (Who will take care of the one who does not need to go?)
There are two toilets on the edge of that beach, two. On a nice afternoon, there are hundreds of people on that small beach. (There are two other public toilets nearby but they belong to another, even more crowded beach.) In the middle of a nice afternoon when school is out like now, the lines to the two toilets are ten-deep. Once, it was fully sixteen deep. It’s enraging; it makes people furious; it ruins their day at the beach; it’s inhumane toward older people.
Here is a detour. The dearth of toilets does not pose much of a problem for local children though, to those who are used to the beach. You can spot them in the water to their waist, with the satisfied and relieved look of anyone doing Number One well at ease. Of course, for the many skittish, ill-informed, Apocalypse-minded citizens of Santa Cruz, it’s one more reason to worry about pollution. They already believe that torrents of human feces come down the hills on a small river unto that beach. That’s completely false, completely wrong. They worry about duck shit and seabird shit in the water. That’s not so wrong. And then, of course, the hundred-plus resident sea lions must contribute something once in a while. They are not all so fastidious as to go do it away from the beach, especially the teenagers. (One to three in sea lion years.)
The unpleasant toilet situation at Cowell Beach has lasted as long as I remember, fifteen years, at least. Now, I tell myself that if that beach were administered as a private, profit-making concession, within a year or two, there would be a ten or twelve toilets block near the edge of the beach. But then, I realize that the relevant city administration is probably neither deliberately malfeasant nor stupid. The most likely explanation for the lack of sufficient toilets near Cowell Beach is that the relevant city department is itself caught in a web of rules and regulations, most of which are of its own making. The accumulation of permits to build something as potentially polluting in such sensitive an area as a beach must discourage even the best disposed bureaucrats. “This can wait; let’s move on to another problem,” they must think. I am only betting here on the universal human propensity to classify problem by order of ease of resolution. Note that I am not denouncing some sort of bureaucratic perverseness or an especially iniquitous feature of tyranny. It’s just the nature of things: Weave a net; get caught in it.
I can’t think of another solution that having the beach be made completely private. Then, the owner will build sufficient numbers of toilets by spending as much as necessary to circumvent or beat in court the regulations that are the obstacle. But the remedy seems worse than the problem. Nearby Silicon Valley has several, or many billionaires who could buy the beach outright and close it to the public forever. One did just this at popular Martin’s Beach, south of Half-Moon Bay. I think the case been in court for several years, long enough for a generation of California to grow up without even seeing this wonderful, very special beach where I used to catch smelts by net from the sand.
I don’t know the solution to this real libertarian conundrum. I hope a better informed or purer libertarian than I am will develop a likely solution here.