Responsibility to Others

Late this morning the wind was moderately strong and the river moody – perfect conditions for a much-needed workout. When under the protection of a windward shore the water was deceptively calm; just around the bend, whitecaps made for difficult, exciting progress. My little boat jumped and dove, split the waves and sometimes left my arms and chest soaked and briefly chilled.

I wear a life preserver, which has often been helpful for warmth, but thankfully never yet for flotation.

I have been kayaking once or twice a week lately – trying to prepare myself for what might be a grueling adventure with friends on the Maine coastline a month from now. That water will be much colder and maybe quite choppy.

This morning’s scene was stunningly beautiful. The sun was bright, the air crisp. All manner of bird life was busily present; on two occasions, large fish leapt startlingly above the water’s roiling surface; when the going was more placid, I noticed that the shoreline’s greenery has filled out almost to its summer fullness – a sharp contrast with its bare-bones looks of just a month ago.  

I followed the same course today as I did then, in what was the first of this year’s paddles. Down past Goose Island, around Calves Island, up the wide river to between Essex and Nott Island, into the protected waters between Nott and Lyme, out into the choppy river again, then through the cut, across the cove and home. It’s not nearly as far as it sounds – these are small, uninhabited islands; parkland, I suppose.

What I saw a month ago stood in stark contrast with today’s apparently pristine splendor. The river was the same back then, of course, if somewhat colder, but the shoreline views called forth darker thoughts. On a very high tide and without the cover of fresh greenery, the islands’ waterlines revealed themselves as being covered with detritus. Used plastic containers, old tires, kids’ flotation devices and the like could be seen just above the shore, in among the still-bare plants. At one point, paddling close in, I tried to figure the distances between such disfigurements; they rarely exceeded twenty yards.

I’m sure that stuff is still there; I just couldn’t see it today behind the new greenery.


It’s strange that people who can be presumed to enjoy playing on the river so heedlessly allow its waters to be marred by their refuse, some of which ends up drifting up onto shore. Well, not all those who use the river litter – probably only a small minority, but enough to make the mess I saw last month. What are they thinking?

My guess: they think that it doesn’t matter if they do something that is presumably criminal and, at a minimum, profoundly inconsiderate – as long as nobody else knows that they did it.

I’m less interested in the possible criminality of their littering – the overlap between the law and morality is far from perfect, and the law only ever comes into force when somebody is caught breaking it – than I am in its implicit statement that other people (setting aside wildlife entirely) who will have to see or clean up the trash, don’t matter. Out of sight, out of mind, apparently.


Industrial pollution is sometimes described by economists as a problem of externalities. Hypothetically, if one manufacturer produces a good for $5 while dumping garbage that would cost $5 to clean up into the air or water, while another producer produces the same good for $8, pollution-free, society has a huge interest in making sure that the second producer is the one who makes and sells the goods. In a wholly unregulated system, though, the polluting producer may get the business because he’s laying off some of his costs – the externalities – onto the general public in the form of pollution.

Regular readers of Civil Horizon know that I am broadly in favor of both limited government and anything that preserves or enhances our individual freedoms. My love for capitalism is founded on the premise that it is a system based on choices made voluntarily by free people; my loathing for socialism is based on that system’s inherently coercive nature. Only by exercising our own choices about our lives can we become who we want to be in the brief time we have, so any system that maximizes our opportunities to make our own decisions has my heartfelt support.

That said, no freedom of mine should come at a cost to others – who are equally beloved of God as I would like to think I am, and equal in natural rights – so I enthusiastically support regulations that, to my mind, properly assess the costs of externalities that might otherwise be imposed on unwilling others. It’s not ok to harm others in the pursuit of my own interests; nor is it ok for you to impose costs on me for which I receive no compensating benefit.


Regulation is a blunt instrument. It’s necessary, but it also criminalizes plenty of behaviors unnecessarily and lets other acts that should be prohibited proceed unimpeded. In any non-totalitarian state, it’s also only haphazardly enforced. Law bears little resemblance to any coherent system of ethics.

Freedom – and capitalism – cannot exist without shared premises about right and wrong. At the limit, if no morals govern our actions and nobody’s watching (so there is no constraint from the state), it will be more profitable for for me to kill you and take your gold, or for you to do that to me, than to bargain until we strike a deal. We cannot trade to our mutual benefits unless we recognize each other’s rights.

It’s no coincidence that the capitalist system – and the knowledge and wealth that define the world in which we are so fortunate to live – arose in a culture defined by Jewish and Christian traditions, both of which emphasize the golden rule:

 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you:

do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets”     

Matthew 7:12      

The premise is that other people matter to God, and must therefore matter to you and me.


Coming back to the pollution I saw along the river last month, I can’t help but think that in the small acts of jettisoning their trash improperly, no less than by producing goods in part at a cost born by others, those who do these things show how far we have drifted from the moral underpinnings of the society and the system that have made us immeasurably wealthier – and freer – than previous generations.

If the day comes when our shared values are broadly understood to have disappeared and that we live in a world in which anything that we can get away with, goes, freedom as we have known it will be gone too.

M.H. Johnston   

4 comments to Responsibility to Others

  • Anonymous  says:

    Who better than our current president exemplifies we live in a country defined by anything you can get away with, goes. Or as Bob Zimmerman wrote and sang, steal a little they put you in jail, steal a lot – they make you king.

  • Ed Maher  says:

    Mark it’s time to run for office. I wish you were a city resident. Ed Maher

    • M Johnston  says:

      Thanks, Ed. Nice to hear from you. I’m afraid that ship has sailed, though; the Beloved Spouse said no.

  • DP  says:

    Quite. Putting the conserve back in conservatism.

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