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Commodify My Grass, and Everything Else

Mises Daily: Friday, March 11, 2011 by

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Every once in a while, we gain a glimpse of how things might work in a fully privatized society. When it occurs, like a flash of light in the darkness, we should take notice, try to understand its source, and seek ways to make the flash the norm to light up the world.

And so it happened with my yard this week. Yes, I'm part of the whole American fetish for re-creating English manor estates in miniature in our front yards, a legacy left by our former colonial owners whose rule we pretend to have thrown off 225 years ago. But this legacy of serfdom still oppresses us — in a self imposed way — through our tendency to want large lawns of green grass that grows for no particular purpose in our front and back yards that also exist for no particular purpose.

And so we try to keep them up. We mow them. We water them. We try to keep the weeds away with fertilizers about which we know nothing. When I'm at the hardware store, I'm asked to choose between 5-40-10, 10-10-10, 40-15-30, and 0-40-15, and I have no idea what all this means, so I do the next best thing. I go for packaging and promotion.

This stuff claims to make my yard healthy and green, and that's what I want, but wait: the next one claims the same! Oh, wait, here's one that also controls the following 42 weeds, and surely my weeds are on this list, but how can I know for sure? Once I took a sprig of weed into the store and asked: what is this? The guy said he didn't recognize it. Well, how can I control it if even the experts don't recognize it?

Then there is the whole preemergence/postemergence issue. One bag of fertilizer says that I had better use this stuff before the weeds grow. So now I feel like a slacker because my weeds are already growing. And, anyway, how are you supposed to know that you have a weed problem until they grow? Am I supposed to be some kind of soil tester, with a laboratory in the basement?

This guy happened to mention to me over dinner that he uses a company called TruGreen, and sure enough, there is such a company. It takes care of all these issues for you. The slogan of the company is "go greener" but it is obviously a hilarious play on words. We aren't talking environmentalism here. The company was formerly known as "ChemLawn" but then public opinion was browbeat into hating chemicals. Hence: TruGreen — same as Sugar Smacks was transformed into Honey Smacks when public opinion turned against sugar.

In any case, this company struck me as a dream come true. It turns out to be a national company like McDonald's or CVS, with locally owned branches. I went to the national website and put in my address, and by the time I got home I had a full analytical chart stuck in my door. It turns out that I have a problem with

  • Crabgrass
  • Bahia grass
  • Dallisgrass
  • Nutsedge
  • Poa Annua
  • Bittercrass
  • Buttonweed
  • Carolina Geranium
  • Chickweed
  • Dichondra
  • Henbit
  • Spurge
  • Vetch
  • Wild Onion
  • Fire Ants

But fortunately I have no active diseases and the mowing has been good (up with that!). But get this: the company says that I need to "aerate" my yard. And so now I recall a product I saw in one of those inflight magazines. It was a pair of shoes with huge spikes on them. They were called "yard aeration shoes" with the idea that you strap them on and walk around your yard poking holes everywhere. This struck me as something good to do, but that I could actually buy these shoes and do that seemed completely implausible. Ever since, I've had the feeling that my yard needed this done, but I had no way to figure out how to do it.

Well, all problems are solved thanks to TruGreen, and for a lot less money than one might expect. Why hadn't I done this years ago? It's a mystery. I was somehow under the impression that this was a job for a real man to do. I mean, what is my life worth if I can't keep up a great-looking yard and impress all my neighbors with my lord-like control over my domain? Enough of that, I say. My grass is a commodity and it should be properly commodified, its care totally commercialized.

But it does start one to think about things. Here we have a national company, and there are probably many others, that is dedicated to the making life's stupidest tasks completely bearable and doable. Is there anything that private markets can't do?

I'm thinking here of the trash problem. No, there's no trash nightmare taking place in my town but there are persistent problems that drive me crazy over time. Why didn't the city take my trash? Oh, I put a box in the clippings bag, and I'm not supposed to do that, or I put clippings in the official city trash container, and I'm not supposed to do that, or I put an old chair out on Monday and old chairs are only collected on every second Wednesday, or I put out limbs from a tree on the second Tuesday of the month and don't I know that limbs are only collected on the third Thursday of the growing season.

Then there is the water problem. The city — all governments! — are dedicated to making us use less and less of the stuff. Our toilets don't work. Our showers are reduced to a trickle. We are hectored not to water the grass. Our clothes washers and dish washers are supposed to run on one gallon a day and nothing gets clean. And still: every time there is a spell without rain, we are warned that civilization may soon come to an end and the water must be severely rationed (as if it isn't already).

Are we really supposed to believe that private markets can't deliver water to our homes in a way that is economically rational and consumer friendly? Same with electricity, gas, sanitation, and everything else. Commodify all these things and we'd see local, regional, national, and even global companies competing to serve us, falling all over each other to bring us exactly what we want at prices that are low and falling like the prices of computer hardware.

As for mail, this is a no-brainer.

Thank goodness that no local government has decided that lawn care is a public good that must be provided by quasi-public companies. I can promise you this: if this were the case, we'd all have a set of aerator shoes in our closet, and the grass would still be infested with every weed listed above and then some, including untold diseases.

Private lawn care: here is the flash in the darkness that shows the way forward. Commodify yards, commodify water and trash, commodify everything. Then and only then will we become what all Americans secretly dream to become: lords of our estate in every sense.