There once was a very rich man who kept a stock of fine silk napkins in his bathroom. He did so because he preferred wiping with silk — pedestrian tissue is so harsh and unforgiving — and also because he could afford to.
And so, once a week the servants would bring two bags full of soiled silk napkins out to the curb, leaving them for the garbage collectors.
As you can guess, the man could afford this indulgence. He always paid his bills.
If you’re like me, you find that rich man’s behavior immoral, even appalling. The preference he has for silk on his bottom is not a morally sufficient reason to fill the landfill with soiled silk napkins. The fact that he can afford to do this is completely irrelevant to the morality (or immorality) of the act.
Economists refer to that bag of soiled silk napkins as an “externality”. That is, it is a cost that affects a party (the society in which the rich man lives) which that party did not willingly submit to incurring or bearing (that society must now process 104 bags of soiled silk napkins per year).
When we hear of this, or at least when I hear of this, I say: get over yourself you jerk! Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you have the right to fill our landfills with that appalling waste of 104 bags of soiled silk napkins per year!
Here’s the problem. Virtually all of us are likewise culpable of sucking at the externality teat. We censure the rich man and his silk napkins, but we give ourselves a pass.
Here is an example fit to knock me off my moral high horse. If you look in my garage you’ll find a large SUV. Every year my family downloads additional emissions onto the environment I which we drive simply because we can afford to do so (we can cover the gas and insurance). Those are externalities for us. So we don’t pay. In short, feel free to absorb my proverbial 104 bags of soiled silk napkins, ’cause I can afford it.
So if you (or I) want to judge the rich man with his silk napkin wastage, we need to start with a Nathan-the-Prophet moment of self-reflection:
“You are that man!”