What Do the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Trash Collection in San Francisco Have in Common?

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“Dr. King did not make the boycott, the boycott made Dr. King.”

~ Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement

The lessons of the past keep being repeated, over and over and over, and…

Blogger Mike “Mish” Shedlock posted a fascinating story on his website regarding a situation in San Francisco.  In “Trash Collecting Entrepreneur Squashed In San Francisco” he cites one of his respondents, known simply as Michael, who relates a story about trash collection.  One of the customers of the local trash collection service—a contractor referred to as Joe—got fed up with paying $37 per trash can, per week, for garbage removal.  He and his neighbor began to take their own trash for disposal at a local dump, using “Joe’s” truck.  Shortly, other neighbors joined their informal garbage disposal network, opting to pay the contractor $10 a week for more service than they were getting from the city union.  Soon, after their little business had begun to unexpectedly take off, their competitors decided to call in the big guns.

When the local garbage company and its union found out about “Joe” they complained to the city. Within a year a law was passed stating that garbage service was now mandatory for all residents at the price the city’s monopoly charged, which was shortly raised.  And “Joe”?  For a while he still took our recyclables until he was fined $4000, even though he had our permission.

None of this is really that surprising.  The State often passes laws to prevent competition.  For example, Lysander Spooner’s attempts to compete with the post office led to the passing of laws specifically designed to prevent competition in delivery of first class mail.  Recalling my Southern pig farming roots, I’d offer this metaphor.  When a hog is sucking the teat, he tends to fight to keep his place in line.  He cares not about his siblings and their hunger.  Nor does he care that he is full.  He cares about one thing:  maintaining vapor lock on that teat.  With apologies to any unionist garbage men in our studio audience, the garbage collection unions employed by the city of San Francisco are comparable to government teat suckers, so their reaction to some random guy actually providing service and “stealing” their business is no surprise.  What I find ironic is this.  Not only does this situation in San Francisco compare to Spooner’s mail delivery business, it also reflects the scenario during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.

Consider:  When the Montgomery Bus Boycotts began, black people immediately tried to find alternative means of transportation.  This was a classic market response.  Some of the local taxis, specifically the ones driven by other black people, began to offer reduced-price rides. They charged a fare equal to the cost of a bus ride.  How did the City of Montgomery respond?  The city began to fine taxis for charging reduced fares.  They made it against the law to charge whatever you wanted for the service you sold to customers who voluntarily sought you out.  (Sound familiar?)  Not to be outdone (and using techniques from similar boycotts in other places), the black citizens organized extensive carpool options.  These were people attempting to use their own resources—pieces of private property known as automobiles—to provide a voluntary service for people who needed rides.  How did the City of Montgomery respond?  The city forced insurance carriers to drop coverage for any such car.  Note that this was a struggle between citizens of Montgomery who happened to be black and the City of Montgomery—an arm of the government.

Any competent student of U.S. history knows how all this played out.  The boycott lasted for a very long time, much longer than comparable ones in other cities.  The federal government eventually rode to the rescue, passing legislation that required the bus company to treat all passengers equally.  What is generally not known is this.  The bus company, losing money hand over fist early in the boycott, was actually considering a way to acquiesce to the citizens’ demands early in the boycott, since a large percentage of the bus company’s ridership was black people.  (They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  I say the way to a racist’s heart is through his wallet.)  Furthermore, the business community of Montgomery, also feeling the burn of less black spending, formed a group called the Men of Montgomery with the express purpose of finding a way to end the boycott.  One could argue that it was only because the city blocked alternative travel options and outside financiers “spotted” the bus company money that the whole thing wasn’t over in a few weeks.

One arm of the State ostensibly stopping another arm of the State from infringing on black folks is an example of the irony of coercion.  One would be wise to learn from the words of Laurence J. Peter, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  The initial statist actions—of the City of Montgomery—had the effect of forcing those who did not want to pay for poor service to walk, and for much longer than the market would have otherwise allowed.  The secondary statist actions—the laws passed to supposedly protect black bus riders in Montgomery—gave those against whom the law was enforced an excuse to remain upset for years to come.  Would the owners and operators of the bus company have eventually given in, faced with bankruptcy?  We’ll never know, but I bet it’s a lot harder to be mad at a paying customer who is not the beneficiary of statist action.  (As an aside, Rosa Parks was not the first black person to refuse to move from her seat, but that’s probably another essay.)  Certainly one has to admire the tenacity of those who risked so much for a privilege for which they should not have even had to ask.  The courage of those on the front lines in Montgomery cannot be overstated!  Still, it would have been nice to see if Montgomery would have become the epicenter of a black-owned bus and taxi company movement.

Either way, we’ll never know.  The rest is history, and it keeps repeating itself.

10:17 am on April 24, 2010