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Restrooms and a Free Society

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We have all done it. While on a trip across the country with the family, we have all exited the Interstate and pulled into a McDonald’s or some convenience store to use the restroom — and then driven away without making a purchase.

A woman in Tennessee will probably never do that again. She stopped at a restaurant in Erin, Tennessee, to use the restroom, and a few days later received in the mail the following handwritten note signed “Management”:

On Saturday Oct 27th you came into the Flood Zone. had to use the restroom said you had been to the turkey shoot. posted on our front door is a sign that states Restrooms Are for Flood Zone Customers Only. Not a Public restroom, On the inside of restroom is a sign that tells you there is a 5.00 Charge for non-Flood Zone Customers. you did not purchase Anything. So there for you were not a Customer. please send pymt to …

The woman, Patricia Barnes, “said she didn’t see the note until an employee approached her after she left the restroom.” Said Barnes, “It was a little index card at the very bottom of the mirror. I didn’t look in the mirror at all that day.” “I don’t feel it was a crime,” she added. “I’ve been into plenty of restaurants here in this town and other towns, and, you know, other states.”

Barnes was located by the restaurant after it asked the local sheriff to trace her vehicle license-plate number. But after going through all that trouble, the restaurant rebuffed the woman’s attempt to pay the $5 restroom charge after she received the note in the mail and went back to the restaurant. A money order she then sent to the restaurant came back.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay, himself a restaurant owner, called the incident “totally ridiculous.” That members of the public come into your establishment only to use the restroom is “just part of doing business,” he said. It also shows good will on the part of the owner. “There’s plenty of people that come to the restaurant, use the bathroom, and leave, and that’s the way it goes,” Flay said.

It is not hard to find fault with the restaurant’s restroom policy.

First of all, even though a business might occasionally have a problem with noncustomers who mess up its restrooms or delay the access of paying customers, things like that should be expected and just be considered a cost of doing business. After all, today’s nonpaying restroom user might be tomorrow’s paying customer.

Second, the negative publicity that a place of business could receive by trying to charge noncustomers who need to use the restroom surely outweighs any restroom fees the business would collect or any expense involved in maintaining clean restrooms in its place of business.

Third, go to any mall and you will find stores packed with prospective customers who may never make a purchase. And not only are stores full of browsers who don’t buy anything, many shoppers enter stores with no intention of ever spending a dime. They might be just killing time. They might be just checking out the newest styles. They might be just hoping one day to have the money to buy a particular dress or pair of shoes or dreaming that they had it. Not only do those stores provide restrooms for potential patrons, they make available tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise just for people to handle and look at.

And fourth, it is one thing for a business to post a sign on its front door saying that restrooms in the place of business are only for paying customers; it is one thing to put a sign in its restroom informing all who enter that there is a $5 charge for anyone who is not an actual customer of the business; it is one thing to try to collect a use fee from noncustomers as they exit the business’s restroom; but to track someone down who used the restroom and to send a horribly written note in an attempt to collect $5 is just inviting media scrutiny and a viral Internet presence that could ultimately force a business to close because of all the potential customers that it alienated.

Even without incidents like this, many people would not have a problem with the government’s making a law mandating that restaurants and other places of business have restrooms available for the general public. Others would argue that because restroom use is a necessity, businesses should be required to make their restrooms available to the general public. Some would say that because a place of business is open to the public, it becomes a public place like a state park or public library that provides restrooms for the public to use. A few would make the case that for places of business to not provide public restrooms is a public-health issue and therefore government intervention of some kind is warranted.

Others have come to the defense of the Flood Zone restaurant and its restroom policy, saying such things as:

  • If restaurants don’t let people sit down at a table without ordering something, why should they be expected to let people sit down on one of their commodes?
  • No one opens a business to give away products and services.
  • A place of business is not legally obligated to provide public restrooms.
  • Since soap, paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, water, and labor cost businesses money, it is not unreasonable to limit its restrooms to paying customers.
  • No one would allow a complete stranger to enter his home and use his bathroom.

Although some who find fault with this restaurant’s restroom policy would likewise think along these lines, libertarians and other advocates of a free society can both criticize the restaurant’s policy as ludicrous and defend it as a business decision.

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether this particular restaurant should charge noncustomers a fee for using its restroom.

The libertarian looks at the bigger picture and envisions business practices in a free society.

In a free society, it would be entirely up to each business to decide whether it would charge noncustomers, or even customers, for the privilege of using one of its restrooms.

But that is because in a free society businesses would have the right to sell any good or service for any price they choose; raise or lower prices by any amount, at any time, and for any reason; and offer credit at any interest rate or terms.

Just as they would have the right to hire anyone from any country willing to be employed at any mutually agreed-upon wage-and-benefit package.

Just as they would have the right to fire anyone for any reason.

Just as they would have the right to discriminate against any potential employee for any reason.

Just as they would have the right to refuse to do business with any potential customer for any reason.

And just as they would have the right to provide as many or as few handicapped parking spaces as they choose to, or none at all.

But that also means that a business in a free society could not be too big to fail, could not use antitrust laws to tie up one of its competitors in expensive court proceedings, could not be the beneficiary of government eminent-domain proceedings, could not look to the government for a loan or bailout, could not help the government to craft regulations that would harm its competitors, and could not expect the government to place tariffs and quotas on imports to avoid having to compete on the world market.

Although businesses in a free society would be free from government regulation, they would not be free from the consequences of bad decisions, as restaurants such as the Flood Zone are finding out.

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