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The Problem With Restroom Libertarianism

02/13/2015 11:35 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

I have long found men's public restrooms as the most useful rejoinder against libertarianism. In the most private of public spaces, men's selfish impulses rule to the detriment of common good. The last thing we need is to de-regulate these spaces further by discouraging hand-washing as Senator Thom Tillis recommended last week. That could make even Ayn Rand frown.

In case you missed it, U.S. Senator Tillis (R-NC) was illustrating his passion for de-regulation by recounting a story in which he suggested that Starbucks or other restaurants could opt out of the regulation requiring that employees wash their hands after using the restroom. Those who opt out would be required to post a sign that says "We don't require our employees to wash their hands after they use the restroom." His recommendation was absurd - you can opt out of a regulation for hanging one sign by being regulated to hang another. It was also gross - we need more encouragement of washing hands, not less.

Restrooms are perhaps the most unregulated and unsurveillanced public places we have left in our society. In the absence of any big brother watching over men, what do they do? They piss over everything. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes would feel validated about how men act in this relative state of nature - they are truly nasty and brutish.

The Hobbesian social contract, whereby we cede some rights for protection of our common good, dissolves in restrooms where men don't consider anyone else's interests. Men use toilets when they should use urinals, don't lift the seats, don't aim well, and don't wipe up afterward. While urinals are designed so men can stand over them, they instead stand back and leave puddles behind. Men also scrawl graffiti - often juvenile, sexist, or homophobic - that one finds not just in gas stations but in airports, elite schools, and office buildings. Nasty and brutish.

Then there is hand-washing. Sorry, women, but I'd say about 50% of men at best stop at the sinks on their way out. And there is no class distinction. I've been stunned many times to see wealthy and prominent men walk right past the sinks when they are done. Now, I'm not calling for a full surgical scrub or OCD-like obsession. I don't meet the 30-second standard my son learned at school, but I think we can all stop for some soap and water, especially when we are in public.

My experience is obviously confined to men's rooms - for the most part. A few years ago, I was at a fancy restaurant for a meeting and asked the server where the restroom was. He replied that it was the second door on the right. I was semi-distracted checking email as I passed the open door to the kitchen (which apparently did not count) and entered the next door to the restroom and sat down in a stall. I began to hear a few voices and saw a pair of shoes that informed me I was in the wrong place. I lifted my feet up and waited to make a break. I would have exited faster if the women didn't all stop to wash up. I did stop to quickly wash my hands before embarrassingly running into a colleague on the way out. Maybe it was easier for Ayn Rand to promote a libertarian ideology because she used women's restrooms.

Some restrooms do make it hard to wash our hands. The ubiquitous automatic faucets often require repeated karate-like hand-waving motions to dispense soap and water. Then there are the modern faucets at restaurants that require study to determine where the handle is and how to even turn it on at an appropriate temperature. We don't need innovative faucets, we just need ones that work.

I don't think restroom attendants like those I've encountered at some restaurants, hotels, and even music clubs are the answer, but appreciate why some business owners choose this route. I always feel awkward and guilty - especially if I don't have a tip - that someone has to stand there and hand out towels. Perhaps instead of handing out towels, their job could be shaming those who don't wash, chasing after them calling loudly: "Hey, you forgot to wash your hands" so everyone around them can hear and glare.

So I think we may need more, not less regulations in bathrooms. The signs that read: "Employees must wash their hands," should instead read: "Everyone must wash their hands" or perhaps even: "If you don't like eating your poop, wash your hands" if that works better. When I visited Berlin, Germany 20 years ago, a group of feminists had posted signs in men's restrooms reading: "Stand up for your rights, but sit down when you have to pee." Growing up with three older sisters, I was scolded into submission early on that one.

While I sympathize with the belief that we have too many rules and regulations that micro-manage citizens and businesses with little benefit to the public good, I've never been able to get on board with libertarianism. When people pursue their individual interests without caring for our common interests, it means that some of us will have to clean up for others. I wish the social contract we all abided by in public restrooms was simply leave it as clean as you found it and of course, wash your hands. But in lieu of that, regulations asking people who touch my food to wash their hands meet my standard of worthy regulation.

Thank you Senator Tillis for ironically making the case for regulation. If I meet you, though, I might think twice about shaking your hand.