The eco-justice division of the National Council of Churches has undertaken a campaign against bottled water. The director of the NCC program recently put it this way: "Water should be free for all. The moral call for us is not to privatize water."
What comes to mind immediately is the line from the Shakespeare’s Twelfth-Night: "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
No, I’m not making this up. A broad cross-section of the religious left has joined with the NCC. A group called Presbyterians for Restoring Creation is pushing people to sing a pledge against bottled water. The United Church of Christ has made a documentary on the topic called "Troubled Waters." And the National Coalition of American Nuns has adopted a resolution to ask members not to buy bottled water.
So, where is the moral peril? Bottling and selling water doesn't necessarily mean that the free variety is not available. In most public places, you can use a water fountain. The water-fountain water is not usually considered by most people to be of the best quality. But, in a pinch, "free" water is great.
But do those who prefer bottled water oppress those without -- somehow? Of course not. No one is being forced to buy it. No one is being deprived. Quite the opposite: Bottled water provides another choice. And it is a sanitary choice that many people find to be more healthy and delicious. The industry is booming.
Is bottled water too expensive? Well, that would be up to the consumers to decide, wouldn't it? The surest way to bring about a shortage of something is to declare it to be free. Not even large municipal water utilities routinely offer tap water at no charge, and for good reason. A zero price brings about the over utilization of a resource and thus waste. It also eliminates the incentive and the means for the water to be provided efficiently.
None of these considerations, however, seem to have impressed the religious folk who are behind the campaign against bottle water. Their objection seems to be rooted in what they call the "commodification" of water. We must not bottle and sell water, they reason, because it is given to us by God.
But let’s think about this. Most water in the world -- like many other natural resources -- must be transformed by human hands before it is made useful. There are two ways to go about doing this with water. One typical approach is to provide water through a public authority, one of the principal means of improving living standards and community health.
Or water resources can be privately owned and traded, as they have been for centuries. Entrepreneurs can be free to discover ever more efficient and profitable ways of making and distributing a good that is universally needed. Yes, this means that water must be "commodified." But this is no more immoral than having vegetables, housing, and clothing commodified. And exactly how do we have access to “fair trade” coffee and the like, which many religious activists view as virtuous goods, unless these are first commodified? Indeed, commodification, though disparaged as evil and degrading, is in fact the necessary precondition for making any good or service available to a mass market.
The well-intended religious people behind the ban on bottled water imagine a world where free water is available to all. But the empirical test of this theory would give us the opposite. Their water socialism will lead to inefficiency, waste, deprivation, and ultimately death. The religious groups in question point out that vast amounts of the world's population lacks clean water for bathing and drinking. That's true. It also so happens that many of these countries have undeveloped economies riddled by trade barriers and socialist structures.
Perhaps the campaign against bottled water can be seen as harmless, a meaningless pious gesture that doesn't amount to anything. Actually, to the extent that it reflects economic ignorance, it does great harm indeed. These same religious activists are among those who constantly tell us that factories operated by “multinationals” exploit the poor in developing countries. These ideas are really quite dangerous. They cut off the only source for economic development that the world's poor has.
I would like to offer the following general statement on behalf of anyone who prefers his or her water bottled. You are not engaged in a sinful act. You are exercising a choice that is a human right, and supporting an ingenious institution -- the free and enterprising economy – which is a powerful means of material liberation for the whole world.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute