There is an old adage expressed in different forms. One is: “Be careful what you pray for; you may get it.”
Many years ago, I saw the Broadway production of “Urinetown,” a satirical musical comedy that premiered in 2001. It was nominated for numerous Drama Desk and Tony Awards and won the 2002 Tony for Best Musical. It satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics. It is definitely a parable for our times.
In generic form, “Urinetown” is about a megacorporation that controls a scarce service in order to conserve a scarce commodity. Do-gooders think the service and commodity should by right be free. They lead a popular revolt and score a victory, the aftermath of which is that the apocalyptic event the megacorporation was trying to prevent occurs. (The megacorporation or do-gooders could easily be substituted with politicians or government bureaucrats.)
A 20-year drought has caused a terrible water shortage, making private toilets unthinkable. All restroom activities are carried out in public toilets controlled by a megacorporation called “Urine Good Company” (or UGC). To control water consumption, people must pay to use the amenities. Harsh laws are enacted to ensure that people pay to relieve themselves, and those who break these laws are sent to a penal colony called “Urinetown,” never to return.
The filthiest urinal in town is run by the authoritarian Penelope Pennywise and her assistant, everyman Bobby Strong. Trouble ensues when Bobby’s father cannot afford admission to his urinal for the day and Bobby asks Penelope to let him go free “just this once,” with his father adding, “What difference could it make?”
Parts of Penelope’s response should sound familiar to today’s ears.
“Times are hard”
“Our cash is tight”
“You’ve got no right”
I’ve heard it all before
“Just this once”
Is once too much
Cause once they’ve onced
They’ll want to once once more.
How did it come to this?
The politicians in their wisdom saw
That there should be a law
The politicians taxed the toilets
And made illegal
Public urination and defecation.
Bobby encounters Hope, the daughter of the UGC CEO. The two realize they both want a new world where the people can pee for free and be happy.
When new fee hikes are announced for the bathrooms, Bobby opposes them and incites a pee-for-free rebellion by opening the doors.
The empire strikes back. Bobby realizes that the only way out is to kidnap Hope as leverage against UGC. Police responsible for ending the rebellion and finding Hope threaten to send everyone to Urinetown. Bobby believes the threat is a lie designed to keep people in fear.
He is offered a deal — cash and full amnesty to the rebels — if Hope is returned and the people agree to the new fee hikes. Bobby refuses, demanding free access to the toilets. Bobby is escorted to Urinetown, where he learns the truth: Urinetown is death — and he is thrown off a building.
Hope convinces the rebels to let her lead them, and she and the poor march to the offices of UGC. Hope tells her father that his reign of terror is over, and that he will “be sent to the same place he sent Bobby and all those who wouldn’t — or couldn’t — meet his criminal fee hikes” (shades of Patty Hearst and the Stockholm Syndrome).
UGC is renamed “The Bobby Strong Memorial Toilet Authority” and the people are allowed “to pee whenever they like, as much as they like, for as long as they like, and with whomever they like.”
The law of unintended consequences takes over. In an epilogue, the audience is told the town’s newfound lavatory bliss was short-lived, as its limited water supply quickly disappeared because UGC’s rules kept it from being wasted. The result: much of the population dies of thirst.
Look at today’s events. You pick the good/service/right and plug it into the “Urinetown” storyline for a portent of how things might go if the show’s general plot is superimposed. Health care is a good example. Another aphorism has it that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The story is in line with Machiavelli and the Enlightenment’s view of the “enlightened despot,” but, as you know, the definition of “enlightened” is subjective.
The “dismal science” of economics is built on theories of the rationing of scarce resources. How choices made under uncertainty (and remember: no one has perfect foresight) are subject to many factors, including price, availability, and personal preference. In my opinion and under ideal conditions, you want no constraints on the decision-making process, including constraints dictated by others on individual choices. Sometimes, contrary to yet another adage — “You can’t fight city hall” — such a fight is often necessary.
However, as “Urinetown” illustrates, populism or revolution is not always the best solution to a problem. But neither is the denial or cover-up of the root causes that gave rise to a populist or revolutionary movement. Either path can lead to disastrous consequences.
The “Serenity Prayer” offers some wise advice:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
However, the 11th-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol said it first: “At the head of all understanding is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”