The 'if everyone did it' argument

Picking up pebbles from the beach, in the UK, is apparently a crime, punishable by a £1000 fine, so I am informed. Now, I don’t really see it as a very significant problem if a kid wants to take home a shiny rock as a souvenir of a beach holiday. (Of course I understand there are places where it might be considered taboo, which is a different thing, and there are exceptional cases like mineral deposits that are considered to be part of a national monument - such as the Moqui Marbles

‘But if everyone did it, it would be a problem’

OK, but that applies to a lot of things, doesn’t it? If everyone in the UK turned up at Starbucks in Picadilly Circus, all at once, it would be a huge problem, but we don’t ban people going into Starbucks on that basis.
If everyone in the country went fishing, it would be a problem, but fishing is legal. If everyone kept guinea pigs, and picked weeds from the verge to feed them, it would be a problem and the ground would soon be bare.

Not everyone is going to do it, so the ‘what if everyone did it?’ argument is just spurious, isn’t it?

If someone came along with a digger and started removing pebbles it would be a problem.

It’s not a problem of everybody showing up someplace at the same time, it’s a problem with the cumulative effect of individuals picking up stones over time, generations even. People can come back to the Starbucks any time in the future when it’s not crowded, but eventually the beach will no longer have any pebbles.

Well, sometimes it’s just shorthand for “if everyone that wanted to do it did it”. There are plenty of things in nature where if 1/1000 people took the stone or whatever, it would still be a problem. It only stays in pristine condition if almost everyone follows the rules.

Does the UK not have fishing licenses? That’s one way to ensure that common resources are not abused. You simply limit the number to something acceptable.

And there is Yossarian’s response in Catch-22: “What if everybody did that?” “Then I’d be a fool to do otherwise.”

In the particular case of pebbles on the beach, there was probably a problem before the law was passed. that too many pebbles were being taken away. They could also point to that.

“What if everyone did that?” is a useful argument against anti-social behavior that may seem basically harmless if one person does it, like littering, or spitting on the sidewalk, or even shoplifting (hey, it was only a pack of gum!). It’s also a useful moral touchstone when there is something you want to do but are not sure you ought to, although I usually phrase it to myself as “would I want to live in a world where everyone did that?”

OP’s example involves something that is somewhere in the range of harmless to arguably slightly harmful; but would only cause real harm if everyone did it.

A complementary and even more egregious form of this fallacy is a refusal to do something that on its intrinsic merit is right and correct for the spurious reason that it would “set a precedent”. For example - we cannot pay you a living wage, because then we might end up having to pay all our staff a living wage, and then the company might be less profitable. Setting a precedent that might be extrapolated is only a valid concern if you are doing the wrong thing.

“It makes a difference to this pebble.”

Sure, but the fallacy in the OP’s example is obviously that harm does not follow a simple linear relationship. Let’s call the unit of a harm a picoTrump (pT). If removing the entire beach would cause 1 million pT of harm, that does not imply that removing 1 millionth of the beach would cause 1 pT of harm. The harm may in fact be zero. So we only need to constrain our own actions (or to pass legislation) if the plausible incidence of total removal seems likely to exceed some threshold that would be harmful.

Most people are not voluntarily thoughtful and considerate about such things - this is essentially the Tragedy of the Commons. But not necessarily so.

Actually, we do have limits that would prevent everyone in town from occupying the same Starbucks at once-- fire codes set a maximum occupancy. That prevents the worst outcomes of everyone doing that one thing, which would be people dying because they were crushed by a panicked mob and couldn’t escape. So instead, if too many people come at once, people will have to line up outside, take their coffee to go, and maybe miss out on their favorite treats as the store runs out. We as a society have decided that these adverse outcomes are preferable to imposing further limits on individual choice regarding where to get their morning coffee. Also, if anyone shows up to see a line around the block, they have the relevant information to weigh the costs and benefits, which will be immediate and largely individual to them (having to wait around for hours only to learn they’re out of the good stuff), and decide to go elsewhere if that makes sense to them. The same is not true of taking pebbles from a beach.

Too late to edit, but some further thoughts:

The other problem with the coffee shop comparison is that the free market is generally not only effective at resolving these kinds of imbalances, it’s more effective than top-down government control. If a particular coffee shop is always busy, it could mean they’re in an area with a lot of coffee drinkers, and a savvy entrepreneur will figure that out and open a shop next door to take advantage of that. Or it could be that this coffee shop offers something consumers value more than what its competitors offer–better coffee or service, lower prices, etc. If so, they’ll be quick to open another location. Over time, this process benefits us all.

But a beach can’t just produce more pebbles. The key is whether the supply is elastic enough to respond to demand. If it is, we can let things play out. If it isn’t, we may need some top-down control. This can sometimes happen even with renewable consumer goods, such as a wartime rationing situation.

While some cities post a limit on the number of people, no one is actually counting.

The law is a very rough instrument for these things. I’m not confident the occupancy limit law is realistic, and I wouldn’t assume a law against picking up pebbles is based on there being an actual pebble problem.

In some rare places, a lot of what look like pebbles can be fossils. In those cases, the number picked up is far higher than in the case of ordinary pebbles. And yet some public parks allow amateur fossil collecting without disaster.

Everyone doesn’t do it. I know several such places and find it boring to fossil hunt. Only a few people are highly interested.

Yeah I understand that. I think in the case of beaches it’s not actually a stupid rule, it’s a stupid, and probably inaccurate, justification for the rule. The rule is a common one around the world and I think its intended purpose is to prevent people from eroding the coastline by taking significant portions of it away. Someone taking a single pebble is fine, millions of people taking a single pebble is not fine but it’s also unlikely, a few people taking trailer loads of pebbles away is not fine but it is quite likely.

I get that the OP is complaining about the logic of the justification and not necessarily the rule itself.

Not if the issue is a limited resource. As an example if you visit the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona (which I’d recommend everybody do at some point in their life) you’ll see multiple tons of this stuff lying about. To this day theft of petrified wood from the park is a problem, because every time you steal here you diminish the park a tiny bit for the next person that comes to marvel at it. Petrified wood will not grow back in our species’ history.

Uh, yeah they are. I’ve been in a club that was evacuated and shut down because they got caught going over capacity. No, the fire department isn’t going to catch every violation, much less monitor every place of public accommodation at all times, but what exactly does that have to do with the wisdom of occupancy limits? Or the OP’s argument?

You go on to say that you “wouldn’t assume a law against picking up pebbles is based on there being an actual pebble problem,” but you seem to be willing to assume it isn’t, because… it doesn’t seem that way to you? Do you think lawmakers just make things up for fun, because they’ve run out of real problems to solve?

You do realize that not everyone has to do something for there to be too many people doing it? Back when it was legal to harvest abalone in California, the vast majority of people didn’t do it. It was only a tiny minority of people who were even divers, let alone abalone hunters. Yet the abalone nearly disappeared before taking them was banned, just in the nick of time. Now the abalone are making a recovery. Perhaps in the future, we’ll be allowed to take a limited number again, the way we are with lobster, scallops, etc. But we will never be able to maintain the stocks without some kind of limit, and sufficiently robust enforcement to keep at least most people in line.

I addressed that point in the OP

Nonsequitur, I think. If someone ramraided a supermarket, it would be a problem, but me walking in there for a can of beans is not on the same continuum of activity.

For fresh water fishing, yes, but usually because of traditional land rights etc. For coastal fishing, no licence is required. In theory, everyone could decide to go fishing - and it would most likely cause some problems, but it doesn’t happen.

The laws do appear to be primarily addressed at commercial exploitation, and there are indeed cases where companies extracted gravel from beaches (or dredged offshore) and the beach completely disappeared when the angle of repose resulted in the beach slumping away into the sea. Interestingly, this still happens, but just under commercial licence now.

But commercial extraction of millions of tonnes of stones is not the same phenomenon as little timmy picking up a rock or a seashell to take home. The latter is way smaller than the lowest level of noise in the system (because the nature of beaches is that they are replenished by new minerals eroding from cliffs etc further upshore - and certainly that erosion can cause a problem, but it literally cannot be stopped if the beach is to remain anyway).

Some of the UK laws restricting individuals from doing things are indeed based on genuine concern about plausible damage - for example certain species of rare orchid have special protection, because their rarity makes them vulnerable to collecting or picking at any scale - even a single specimen. But in other cases, it seems like the restrictions just arise out of a habit of authoritarianism.

There is rather wide streak in the collective British psyche that goes something like “That thing looks like fun, how can we stop it happening?”

A few years ago, pre-Brexit, the thriving population of immigrants from Eastern Europe were noticed to be enjoying foraging for wild fungi in the UK forests and woods, as is their tradition and expertise. Previous to this, the native UK population was largely distrustful and disinterested about ‘toadstools’, or, to a lesser extent, the idea of walking around in the woods all day, but a vocal contingent noticed the foreigners “comin’ over 'ere” and picking the mushrooms, and fought to try to prevent it. Suddenly, people were very concerned about the ‘impact on delicate fungal organisms’ (there is actually no evidence that careful foraging is detrimental and it may even be helpful) and pressed for laws to get foraging stopped.

I’m not saying there aren’t cases where things need to be protected, but I do think the ‘if everyone did it’ argument is often misapplied.

You walking in and stealing a can of beans is not a big deal. Lots of people stealing a can of beans is a big deal.

Taking trailer loads of sand, rocks, stones, etc is something people want to do. It’s a way of getting materials for their garden or house. On a larger scale it’s something people might do to make money from. So taking bits of the coastline is illegal because taking large amounts of it is a problem. This means that technically just taking one pebble is also illegal unless you want to somehow specify what is and isn’t a suitable amount giving consideration to the vulnerabilities of each stretch of coast and so on. Easier to just make it illegal.