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Should Shopping Carts Stay or Should They Go?

Is it wrong to take shopping carts from parking lots?

These neighborhood eyesores elicit either the typical exasperated brush off or disappointed shoulder shrug. They inspire the creation of local field guides to identify strays and blogs preventing their abuse. Yet what is at stake in this particular transfer? Is the act illegal, or does taking a shopping cart away from its natural premises represent a moral violation? Are we going too far with calling the act unethical as it simply is an unaesthetic eyesore? Does it rather only represent a frustrating financial and time-consuming clean-up venture for the ownership and/or municipality?

What kind of individual or joint transgression if any is committed by this action? Moral and legal boundaries or aesthetic and pragmatic ideals aside, nobody connects that tomorrow’s grocery and electronic prices are higher because of the current massive cart movement on city streets−costs that are invariably passed onto other consumers (cf. litter as a classic example of what economists term a ‘negative externality.’)

Some cities have chosen to lay the burden on the victims and fine the store owners for the return of their carts. However, most municipalities combine punishment of the presumed thief/litterbug (often a fine) and encourage some type of responsibility from the store owner (e.g., walking customers out to their cars and bringing back the carts, anti-theft devices which lock the wheels, and charging security deposits on carts).

While empathizing with those without the financial means of transporting their goods and identifying with the plight of the homeless, a person’s financial status cannot decide the morality of an act.Some stores try to hire cart retrievers to take care of the immediate problem. But the long-term prospective moral concern affecting our groceries and outdoor strip malls remains.

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