The mayor of San Marino, Calif., resigned June 17 after he got caught picking up a bag of dog feces lying near a public sidewalk and tossing it onto his neighbor’s property. The neighbor, Philip Lao, had posted two “No Poop Zone” signs that the mayor, Dennis Kneier, may have viewed as a provocation. Kneier had proposed building a dog park nearby; Lao publicly opposed it. According to Lao, Kneier had been trying to get the city to remove Lao’s signs.

Kneier got busted because Lao had a security camera trained on his lawn (to catch dogs defecating there). “This is a black day for San Marino,” Lao told the city council about the Kneier video, which became an instant YouTube hit.

One reason this story resonates is simply the inherent fascination in any escalating conflict between neighbors. But another probable reason is that a slightly modified version of this battle plays out in America in just about every neighborhood between dog owners and non-owners. Dog owners don’t typically toss their animal’s bagged waste where their neighbor might step in it, but they do routinely toss it into their neighbor’s trash. A debate about the acceptability of this practice rages daily. (For the record, incidentally, neither Lao nor Kneier owns a dog.)

“Old Lady,” read a sign placed on a trash can three years ago in New York City. “If I Catch You In The Act of Putting Your Dogs [sic] Crap In Our Cans. [sic] I Will Cut Off Your Head And Bolt It To The Hood Of My Car.”

“Is your garbage can so pristine that you have a preference for what type of wastes go in there?” replied a dog owner to a similar protest last month on a Washington, D.C. listserv. “This list is always aflame with people who complain about people not cleaning up after their dog…….well this person did.”

“I saw you put your dog’s bag of shit into my garbage can in front of my house,” accused one anonymous Portland, Ore., blogger in 2011. “How NICE that you have no boundaries and enjoy sharing your dog’s smelly, messy bag with others.”

“When I asked a man once why exactly he had such a problem,” marveled a dog owner in Chicago in 2009, “with me throwing something in the garbage can … he told me it stinks up the whole neighborhood.”

And so on. When this question gets posed as a matter of etiquette, leading newspaper advice columnists differ. “Dear Abby” (Jeanne Phillips) says it’s fine. “Ask Amy” (Amy Dickenson) says it’s not.

On one side of this debate you find the communitarian, who believes that just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a neighborhood to dispose properly of a dog’s bowel movements.

On the other side you find the libertarian, who says that just as you never consulted him about whether you should get a dog, he needn’t justify to you his refusal to let you dispose the dog’s end products in his own personal trash bin.

The first thing to be said about this debate is that for all its heat, it really isn’t where the action is. The real public policy issue is that dog owners need to bag and dispose of their dog’s feces. When they don’t, people are liable to step in it, which is unpleasant. In addition, should the waste matter fall down a storm drain, it will pollute whatever body of water it ends up in, spreading bacteria, killing fish, and posing some risk to human health. That the admonition to pick up after your dog is heeded more and more is something that anyone who remembers the bad old days will readily celebrate. That Americans are now arguing about whose trash to put the crap into is a measure of how far we’ve come.

The second thing to say about this debate is that it isn’t what it appears, i.e. an argument about whether we should regard people’s trash cans as part of what my friend the late journalist Jonathan Rowe termed “the commons,” i.e., resources that are shared by the community in practice even when not as a matter of law, or as private property that must be respected in accordance with principles famously laid down by John Locke (pdf).

Why isn’t this a boxing match between Rowe and Locke? Because in most instances the trash bin unambiguously is not the property of the homeowner who fills it with household refuse. It’s the property either of the city or of a contractor hired by the city to remove trash. Garbage cans nowadays are typically provided by the city so that they can be lifted and emptied by semi-automated garbage trucks. You may put your garbage in it but you may not take it with you if you move to another city, because it isn’t yours. Call it creeping socialism if you like, but where once we all owned our own garbage cans, today we do not. It pretty much always says so in lettering somewhere prominent on the can.

That doesn’t give a dog owner the right to trudge across his neighbor’s lawn to toss bagged dog feces into a city-marked trash bin. That’s trespassing. But if the trash bin is parked at the curb, or on a public alley—which is where dog-walkers typically encounter them—then there’s no moral or legal difference between tossing the turd there or tossing it into a municipal waste can cemented to the sidewalk. I decline even to recognize that this violates etiquette.

That’s not to say the trash bin’s conservator has no rights at all. If he really hates seeing his neighbors toss bagged dog leavings into his can he can petition the local government to ban it. There are jurisdictions that, for whatever reason, forbid dropping bagged dog waste into someone else’s trash bin without their permission. Hoboken, N.J., is one; Seattle, Wash., may be another, though opinions differ on how to read the relevant statutory language. An obstacle to achieving such bans, I would guess, is that the sort of people likeliest to want them are least likely to concede that this matter should be decided by any lawmaking or regulating body. They’d rather fume about the violation of their private property rights, like an angry senior citizen telling the government to keep its hands off “my” Medicare. It makes about as little sense.

Timothy Noah

Follow Timothy on Twitter @TimothyNoah1. Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.