Thursday, June 3, 2010

Plastic Bags, The Eternal Question

NPR: California Moves to Ban Plastic Bags in Grocery Stores:

"The California Assembly on Wednesday passed legislation prohibiting pharmacies and grocery, liquor and convenience stores from giving out plastic bags. The bill also calls for customers to be charged for using store-issued paper bags."

Environmentalists hooray, right?

"Requiring stores to charge customers for paper bags is a cost Republican lawmakers argued some Californians can't afford. 

"This is not the time to be putting a financial burden on families in a very tough economy," said Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Granite Bay, who estimated his family would spend $50 a year on paper bags."

"Sacramento shopper Brett Akacin, 37, said he recycles his plastic bags and that it would be a burden to carry a disposable bag."

Ah, the existential problem of being an environmentalist.  There will always be people who assume you care more about plants and fuzzy animals than about the suffering of people.

Maybe those people are right, though if you have the values of caring about the impact your actions have on people, creatures and things outside of yourself--and especially appreciating the importance of working systems of animals and plants for the continued health of people--you are going to be perfectly willing to induce a little suffering on yourself, hardly thinking of it as such, and will fail to understand why others begrudge to do the same thing for the sake of The Greater Good.   To an environmentalist, carrying reusable bags or paying an extra five cents even if quite poor, is not suffering, and the idea of helping The Greater Good, is a value in itself.

That's why, Ah-nold excluded, environmentalists are mostly (but not always) Democrats.  Personal sacrifice for the Greater Good, in situations where agregate individual behavior benefits the individual but harms the community, is the more important value than personal freedom merely for the sake of it.  Rather like how shouting "Fire!" in a public building is not really freedom of speech, Democratic environmentalists point to outcomes as reasons that absolute personal freedoms require some restrictions. 

But you know, another way to look at enviromentalism, or self-scarifice for the Greater Good in general, is that having the personal freedom to make a choice that benefits the Greater Good is what makes that choice not something one does grudgingly, not something one even sees as a sacrifice or as suffering.   One is excercizing one's capacity as a member of a society under a social contract, a social contract that only works because people have the freedom to act upon their ideas of right and wrong.

So, do you legislate society-bettering practices for all, like a Democrat, or do you uphold that the personal freedom to desist or not from harmful acts is what makes any of it meaningful, what must be protected above all because otherwise lies tyranny?

I myself have a hard time sympathizing with the burden one must take on in order to carry reusable bags around, when compared to many other real burdens that people suffer across the world.   I see the argument about personal freedom, about the meaning of having personal freedom to make self-sacrificing choices rather than being required to make them.  But I see what is practical too, and what works imperfectly to make happen a change that might be democratically agreed upon as being necessary.  Do you assume that people are no better than marginally-agreed-upon progress using less-than-ideal methods?  Or do you throw out possible measures toward fixing a problem, for the sake of idealism?

Maybe that's why I can't decide, sometimes, if I'm a liberal or a libertarian.

While the idea gives us angst here, Australia has had an outright ban on plastic bags in effect for at least five years.  (My source for that is my dear Australian friend, who now works in Australian government.)  Australia is quite more liberal than us, and is, more tellingly, smaller in population than the state of California.   Truly, when we can't even work out political ideas of much greater weight, a federal ban on plastic bags would be downright...comical, among other things (ineffective, wasteful of govn't resources, slow and insensetive to local concerns), but perhaps it is within local or state government rights to enact such a law for the sake of the local or state environment, without it falling down that slippery slope toward socialist tyranny.  At what level of govenrment does "Mutual coersion mutually agreed upon" become tyranny, anyway?   It depends, once again, on what you think is important.

I think once-used bags, the utter wastefullness of them, is important.  The grocery association apaprently got behind the ban when it was made clear that all grocery-selling establishments would be subect to it.  If stores were for whatever reason spared the expense of providing bags of any kind, assuming they only did before because it would not have been competitive not to, then I think customers would have the ability to figure something out without excess difficulty.  Is that liberal, or libertarian of me?
"The American Chemistry Council estimates the bill would amount to a $1 billion tax and threaten 500 jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing business."

Either way you go, someone loses.  But I don't think that means that nothing can be done. 


  1. I want to post a comment but usually when I do it doesn't show up so I'm going to post a test comment. This is that test comment.

  2. Sweet it worked, ok on to my comment. First of all, as usual, I really enjoy your post. You do really well to both express your personal opinion while lending some voice to those that might have a differing opinion. I appreciate that. Unlike you, however I have no problem calling myself a libertarian. Though I prefer the phrase coined by one of my dearest friend, "Philosophical Libertarian, practical Constitutionalist" though I would through in my fairly strong fiscal conservatism, but that would make for a ridiculously long title. ANYWAYS, when it comes to the plastic bag law on its own it seems to make a lot of sense. While I use plastic bags from time to time, I generally take reusable ones and I find it much easier and more convenient in the long run, provided I remember to grab them or they are in the right car, or in my pocket when I happen to bike by the store and remember something I need. If I had no other choice then I would quickly adjust to the idea that I need to take something with me if I am to carry something out of the store. Also, stores could easily have re-usable bags available for a small fee and they could give that money back to people when they bring the bag back. It would kind of be like renting bags and they could easily have cardboard boxes lying around as well. And as you pointed out, other countries have long had the ban. I know they've had it in some parts of Canada for a while and when I was there, a few years ago now, they were debating expanding the law in Toronto. I recall it being a very popular idea at the time....

  3. That being said, it's often a good idea not to look at something on its own but as part of something larger. The plastic bag law wouldn't be the only one of its kind in California (I have a lot of friends in and from California but I haven’t done a lot of research on the topic. I know they have tried very hard to take control of thermostats in order to regulate energy consumption, you can read about by googling it, a bunch of stuff comes up) and the increase in taxes would be on top of already considerably high taxes. What's more, California is notoriously bad at budgeting and responsibly handling tax dollars (the history of their public school system, particularly science education is, for lack of a better word, abominable). So I guess I would say that banning plastic bags isn’t that bad, neither would increasing taxes on gasoline, or electricity, or fatty foods, or offering subsidies for alternative energy sources, or tax breaks for people who live in energy efficient homes, or tax breaks for people who buy bicycles, or a bunch of other things. But when you look at all of those policies together, in my opinion, you see a government that is playing a very active and hands on role in shaping what people do, what they value, what they can afford, and even what they can eat. If we give the authority to governments to be so manipulative and controlling of our way of life in the name of environmentalism, I believe we have essentially given them the right to day anything. Just as Arizona has given police the right to arrest anyone they want in the name of immigration control and reducing crime. If you don’t think it can happen in the future, look backwards. We have done much worse to people in the name of a much more manageable threat (arguably communism, drugs, Russians, and terrorists are a much more manageable threat than global warming). I am a conservative, but I also have an organic vegetable garden, a well used bike, no central air, live in an apartment the size of a sardine can, and I recycle and try very hard to compost. I love the environment and appreciate the need to take better care of it, but tyranny happens and pieces and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    All of that being said, I much prefer the state of California doing it than the federal government. If people in California don’t like it they can always leave. It is much harder to leave a State than it is to leave the nation.

  4. You are a conservative? Because a conservative and a libertarian are not the same thing. There's conservative/liberal and libertarian/authoritarian. In that sense on CAN be both liberal and libertarian, sort of.

    Thanks for your comments.

    The problem with, say, global warming, is that it is utterly unprecedented, or more importantly, the consequences are. So the idea that the government having a too much of a hand in our carbon-consuming lives being an automatic bad thing, I find to be somewhat countered by the reality of the potential consequences if we don't have something getting even the reluctant ones to do the right thing to stop it. That's always been the rational for taking personal freedom though, hasn't it it? But in this case there are various erosions of rights. In your example the government regulating thermostat control in the name of reduced carbon emissions takes away people's rights in a really big way. That is downright disturbing, in fact.

    But rising sea levels takes away people's rights in a really big way too. Their right to keep on living where they were living. Are those things, sea levels and global warming (and plastic bags, for that matter) related, directly?

    Well, they kinda are, but then again they're also not. That gets into the "if you believe all that alarmist stuff" question--but between you and I are both scientists and both already put a lot of stock in what scientists say, so I don't think we need to go there.

    I guess what I'm saying is, when you are running out of time, (if you agree that you really are), and the consequences really are acceptably severe (if you agree that they really might be) then some well-intentioned tyranny might be preferable to doing nothing, because there are people like you and me, who do the right thing cause we do. And there are people who don't and won't, and yet those people not doing it affects our future as much as it does theirs. There are "less bad" ways to do it than thermostat control, at least we can agree on that.

  5. I meant to say, are sea levels and thermostat control really related? Not sea levels and global warming.