Much of the difference between common sense conservatives and common sense liberals is how much faith each group has in the government’s ability to solve problems. Liberals tend to think that a group of thoughtful politicians can influence people’s behavior through properly crafted legislation. Conservatives tend to believe that even well-meaning legislation is likely to be botched by unintended consequences. It is tough to imagine a law that makes the conservative point more soundly than Chicago’s ban on disposable shopping bags.
The problem, as it was described by the City Council and advocates is that too many disposable plastic shopping bags are produced, used and discarded. These flimsy menaces create litter, increase our carbon footprint, fill our landfills, and are largely unrecyclable.
The solution was to require retailers to offer only bags with handles that could be reused at least 125 times. The thinking is that stronger bags are less likely to be discarded and could be reused many times. Stores are given the choice between selling them and giving them away. Most give them away and those that don’t charge such a negligible amount for them – say 5-10 cents – that no one notices.
But this foolish law which regulates only bags and retailers seems to be predicated on the assumption that bags reuse themselves and fails to acknowledge the actual decision maker in the problem – the consumer. Some consumers have long chosen to reuse bags and others throw them out.
The law does not provide any incentive for those who chose to discard their bags to change their behavior. As a result, those who reused bags before the law continue to reuse them and those who discarded them before the law continue to discard them. Many pet owners depend on shopping bags to discard pet waste and have little option but to continue the practice. Even well-intentioned shoppers often forget their bags and after accumulating more than they need are forced to discard bags. The difference is that now they are throwing away thicker, bigger bags, with larger carbon footprints, and which take up more space in the landfill.
As a result, this well-meaning piece of legislation has likely accomplished the opposite of what it intended – due to unintended consequences or just lack of intelligent conception.
Let’s be clear, I support a law that accomplishes the goal of reducing disposable bags. It’s easy to design and it looks like this:
- All bags must be made out of cloth or pressed cloth-like material.
- All bags must be a standard size so customers don’t have to store multiple sizes.
- All bags must be sold at a price which incents consumers to hold onto them – say two dollars each.
- Cheaper or free plastic or paper bags cannot be sold or offered as an alternative at checkout.
But the problem with a properly-crafted disposable shopping bag ban is that it is effectively a regressive consumption tax. Because the value of the goods put into bags by poor people tends to be lower, they pay a higher tax rate than their wealthier neighbors which isn’t cool with our City Council.
So now we see that the problem as it was described was only half the problem. The other requirement was that it could not place a larger burden on the poorer south and west sides – areas that couldn’t care less about disposable plastic bags – than it does on the North side – where the wealthier residents and image-conscious mayor were seeking a solution. Creating a Chicago-wide law that accomplishes both of these objectives is simply not possible. They are in conflict. As a result, we end up with a stupid law that penalizes all citizens equally but offers benefits to no one.
This point goes to the common sense conservatives.