Paranoid Delusions About The Nanny State

If you’re looking for indicators of the chances we can turn our self-destructing culture around before the entire planet is devoured, witness the howls of “nanny state” in response to Seattle’s 20-cent bag tax. Might I suggest that this reaction is not the most promising indicator?

In the context of the ecological limits of the planet, disposable bags are pure stupidity — can anyone possibly disagree with that? The bag tax will be effective at reducing this stupidity, as we’ve seen happen in other cities. We’ve known for decades that we could stop being stupid by simply buying reusable bags and bringing them to the store, but we haven’t been able to break the habit on our own.

Yet even in the face of the many logical arguments supporting a bag tax, there are apparently more than just a few people out there whose paranoid delusions about government taking away their freedom compel them to scorn it. Thankfully I don’t have to elaborate, because Daniel Burnstein’s recent PI opinion piece nails it (the whole thing is worth a read):

“Rather than curtailing freedom, this kind of environmental regulation is based on longstanding precedent allowing government to prevent nuisances in order to protect public health and safety.”

Enacting laws against certain kinds of sex between consenting adults is the nanny state. Eliminating the choice to dump PCBs into the ground is not the nanny state. The latter involves actions that harm others; the former doesn’t (and yes, there’s lots of gray area between these two examples). But while it’s true that the environmental impact of disposable bags is relatively small in comparison to that of the entire city, we are at a point in history where the tired phrase “every little bit helps” has never been more true. And in any case, the bag tax does not dictate behavior; rather, it is an attempt to account for externalities so that prices reflect true costs.

Still, there are those who work hard to conjure rationalizations for shooting themselves in the foot. As in, ignoring the scientifically established negative environmental impacts that disposable bags have, and whining that the city “wants to tax our politically incorrect garbage.” Or trying to claim that it’s a non-issue because bags are recyclable (scroll down), when recycling is more accurately “downcycling,” and only delays the final act of wasteful disposal.

The disdain for the bag tax is an expression of our cultural roots: We love our independence and we hate being to be told what to do. Meanwhile, the evidence that this ideology is failing in the case of a human population that is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet is increasingly in our faces every day. We’ve created a way of life in which it is exceedingly difficult to even understand, let alone behave in accordance with the multilayered effects of our actions. And we can’t seem to manage even the easiest changes, such as keeping our car tires properly inflated*. If anything, an objective observer could only conclude that a nanny state is precisely what’s needed to save our collective ass.

Nobody wants an overly intrusive government. But we’ve got to stop being delusional about what it’s going to take to keep us from driving planet earth over the cliff: Overall, it’s going to mean letting go of our demented obsession with the individual, and recognizing that healthy communities thrive on mutual trust and cooperation.

And as best as I can tell, the bag tax is just the beginning.

*Case in point: Ten years after buying my house, I finally got around to putting up a clothesline today. Chances are it would have happened a lot sooner if I had to pay the full cost of electricity (including the part that hydroelectric dams have played in decimating salmon, which is perhaps the most perfect source of protein on the planet).

11 Responses to “Paranoid Delusions About The Nanny State”

  1. Tony


    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind your post. We do need aggressive action at the government level to bring about an environmentally sustainable society.

    I believe you can be more effective though by wording your argument in a more powerful way.

    In this post, you surrender the framing of the debate: the context in which we talk about these grand issues. This may be a bit abstract, but here is what I am talking about:

    The opponents of the bag tax presented a frame: “This is an issue of individual rights.” They want the debate to be about freedom v.s. government tyranny, and as long as that’s what the debate is about, they win. You are granting them their frame when you say:

    “Nobody wants an overly intrusive government. But we’ve got to stop being delusional about what it’s going to take to keep us from driving planet earth over the cliff: Overall, it’s going to mean letting go of our demented obsession with individual rights.”

    In this line you are basically saying that yes, this is an issue of individual rights, but that’s a bad value. We need to stop valuing individual rights. Bad argument. You can’t win that one in America. You may be right, but just because you’re right doesn’t mean you win.

    Try this:

    This is not an issue of individual rights, it is an issue of individual responsibility. The freedom our nation cherishes is built on the premise that people will use that freedom in a responsible way.

    This is about giving people the freedom not to pay the plastic bag subsidy, which is what we are doing now. Everyone who shops pays a higher bill on their groceries to subsidize the plastic bags that are given away for free. Everyone pays more for garbage collection to dispose of the plastic bags that are thrown away, and everyone will suffer the consequences of environmental destruction wrought by global climate change.

    This fee is about ending the subsidy for garbage and rewarding those who choose to use their freedom responsibly.

    It is about protecting everyone’s right to a clean environment and reasonable waste disposal fees. It is getting more and more expensive to dispose of trash as we can see from the proposed utility rate increase.
    If we are going to keep our utility fees from going even higher, we need to take steps to reduce the amount of trash we are generating, which means we have to stop subsidizing the generation of trash.

    Just like with higher fuel efficiency standards, everyone benefits when we work together to reduce our demand for resources. When we work together to conserve, there are more resources to go around and that increases everyone’s freedom.

    Rather than ban plastic bags, which really would reduce freedom, this policy protects our right to use them when you need to. It only requires that we take the responsibility for the impact that we create when we do. Freedom and responsibility. Neither can exist without the other.

    This may sound subtle, but if you are going to be effective, you can’t surrender the high ground. You can’t let the enemies of life claim (falsely) that they are champions of freedom. You have to cut through the BS and say: Anti-environment IS anti-freedom. The anti-environment position is fundamentally at odds with all American values and they are being dishonest by trying to deceive the public by saying that they are trying to defend freedom when in fact they are undermining the cause of individual responsibility on which freedom is based.

    I think you were trying to go in this direction at the beginning when you say:

    “The latter involves actions that harm others…”


    “Every little bit helps.”

    But you lose it when you go on a rant about how we need to give up our values of individual freedom. As soon as someone hears that, they close their ears and you end up talking only to those who already agree with you.

    In actuality, of course, you already lost them when you called them all stupid in the first paragraph. Rule number 1 of influence: don’t insult the people you are trying to influence. Seriously, there’s a rule book on this, and that is the very first rule.*

    I like what you do, Dan. I want your influence to grow, and I believe it can if you keep your focus on speaking beyond the converted.

    *Check out: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

  2. dan bertolet

    Tony, thanks for the thoughtful comment (it must have twice the words of the original post!) You’ve convinced me to make one small but important edit: I changed “obsession with individual rights” to “obsession with the individual.”

    I appreciate the importance of not pissing off the people whose minds you’re trying to change. This is the approach taken by Sightline, for example. The one problem with it is that when you’re always nice, you run the risk of losing people’s attention, cause it appears as if you don’t have strong convictions.

    Of course I’d like to think that I’m helping shape opinions in a positive way with this blog, but I’m not going to refrain from saying something is completely fucked just to avoid ruffling the feathers of those who disagree with me.

    So perhaps the blog has more value in helping people who already have the inclination to agree with me to clarify their thoughts and strengthen their convictions… dunno, maybe?

  3. Dan Staley

    Both Tony and Dan have good points (Framing Project link for rmore). The issue with me with the Sightline approach (full disclosure: I’ve written pieces for them) is that they are preaching to the choir in my view.

    This leads to the larger issue of whose minds do we change – decision-makers or the general public, or both? The decision-makers are largely on board, and know these puerile ‘nanny-state’ arguments are from a minority having no other argument. But leadership these days is such that there is no real leadership any more, so unless there is a huge outcry (Iraq war notwithstanding), nothing happens.

    The larger issue – as Tony implictly avers – is creating momentum for change, and framing the issue to change the minds of those who can’t/won’t/refuse to/are too busy to listen is part of the package.

    ‘Nanny state’ is not a frame to effect change. It is a fear phrase to keep things the same. Thus, it has little power to change.

    One must recognize this weak ‘nanny state’ rhetoric for what it is, and focus on overcoming that frame. Nanny state, alarmist, doomsayer, bias, ad hominem, etc are all frames created by the vested interests to prevent change.

    Those who wield such phrases usually don’t have the best argument and use this rhetoric as a distraction. Don’t be distracted.

    Tony’s comment focuses our thought on self-regarding vs other-regarding behavior – this is key. ‘Nanny-state’ arguments privilege self-regarding behavior over community benefits; this rhetoric cares little for the children or grandchildren. Self-interest over community interest does not get us where we need to go.

    Why do people care more about themselves at the expense of others? is the basic issue here. One must overcome that.

  4. BrianK

    Here’s my mega-comment…
    You need to change the minds of decision-makers, who of course are in the position to make decisions of impact. Yet with courageous leadership in short supply these days, you need to provide decision-makers with backup. Where does that come from? The general public, of course. An Inconvenient Truth is the obvious recent precedent.

    Franklin Roosevelt once told a group seeking his support for legislation, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” I keep thinking about that vis-à-vis Barack Obama, whom many have taken as their political savior. He can fix everything! No. He. Can’t. But he can be a valuable instrument for positive change if we provide the momentum and political climate for him to work in.

    DanB, on your comment about being “nice”, that’s not the point. I agree with Tony. You want to win, right? Winning equals convincing – changing minds in order to change behavior and policy. So what does being loud or “in your face” possibly contribute towards that end? If that worked we’d have all become mindless Fox News parrotheads by now, writing love letter to Karl Rove.

    I have little faith in appeals to altruism and DanS I don’t think placing one’s self-regard over that of others is a winnable battle, at least until we figure out mind control. But, (and again I look to Tony’s post), you can expand one’s definition of self-regard by educating about externalities and so on and so forth.Also along those lines, if we can all please drop the drivel about “saving the planet” and focus on “saving the humans” then that will help too. The planet and Mother Nature will survive no matter what we do. The only question is if we can keep hanging out with them or not.

  5. Dan Staley

    I have little faith in appeals to altruism and DanS I don’t think placing one’s self-regard over that of others is a winnable battle, at least until we figure out mind control.

    Perhaps I was unclear. ‘Nanny State’ is reactive rhetoric from the self-regarding, that implicitly devalues community and other-regarding behavior. It is important, thru Tony’s contextualizing, to point out the rhetorical tactic in order to overcome it. But a popular underlying ideology for many in this society believes that self-regarding behavior works best to further the greater good – Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’.

    Bottom line is that a large fraction of the populace doesn’t want to or doesn’t care to alter their behavior in order to have a better chance to change things for the greater good (or larger community or whatever you want to call it). They just don’t.

  6. BrianM

    But…and this is a big but…I have three dogs. Commercial doggy doo bags are usually biodegradable, but not cheap… Isn’t it better to “reuse” the grocery bags for a unpleasant, yet necessary task? :)

  7. gw

    I’m afraid I have nothing intelligent to add to the first 5 postings (good stuff guys) but I’d like to take a shot at BrianM’s conundrum: Per the discussions above, we are all subsidizing the cost of non-biodegradable grocery doo-doo bags in our food bills. Here’s one small perspective: Think of the amount of plastic being consumed to save a few bucks- Grocery bags are huge compared to most dog poop I have seen. Buying sandwich baggies would use about 1/8th the amount of plastic per scoop. At maybe 3 bucks for 200 bags, that should last a while. Then there’s us cat owners. Each week, half of my garbage output is cat litter. Even using recycled newspaper litter, with all the manufacturing, transportation and disposal costs, my cat’s carbon footprint must be huge. It’s a wonder how he can sleep 20 hours a day with all that weighing on his mind.

  8. BrianM

    LOL. gw-I was being somewhat facetious, and here you go and give me a serious answer. I actually do buy the little biodegradable baggies or cadge the freebie newspaper bags the Chronicle insists on using in arrid California (I guess said bags protect the useless advertising inserts from blowing away!)

  9. Matt the Engineer

    No wonder the newspapers are having such a hard time staying in business: more doo-doo subsidies.

  10. gw

    California? (and I might be inadvertently quoting Clint Eastwood here) can’t you just let it dry up and blow away in the wind?

  11. dan cortland

    Funny how the bag law, not the increasing surveillance, attracts the “nanny state” accusations.

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