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).