Of Bags and Bans: The Search for Freedom

Starting on March 28, 2017, Michigan’s ban on the local regulation of plastic bags will take effect. Introduced by Senator Jim Stamas, a Republican, and signed by a Republican governor, the rule prevents localities from regulating the use, disposition, or sale of bags; prevents them from imposing any fee or charge on bags or from prohibiting or restricting a store’s distribution of bags.

The bill was introduced in response to a local ordinance by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners in Ann Arbor. They passed a resolution imposing a 10-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags dispensed in grocery stores in the county. In response to the local law, the state government controlled by Republicans reversed with its higher authority.

Most large news coverage believes this state-wide bill is crazy, or laughable. These outlets decry the dangers of pollution in oceans and the amount of non-biodegradable waste that plastic bags constitute. The initial response to this legislation is to see it first as a problem of worldwide pollution. Personally, I find this objection curious. By geography alone, it is difficult to contend that Michigan contributes significantly to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or ocean pollution in general.

On the other hand, the Republicans behind the measure have a much clearer argument. Businesses do not want to have to comply with a patchwork of local ordinances on bags.  The Michigan Restaurant association states their case clearly: “Frivolous regulation at the local level threatens to jeopardize [Michigan’s economic future], which is why the MRA led the charge for sensible reform embodied in SB 853.”

At this point, I’d like to make my own views known. I think this is a bad law. But my opinion has virtually nothing to do with the particular rule enforced in Washtenaw county, or any particular place in Michigan. Rather, my opinion is about freedom and process: “Who makes the rules” is more important than “the rules.”

The proponents make a very clear case for economic freedom. They legitimately passed their bill at the state level. All legal. Thanks to this bill, every store is free to offer bags with no restrictions if they so choose. Every consumer is free to take a bag if they so choose. There is not government that puts any burden on your purchasing or toting choices. Freedom for all, right?

Not so fast. If a citizen gains the unhindered ability to get a plastic bag from this law, what do they lose? Well, it is in the text of the bill itself: They lose the ability to make a rule about bags!

Why is that so important? Who cares about bag rules? Well, I personally do not really care what the particular rule is for a town or county. I’ve lived in both the District of Columbia with a bag rule and Virginia without a bag rule. I found that I like reusable bags, but mainly because I like carrying massive amounts of groceries into my house with only one trip. I also like the option of free bags when I forget my reusable ones. I’m of mixed opinion.

It is important because political freedom is a real thing that needs protecting. Citizens across Michigan have lost the ability to make rules about their communities. Think of it as “minority rights” or “local rule” or “self-government” if you like. But whatever you call it, realize that losing it is bad.

Of course, some communities will be Ayn-Rand-style capitalist moguls and want unhindered access to consumer-product-carrying totes for everyone. Fine. Some communities will be tree-hugging vegan wackos and want only recycled hemp satchels for their organic products (because what else would you buy?). That’s fine too. We should welcome the variety of local communities, not see it as some evil that makes it hard for a restaurant association to have a uniform rule. If conservatives in Grand Rapids see a rule about bags in liberal Ann Arbor as a personal political loss, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. Plus, is it really true that a 10-cent fee for non-reusable bags in Ann Arbor will jeopardize the economic future of Michigan? It might not be nothing, but, I mean… come on.

Most people will not be moguls or wackos. However, maybe they live in a place where the wind is a little more blustery than elsewhere. Maybe this makes plastic bags more of a nuisance than normal. For this reason, maybe the community decides through its leaders that a bag fee or ban is a worthy price to pay. Maybe a town gets regular wind-flow, but the city has built its identity around being a pristine outdoor destination. The prospect of plastic pollution may be more frightening to them, and therefore, a bag ban is worth the price. Maybe the littering habits of the individuals in the community lead the population to decide that they want to enlist the economics of pricing to lessen their bad habits. We may not like the community’s problem, but why hamper their chosen solution?

These not-so-far-fetched hypothetical communities have very particular reasons for their own local bag rules. It’s not my place to rule on their purely local issue. I don’t live with the consequences of, or the reasons for, their decided rule. State-level mandates are not the correct process.

We cannot allow “sides” to choose process. Just because the stereotypical reason for retail bag restrictions is liberal, environmentalist, and non-business minded, that can’t color our opinion about the process to institute such rules. Not all things of value are corporate related or large scale. By all means, vote your side. But please, give people the government they want. That’s what freedom is.

The local and state level approaches show a distinction between market freedom and social freedom. Market freedom is exercised at the individual level, it is the ability of an individual to decide what he will do with this own stuff. Social freedom is the freedom to make rules for the community in which you live. Both are important, and it is difficult to find the right balance. But you do not increase a freedom by making a wide ranging uniform rule that mandates a particular kind of freedom. Having only one type is not good. One side alone is the anarchy of every consumer/man for himself. The other is tyranny of the majority. Real freedom seeks the right balance of individual choice and a meaningfully participatory government.

Unfortunately, Michigan did not strike the right balance. The wind, local attitudes and opinions, the landscape, and community economies are not uniform in Michigan, so why should the rules about bags be? What the particular rules of a place happen to be is much less important than how those rules are made and who makes them.

Central planning of commercial bags in Lansing, Michigan is slightly less bad than the central planning of commercial bags from Washington, DC, but it’s still too much central planning for meaningful freedom to be realized by the citizen.

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