If you live in Britain and eat food from time to time, you’ll probably have noticed that you now have to pay for plastic supermarket bags. Since October 5th the payment has been legally required. They’re calling it “the Bag Tax”, but perhaps “Bag Penance” would be more appropriate. Shops or chains with 250 employees or more will be forced to charge 5p per plastic bag; shops can keep the money, but they’re expected to give it to   charity, something which the government is planning to monitor. It’s a strange policy which seems both reasonable and arbitrary in equal measure. Why plastic bags in particular? Why should it be consumers who have to shoulder the burden? And what underlying agenda is driving it all?

It’s now been seven years since the Daily Mail launched their “Banish the Bags” campaign; their front page sported a huge image of a turtle that was either caught in some plastic bags or merely swimming behind them. (It’s hard to tell. Personally it reminds of that famous and widely discredited image of a polar bear “trapped” on a little iceberg). The Mail claim that thousands of animals are killed by plastic bags every year. Other sources will tell you that it’s hundreds of thousands, or even millions. The truth is that we haven’t got a clue; you can’t count the number of animals killed by plastic bags. There are plenty of horrifying pictures and stories, but not enough to prove that ingestion of bags or asphyxiation by them is a major cause of animal death.

Let’s say we take the extreme position: it’s a tragedy if any animal is killed by a plastic bag. Okay, but why focus on bags in particular? I’m willing to bet that a lot more animals are killed by cars; I see foxes lying dead at the roadside every day, but I’ve never actually seen an animal asphyxiated by a shopping bag. I do see shopping bags discarded all over the place, strewn in bushes and undergrowth. I also see crisp packets and tissues and chocolate wrappers—are the bags much more of a problem? Shouldn’t we be focusing on litter in general rather than on just one item? (And from only one source; supermarkets have to charge, but not other shops).

As with all environmental issues, one sees an incessant focus on the negatives rather than the positives. Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the plastic bag as an invention: it’s light, strong, easy to make, easy to store, and you can carry several at once (unlike with American style paper grocery bags). People used to criticise how long plastic bags took to biodegrade, but now we have bags that break down very quickly (as you will have noticed if  you’ve ever left one in a draw and forgotten about it), without leaving any harmful residues. And of course, you can always re­use and recycle. Greens will argue that plastic bags are made from oil and that, since oil is Satan, plastic bags should be spurned. But this is not true: the majority of the polyethylene in plastic bags comes from natural gas.

Many have rightly pointed out that the Bag Tax is regressive; the poorer you are, the more you will be hurt by the need to pay for something that you used to get for free. Now, you could say that 5p per bag is not a major expense, even when viewed cumulatively, but I’d like to see a politician make that argument face­to­face with someone struggling to put their next meal on the table. As usual, the environmentalists are more concerned with the welfare of animals than that of destitute human beings. Poor people simply don’t have the time to worry about turtles caught in bags.

What vexes me most about this levy however is the proponents’ complete contempt for human agency and freedom of choice. Most supermarkets started charging for their bags long before it became mandatory. Many consumers have long been happy with the idea of buying reusable “bags for life” rather than using tons of free throwaway bags. The majority of modern citizens are fully prepared to “do their bit” for a cleaner planet and whatnot. But voluntary action is never good enough for the nanny state; everyone has to be forced to do the right thing, which means the government gets to decide what the right thing is, and consumers don’t get a choice at all. If we want a market that serves the consumer, we shouldn’t attempt to socially engineer the market to deny consumer preferences for the sake of some (very uncertain) environmental improvement.

I think that’s the crux of it. The Bag Tax is another instance of what you might call “well intentioned authoritarianism”. Government officials want to make the world a nicer place, and find it very irritating when human freedom gets in their way. The shopping bag, once hype has granted it the status of a kind of plastic devil, becomes an easy target;  the government can stick their oar in, and justify the subsequent loss of freedom with arguments that sound reasonable to many people. But this way lies social engineering, and a trend towards paternalism that needs to be nipped in the bud.

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