Banning Bags and Setting Prices: The Proper Role of Government?

One of the most controversial debates in Oregon’s state capitol this year is banning single-use bags, Senate Bill 536. There is something more important to add to the debate than just the rhetoric from environmental activists, politicians, paper companies and grocery stores. The question of whether government has the right to ban a product and to force retailers to charge a government-created price is an important one to consider, and it has significant implications for government involvement in Oregonians’ lives.

In addition to an outright ban on plastic bags, SB 536 forces retail stores to charge shoppers wanting a paper bag a minimum price set by the government. Currently, for convenience and ease at checkout, stores usually offer “free” bags to shoppers but embed the cost of these bags into the price of other products purchased at the store. SB 536 advocates want to attach a direct price to the single-use bags in order to reduce consumption.

In this case, the Oregon government would impose a minimum price of five cents per paper bag. It is interesting to note that there has been little political backlash regarding this escalating power of government. Since when have Oregonians thought that it was the “right” of government to set prices on products or not to allow stores to embed the price of a product into the overall cost of doing business?

Businesses embed prices all the time. Grocery carts, coffee cups, fast food packaging are all examples of embedded prices. Shoppers are not charged for their usage directly but pay for them through higher prices on food or coffee. If SB 536 passes, Oregonians essentially would be allowing government to force retail stores to redo their business model and set prices for a product. This sets up a precarious precedent that government can have the right to impose prices on every product it deems harmful to society.

This also would mean government has the right to impose maximum prices for products as long as politicians argue that it would be for the common good. This is eerily comparable to price controls in Cuba and the former Soviet Union, and we all know how well that works out. Although on the surface the government-imposed price on paper bags looks fairly harmless, it is truly a dangerous overreach of government.

What about the outright ban? This is an equally destructive and dangerous encroachment of government. Many reasons cited for the ban are questionable environmental claims, but advocates also claim that this would be a job stimulus program for the state because of Oregon’s paper industry. Even though those claims have been found to be false and there would actually be a net job loss, there is a more important underlying issue.

If we allow government to ban a product because some politicians deem it bad for society or, in this case, good for job growth, what is next? Government could have the right to ban all fruit not grown in Oregon or all cars not manufactured in the state.

If Senate Bill 536 passes, Oregonians are setting a standard that our rights can be trampled on. Giving the government the right to force you not to purchase a product and to control prices is much scarier than the existence of plastic bags, contrary to what some environmental activists may believe.


Todd Wynn is Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Economics from California State University Long Beach and his masters in International and Developmental Economics from University of San Francisco.

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Economy, Individual Responsiblity, OR 76th Legislative Session, Oregon Government, Oregon Senate, Portland Politics | Tagged , | 27 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Manabouttown

    Here is the reason Oregonians don’t care about this stupid bill and the wanton growth in government control over their pathetic lives. Because they are stupid.
    Also, they want to be led. They can not lead, so they must be led. They need meaning in their little pathetic lives, so if they can get some meaning by not using plastic bags, they will take it.
    Then, they can feel oh so good about doing oh so much to help mother earth and all her world citizens.
    How sweet.
    I, for one, am going to get all the bags I can for free from every store I visit so I will have a liftetime supply once this idiotic bill passes. Then I will be able to use them as I wish, when I wish, for nothing!
    If you ask nicely most stores will give you a giant stack of these monster earth killers.
    Did you notice, O came to PDX to celebrate Intel’s new plant – the one in Arizona. Funny, no???

    • johnb

      Basically that is true for Multnomah County. They traditionally out vote the rest of the state and impose their will on the rest of the state.
      They blithely go about drinking their lattes while the rest of Oregon has to live with their idea of nirvana on earth.
      Just look to the water restrictions that close down farms or the treatment of an owl over the good of a thriving industry Multnomah County always has the vote that tips every issue that is a detrimant to the rest of Oregon..

  • Anon

    How dare you make fun of us for wanting to do good.

  • Notgreen

    Sandbag this whole stupid proposal and get to work doing the people’s business – not some enviro whack jobs who are so misguided.

  • Notbaggin

    Enough with the bags already. The whole mid-east is falling apart and all you write about are bags.
    What a sad joke.
    Sick.
    Get over the bags.

  • valley person

    First they came for our free plastic bags and we did nothing. Then they came for our throwaway styrofoam cups and we ignored this. Next they banned DDT. We bitched about this, but the eagles came back, so we said ok, maybe they had a point. Then they made us buy health insurance. Never mind 80% of us already were buying health insurance, and most of those without it actually want it but can’t afford it. Who are they to tell us what we have to buy? But we said nothing.

    The next thing you know we were all in concentration camps. No plastic bags, no styrofoam, and lots of mosquitoes but decent health care. How could we have let this happen?

  • Nice article..I concur…Too much Nanny State BS..IMHO

  • Bagbanman

    Here’s the deal you peoples. Just ban the bags. Forget the 5 cent crap. If they are bad, then just ban them.
    These fool politicians have no spine. They are cowards. Little yellow cowards.
    BAN THE BAGS – it is the only solution to the wanton destruction of our nation.
    Idiots.

    • Maurice

      If they are so bad, when they ask you “paper or plastic?”, all you have to say is “paper, please”. now how hard is that?

  • Maurice

    One thing I wish you would have asked in the debate that you had with the environmentalist, is “Why would bags of a certain thickness be exempt from the ban?” This is another problem that doesn’t make sense to me any more than every other stupid law they want the Gov. to enact against our freedoms.

    I personally don’t like the plastic bags, but I don’t want some politician in Salem telling me that I can’t use them. I do get them once in a while so I don’t have to buy small garbage bags. They fit my small garbage cans perfectly. I use the paper bags to put my recyclable’s in and jus throw the whole bag in the recycle receptacle.

    Littering is the real problem that should be addressed. Put a stiff fine on the litterers, and that will bring in more money that the $.05 per bag. But then again, it is not about saving money or anything else, but them having power over us.

    Keep up the good work, Todd.

    • valley person

      It has to do with their ability to be reused. Thicker plastic holds up longer.

      A politician in Salem is not telling you you can’t use plastic bags. You can buy and use all the plastic bags you want. He/she may be telling grocers they can no longer give away free litter.

      Littering is already fined. The problem is we don’t have enough cops around to catch very many litteres, nor would we want to pay for that many cops.

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